Foam rolling, a.k.a self-myofascial release (SMR) has been hyped up quite a bit over the last decade or so. It’s quite interesting to see all the amazing ways in which innovators are aiming to cash in on this market, from backballers to fancy balls to vibrating foam rollers.

Has the market gone mad? Is there really a need for so much variety? Is it worth investing in? More importantly, how can you use foam rolling to reap the most reward?

Let’s check the research!

This systematic review had the following main points:

  • Short-term benefits (of about 10 minutes) in terms of increased range of motion (ROM) is possible with foam rolling. Usually sets of 30 seconds to a minute are performed on the appropriate area(s) for usually 2-5 sets.
  • Combining static stretching with foam rolling can enhance flexibility improvements even more.
  • Whether it is physically making a change or not, people generally feel better when they foam roll (which is half the battle).
  • How you roll makes a difference: rolling from side to side rather than up and down was more effective at improving posterior chain flexibility for the sit and reach test in one study.
  • Foam rolling appears to have positive impacts on joint flexibility but either no impact on muscle performance or slightly improves efficiency.
  • Foam rolling (for twenty minutes) after a high intensity resistance training session can reduce muscle soreness and improve subsequent performance in things such as vertical jump and sprint times compared with not foam rolling.
  • Foam rolling appears to have no effects as a warm-up for changing performance results.
  • A higher density foam roller may produce better outcomes.
  • The studies used standard foam rollers so as to the fancy gadgets, I’m not sure which is best! One thing can be assumed however – that the original form gets you the benefits outlined above and below.

 

What is actually happening when we foam roll?

As reported by these guys:

‘It has been postulated that ROM changes may be due to the altered viscoelastic and thixotropic property (gel‐like) of the fascia, increases in intramuscular temperate and blood flow due to friction of the foam roll, alterations in muscle‐spindle length or stretch perception, and the foam roller mechanically breaking down scar tissue and remobilizing fascia back to a gel‐like state.’

‘Mechanically breaking down scar tissue’ is debatable but not so much the changeable properties of fascia and its effect on the musclular system. Another area that’s highly likely is the changes it produces in the nervous system, as discussed by the Physio Network here, in which they also make a great point that if scar tissue is being broken down, how come the problem keeps coming back?

So How Can You Benefit Most?

  • To increase your flexibility, perform 3 sets of 30-60s bouts of foam rolling on the appropriate areas*. Then perform 30s x 3 sets of static stretching on the area. Immediately afterwards, put the joint through a loaded (at least bodyweight) movement through its full range. Repeat this daily for long term improvements and have a standard measurement in place so you know when you’ve reached your target.
  • Foam rolling after exercise has short term benefits (<1 hour) for muscle soreness so can be a useful aid for long days of competition such as tournament play or for high level athletes training twice a day or attending full day training camps.
  • A higher density foam roller may produce bigger improvements (or may have no difference) but if you can’t relax while you foam roll, you’re less likely to get the benefits you’re after. So choose based on comfort levels – without going too easy or hard on yourself.
  • Foam rolling is not intended as a method of care for an injury. It can be used as part of a multi-modal approach to helping a chronic injury but should not be used for acute injuries or muscle strains as it could impair the healing process.

*Make sure you know the right area to target so you can be effective – if you’re unsure, ask!

References:

Cheatham, S. W., Kolber, M. J., Cain, M., & Lee, M. (2015). THE EFFECTS OF SELF‐MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy10(6), 827–838.

Cheatham, S. W., & Stull, K. R. (2018). COMPARISON OF THREE DIFFERENT DENSITY TYPE FOAM ROLLERS ON KNEE RANGE OF MOTION AND PRESSURE PAIN THRESHOLD: A RANDOMIZED CONTROLLED TRIAL. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy13(3), 474–482.

Findley, T. W. (2011). Fascia Research from a Clinician/Scientist’s Perspective. International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork4(4), 1–6.