We’ve all seen the recent influx of foam rollers in gyms around the world. After spending decades on the fitness fringes, foam rolling has now truly come into its own. It’s thought to improve athletic performance and flexibility, slash recovery time, reduce muscle pain and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOM’s). Can this be true?
There is research to back up the foam rolling hype. One recent study published by Human Kinetics in Journal of Sports Rehabilitation found that foam rolling, coupled with old-school static stretching—could increase the range of motion in the hip more than stretching alone. One of that study’s authors, Central Michigan University associate professor Blaine Long, says foam rolling may decrease a muscle’s “viscosity,” which would make the muscle less resistant to motion and therefore more flexible.
Other studies have linked foam rolling to less muscle soreness, better vertical leap and greater flexibility. Research shows that if you foam roll for 90 seconds or more it increased the positive results.
Facts on self-myofascial release
Foam rolling is often described as a form of “self-myofascial release” (sometimes known as SMR). “Fascia” refers to connective tissue that binds and stabilises the muscles. By massaging it you not only improve your muscles’ range of motion, but you also boost blood circulation, break down tightness or knots in your muscles and bolster muscle tissue integrity.
Here’s the rub: researchers who have found foam rolling to be effective, don’t believe it has much to do with SMR, at least not when it comes to reducing pain and soreness. David Behm, a professor of human kinetics at the University of Newfoundland, says that “to have any effect on fascia, you would need much higher forces than a human would typically be able to exert on themselves.”
Behm coauthored the Canadian study linking foam rolling to less soreness and better performance. He says that, in two of his experiments, people who foam rolled one leg also, surprisingly, knocked out muscle pain in the other. “We didn’t even have to touch the painful muscle [with the roller],” he says.
Roll out stress and pain
Foam rolling may also fire up your central nervous system, which registers and reacts to pain. Your nervous system also regulates many of your body’s unconscious functions like heart rate and blood flow. Research from Japan has backed up this idea by linking foam rolling, independent of exercise to improved arterial flexibility and vascular function.
Foam rolling stimulates pressure receptors beneath your skin a bit like a massage and has been shown to ease pain-detection centres, especially useful for lower back pain. For more information on how to relieve back pain, check out our recent blog Exercise not drugs for lower back pain.
Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. “When you stimulate those pressure receptors, that stimulation increases vagal activity in the brain, which has been linked to relaxation of the nervous system, reduced levels of stress hormones like cortisol and improved pain tolerance,” she explains.
“There is still a lot of info about foam rolling the literature might not be telling us,” says Disa Hatfield, interim chair of kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island. She suggests foam rolling may be similar to other types of dynamic stretching or light jogging, which also improve range-of-motion and performance. Her own research compared foam rolling to planking before a workout. The foam roller group “perceived” their workouts to be easier. But that perception didn’t translate to performance gains, she says.
To sum all this up, foam rolling deserves its good reputation—though maybe not for the reasons many fans and trainers assume.
Two to three sets of foam rolling lasting between around 60 seconds per muscle, seems to be effective at reducing pain and improving flexibility. Roll before exercise if you want to boost your range of motion or performance. A post-workout roll is good for preventing soreness.
Roll before exercise if you want to boost your range of motion or performance. A post-workout roll is good for preventing delayed onset muscle soreness and reducing (DOMS).
Rolling at 50%, 70%, and 90% of a person’s pain threshold all resulted in similar benefits, so the famous saying ‘no pain no gain’ is not entirely true when it comes to foam rolling.
For more information on foam rolling check out our brand new book Complete Guide to Foam Rolling. Human Kinetics also publishes the book complete with a continuing education course: Complete Guide to Foam Rolling with CE Exam. The CE credits are recognised by 26 leading organisations.
You can also take a look at How to foam roller your IT band to relieve tension and knee pain.