Recovering from Exercise and Treating Sore Muscles: Stretching vs. Myofascial Release

Recovering from Exercise and Treating Sore Muscles: Stretching vs. Myofascial Release

Do you want to live a pain-free, active lifestyle? Whether that active lifestyle is taking to the gridiron every weekend or going on long walks through your favorite park, you need to take care of those muscles you use regularly! Let’s say you are an athlete that practices, competes, and lifts weights regularly, and you are always sore from all of this activity. You know you need to recover properly, but what is the best way to treat those sore muscles so you can continue participating at full speed? Stretching? Foam rolling? Using a lacrosse or tennis ball to massage sore muscles? All of these? None of these? For us to reach the answer, let’s look at each form of recovery by itself.

First, there are two general types of stretching: static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is when an individual will maintain a fixed position for a length of time, typically ranging from 20 to 45 seconds (e.g.., sit-and-reach for the hamstrings or calf stretch off of a step). Dynamic stretching involves the active engagement of your muscles and moving your joints through a full range of motion (e.g., Frankenstein walks or butt-kickers). These forms of recovery are by far the most popular options for athletes because of their accessibility to perform stretches in most places, and they usually do not require additional equipment. While stretching in these ways is a beneficial form of recovery, we need to explore other options that may help us garner even more benefits.

The newest member to the stage related to muscle recovery is termed self-myofascial release (SMR). While SMR exercises have been around for years, athletes and healthcare practitioners have recently begun utilizing such methods regularly. SMR exercises help to smooth out the connective tissue surrounding the muscle, called fascia. Fascia is a thin sheath of connective tissue that covers all muscles of the body. It plays a major role in creating what we commonly think of as muscle tightness and, if left untreated, can cause pain and poor movement patterns. When this fascia becomes tight, it can pull the body out of its natural alignment, increase pressure on muscles and joints, and/or cause location-specific pain. That pain can be relieved via SMR exercises (e.g., foam rolling calves, lacrosse/tennis ball to glutes, elbow to a knot in the shoulders). The goal of SMR is to stretch and loosen the fascia so the underlying tissue may move freely.

The most popular SMR exercise is foam rolling. While foam rolling can be a beneficial tool to the beginner athlete and those returning to activity after a long break, it may not be powerful enough to produce the desired effects on your sore muscles. In the beginning stages of activity, the foam roller, more often than not, is effective at breaking up any myofascial adhesions or knots it comes across. As an athlete continues to practice, compete, and lift weights week after week, he or she may need a tool that more aggressively targets these sites of myofascial adhesions. Enter the lacrosse ball. A lacrosse ball has a smaller surface area and is denser than a foam roller, allowing it to break up adhesions that a foam roller cannot.

It should be noted that there are a variety of tools created for myofascial release ranging from PVC pipes, foam rollers of different densities, massage balls, and rollers with handles, just to name a few. Typically, an athlete should apply enough pressure over their affected muscle(s) to experience some discomfort but not pain. An easy way to think about this is to apply pressure equivalent to a rating of 7-8 out of 10 on the Perceived Pain Scale. Once the desired pressure is attained, one should continue to apply pressure to that area (whether moving the SMR tool back and forth or contracting and relaxing a muscle) for two to four minutes or until the sore muscle relaxes and the pain lessens. Be sure to keep SMR tools away from joints and focus on muscles and tendons without applying pressure over bony areas.

A review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found SMR may provide the following benefits:
    • Increased joint range of motion
    • Improve muscle performance
    • Decrease fatigue following exercise
    • Decrease soreness following exercise
    • Correction of muscle imbalances
    • Muscle relaxation
    • Reduced trigger point sensitivity and pain
    • Improved neuromuscular efficiency

While performing either dynamic, static, or SMR stretches and exercises alone will improve muscle performance, performing all recovery methods will potentially have an additive effect. In essence, this means that athletes should perform a combination of stretching exercises and SMR exercises when recuperating from exercise to restore muscle health most efficiently and to continue sports participation daily. Studies have found that performing dynamic stretches is best immediately prior to exercise, and performing static stretches is best following exercise. SMR exercises can be done either with dynamic exercises as part of a warm-up or following exercise as part of a cool-down or on their own as part of a stand-alone mobility program. Armed with the knowledge of when to perform these exercises, start implementing them today and take care of your muscles!

    1. Warm-up using dynamic stretches (5 to 10 minutes) and use SMR exercises to target those particularly tight spots (1 to 2 minutes).
    2. Cool down with static stretches (5 to 10 minutes) and continue to implement those SMR exercises on tight spots (1 to 2 minutes).
    3. Perform SMR exercises on your off days when lingering soreness persists (2 to 4 minutes per sore area).

Brad Barber, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS
Athletic Trainer, Legend High School, Colorado

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