- Understand what foam rolling does to the tissue.
- Describe the benefits of foam rolling.
- Relate the research on foam rolling to practical application with clients.
Foam rolling became popular in approximately 1987 when rollers were used as a self-massage tool with dancers (Heffernan, 2016). Heffernan (2016) suggests the physical therapist Mike Clark is the first person who introduced foam rolling to the performance and fitness training community. Since then, foam rolling has become popular with fitness clients and sports athletes. It is common to see people in gyms rolling before or after workouts. Athletes and fitness clients use rollers before and after practices, games, and events as part of a warm-up or cool down.
In North America, it is reported the first use of foam rollers was with Broadway dancers who were looking for a form of self-massage and self-treatment to recover from repeated nights of performing on stage (Heffernan, 2016). Most recently, foam rolling is being used by fitness clients, recreational athletes, and elite athletes as part of their warm-up before practice, training, and performance. Foam rolling is also being used as a cool down.
Physiology of Foam Rolling
Foam rolling is really nothing more than self-massage using either a round cylindrical roller or a roller stick or bar to massage the skin and underlying tissue. During foam rolling exercises, all the underlying tissue are mechanically massaged, ie: joint capsules, tendons, ligaments, nerves, arteries, arterioles, veins, venules, capillaries, lymphatics (Freiwald, et al., 2016).
Bell (2018) suggests that foam rolling, or “Self-Myofascial Release,” theoretically relaxes tight muscles and stimulates the network of connective tissues known as fascia. Fascia was originally thought to be a covering or divider for the muscles and organs, but more recent research is suggested is may help transmit force and tension throughout the body. Foam rolling may involve concepts such as breaking up fibrous adhesions and/or improving blood flow. Rolling has been suggested that it may inhibit receptors within muscle tissues leading to a reduction in excessive muscular tension.
Benefits of Foam Rolling
Foam rolling is thought to improve muscle performance and increase flexibility as well as to reduce muscle fatigue and soreness. For this reason, foam rolling has become popular in all kinds of fitness and sports settings used to improve training or competition as well as to speed post-exercise recovery. Wiewelhove, et al. (2019) conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the effects of foam rolling before (pre-rolling as a warm-up activity) and after (post-rolling as a recovery strategy) exercise and tested with sprint, jump, and strength performance as well as on flexibility and muscle pain perception.
The meta-analysis search strategy was an all-inclusive search of articles using the PubMed, Google Scholar, PEDro, and Cochrane Library search engines. The search used different combinations of seven key terms (“self-massage,” “foam rolling,” “roller massage,” “roller massager,” “self-myofascial release,” “performance,” and “recovery”) and the results were limited to healthy, physically active human subjects and articles written in English. Each research database was searched from the earliest article up to December 2017. From the 954 abstracts reviewed, 110 potentially suitable articles were identified.
Pre-Rolling as a Warm-Up Activity
In the Wiewelhove, et al. (2016) meta-analysis, they found pre-rolling resulted in a small improvement in sprint performance and flexibility, but the effect on vertical jump height and strength performance were negligible. There were ten studies using foam rollers and four that used a roller massage bar/stick. The studies that had clear rolling protocols indicated the subjects foam rolled or used a roller massage bar/stick did so for 30-seconds, 5 strokes per 30 seconds, 3 intervals of 30-seconds, 1-minute, and 2-minutes.
Post-Rolling as a Recovery Technique
According Wiewelhove, et al. (2016), post-rolling slightly lessened exercise-induced decreases in sprint and strength performance, while reducing muscle pain perception. The effect on vertical jump performance was minor.
According to the research protocols that were reported, the foam rolling and/or roller massage bar/stick was performed in the following manner: two 60-second bouts on five body parts, 20-minutes of foam rolling immediately after, 24, and 48 hours post intense exercise, foam rolling using small kneading motions at the proximal portion of the quadriceps muscle followed by the middle and distal portion. The knee extensors, hamstrings, adductors, calf muscles and the iliotibial band were rolled for 30-seconds each, slow movements at constant pressures between the origin and the insertion of the muscle, foam rolling for 15 to 20-minutes at the end of a training session.
Bottom Line: To Foam Roll or not to Foam Roll
Hutchinson, (2019) suggests that foam rolling is akin to “benign masochism.” His reasoning is that foam rolling is painful. He indicates that foam rolling is similar to ice baths and a fanatical devotion by the fitness clients and athletes who use them. Foam rolling could reduce tissue adhesions, activate mechanoreceptors, increase blood flow, or trigger endorphins. It could also be that foam rolling is, or has, a placebo effect. In other words, regardless of the physiology, foam rolling feels good after it is done. It may not feel great while doing it, especially on certain muscle groups such as the quadriceps, tibialis anterior, and latissimus dorsi, but it can help a person feel looser and better able to perform and move. Anecdotally, when a person does, for instance, a squat before and after foam rolling, generally speaking the person will indicate the squat is “smoother” and they can move through a greater range of motion after foam rolling. And when we think about part of a trainer’s job, it is important for our clients to feel better, before, during and after a workout. So, why not get our clients to foam roll? To date, there is no evidence of adverse effects of foam rolling, so go for it!
Bell, T. (2018) Foam rolling--What does the evidence say? https://www.lifemark.ca/blog-post/foam-rolling-what-does-evidence-say, Retrieved October 22, 2019.
Freiwald, J. et al., (2016) Foam-Rolling in sport and therapy – Potential benefits and risks. Sports Orthopedics and Traumatoly. 32:258–266
Heffernan, C. (2016) The History of Foam Rolling, Physical Culture Study: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/02/02/the-history-of-the-foam-roller/, Retrieved October 22, 2019.
Hutchinson, A. (2019) What Do Foam Rollers Actually Do? https://www.outsideonline.com/2394313/foam-rollers-research#close. Retreived October 4, 2019.
Wiewelhove, T., et al, (2019) A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery, Frontiers in Physiology, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00376