Often, I have people ask me, “What do you think about this or that?”, typically referring to what is currently trending in fitness and nutrition. I have runners just start working with me that have all kinds of misconceptions about running, training, and performance/recovery nutrition. I certainly do not have all the answers, but I am informed from my graduate studies and evidence-based research. You will not get answers from me that start with, “I heard” or based on the latest fad, unless there is research to support the fad. If I don’t have the answer, I will get the answer or at least a lead in the appropriate direction. It is true you can find research to support just about anything, but that doesn’t mean that the methods aren’t flawed or that there isn’t a research bias.
Those that have worked with me know I am a huge proponent of foam rolling for runners. As far as I’m concerned, a foam roller should be your bff. So why am I such a huge fan of the foam roller and think you should be too? Because I said so. Ha! Just kidding, but that is the sentiment of some that recommend things to others, including a personal trainer I once hired and subsequently fired. In a 2013 paper published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, authors state that research supports these benefits to using a foam roller as a self-myofascial release technique for recovery; attenuates muscle soreness, improves muscle imbalances, improves neuromuscular efficiency, and improves range of motion.
When you run or even just walk around every day, you really want all your muscles to be balanced, but unfortunately, what we do throughout the day mucks that up. (Unilateral hip drop anyone?) Muscles always want to take the path of least resistance, so what is strong will pull one direction and what is weak will allow the pull to happen. Neuromuscular efficiency is an interaction between muscle actions and contractions, coordination, stabilization, body posture and balance. Clearly this is important in athletic movements and even just activities of daily living. When I watch people squat, I want to see their body go into hip, knee, and ankle flexion simultaneously. If not, their neuromuscular system is inefficient, which means the body will make compensations to try to move. If you have poor range of motion in your hips, knees, or ankles, you simply will not have as much power. Imagine a small pendulum. Will there be more power generated if it is pulled back and released from one foot or three feet?
What about whole body cryotherapy for recovery? Cryotherapy is a more recent buzz word and is something that was discussed in great deal in my 2014 ethics in research class. That should give you a hint to how the rest of this blog post will go. Before I go on to share what the research says about cryotherapy, let me just say if someone thinks that something helps them, then you shouldn’t discourage it, but give them the info to allow them to make their own informed decision. In an October 2017 online issue of the European Journal of Applied Physiology, whole body cryotherapy was done on 31 runners post marathon. Blood samples were taken to measure muscle damage and markers of inflammation before and after cryotherapy, as well as 24 and 48 hours after cryotherapy, along with a control group for comparison. The positive from the study was that the participants “perceived” less stress on the body after cryotherapy. However, blood data showed that there was no difference in markers for inflammation and muscle damage after cryotherapy compared to the control group.
The body is very complex and has mechanisms to repair itself from damage. Delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS) which many experience after running long distances, is a side effect of the repair process that develops in response to microscopic muscle damage. Taking anti-inflammatory medications as well as cryotherapy interrupts the natural healing process, not accelerate it. Interestingly, in researching for this blog post, I learned the FDA has not approved cryotherapy in the United States. That doesn’t mean that it is illegal for cryotherapy operations to exist, but that there is not enough medical research available to support the use. One of the concerns of the FDA is the possibility of asphyxiation from decreased oxygen associated with exposure to excess nitrogen.
As previously mentioned, I wouldn’t discourage someone from doing something if they think it helps them but pass on information for them to make informed decisions. I know I personally would be grateful if someone can help me save a few bucks by not throwing my money away on something that doesn’t do what I think it does, which, in this case, is improve recovery. Better yet, I would rather add another roller or ball to my collection of therapy aids!