The Benefits of Foam Rolling. It might not be what you think.

Aug 04, 2021
Written by Mercedes Pollmeier & Katie Griffith

Check out the YouTube video right here:

 

 

Benefits of foam rolling from scientific literature 

  • From 2015 literature review: Foam rolling offers short-term flexibility benefits: Short bouts of foam-rolling before a workout has been shown to improve joint range of motion and flexibility without negatively affecting muscle performance.
    • May be a better option for improving flexibility before activity than prolonged static stretching, which can have a negative effect on muscle performance (however, this is shown to negatively effect high-intensity efforts, and not submaximal efforts that we see in climbing). 
    • All studies included in this review used a foam rolling time period of 30 seconds to 1 minute for 2-5 sessions. All studies preceded foam rolling with “dynamic warm-up focusing on the lower body.” 
    • Note: foam rolling has not been shown to affect muscle performance, positively or negatively, but may improve the perception of fatigue and pain
    • Similar findings in 2018 literature review re: benefits to short term flexibility and joint ROM 
      • 2018 study found small benefits in sprint performance after using foam rolling as part of a warm-up, though it may only be relevant for elite athletes because of smaller athletic variability 
      • Largest effect was still shown to be on short-term flexibility 
  • Foam rolling may shorten recovery time and reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)
    • From 2015 literature review: All studies reviewed used 10-20 minute foam rolling sessions. Foam rolling after activity was shown to reduce perceived pain in subjects and reduce deficits in lower extremity muscle performance 
    • From 2018 literature review: Foam-rolling after workout has the greatest effect on perceived muscle pain, vs. actual muscle performance. Since psychological factors play a large role in athletics, this could be reason enough to use foam rolling as a recovery tool. 

 

Limitations / What is still unknown according to scientific research: 

  • There hasn’t been scientific consensus on optimal foam-rolling protocol. One of the major limitations of the research is that the foam rolling protocols have not been standardized across studies, and there have been a wide variety of methodologies. 
    • Types of foam rollers, pressure, cadence, and other factors have varied widely across studies
    • In the above 2015 review, all studies used the same time intervals (30-60 seconds for warm-up, 10-20 minute sessions for recovery). These time periods were shown to have certain benefits (above), but whether or not these are the BEST intervals is unknown. 
  • Long-term effects are still unknown: all studies in 2015 literature review found only short term benefits which dissipated over time. Research can’t say for sure that there are no long term negative effects. 
  • There is no scientific consensus on what the physiological mechanisms of foam rolling are, only speculation. 
  • Most of the studies had small sample sizes, limiting the accuracy of the results. 
  • It’s impossible to “blind” the subjects to a placebo effect. All the participants will know whether or not they are in the foam rolling group vs. the control group. Some may have better performance simply because they believe they will after foam rolling. 

 

What the fitness industry is saying vs. scientific research 

 

Why it works: 

  • Fitness industry: has lots of different theories / claims for what is happening physiologically
    • Leading theory has been myofascial release: Fascia, or the connective tissue that wraps around the muscles, can form adhesions or trigger points through trauma, inactivity, or overuse. Myofascial release through foam rolling could help separate and realign the fascia.  
    • NASM blog: foam rolling works based on the principle of autogenic inhibition. The pressure of the foam roller against the body causes the Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) to “turn off” muscle spindle activity, allowing the muscle fibers to relax and stretch out. 
    • ACE Fitness: two prevailing theories of why foam rolling works. 1) Autogenic inhibition (see above) 2) the friction of foam rolling generates heat and therefore causes the tissue to become more pliable  
  • Scientific research: notes that there is no consensus on the physiology of foam rolling and what is happening, only speculation
    • Studies have disputed the theory of autogenic inhibition, because “any possible GTO inhibition subsides immediately after the cessation of tension in the tendon.” 
    • Also no concrete evidence that rolling massages works in the same way as trigger point therapy for myofascial release

 

How to do it

  • Fitness industry
    • NASM blog: Roll on targeted area until the most tender spot is found. Hold pressure there while relaxing the targeted area until discomfort is reduced (30-90 seconds). Maintain core stability while foam rolling by drawing in muscles. 
    • Self Magazine: foam rolling should be limited to muscles rather than joints. Avoid foam rolling connective tissue like IT bands. It also shouldn’t be painful (according to medical experts interviewed for this article.) 
    • Ace Fitness: place body part on top of the foam roller and move over the area of tension at a consistent tempo for up to 90 seconds 
  • Scientific research (Note: the studies were not looking at whether these were the BEST methods - just whether they were beneficial at all)
    • Findings suggest that foam rolling for 30 seconds - 1 minute as part of a warm-up provides acute benefits to flexibility and joint range of motion. 
    • Findings suggest that a 10-20 minute foam rolling session 1-3 days post activity can improve recovery and reduce perceived pain.
    • Scientific consensus on optimal foam rolling protocol is still foggy and methods haven’t been standardized across studies 

 

Benefits 

  • Fitness industry
    • Corrects muscle imbalances
    • Relaxes muscles
    • Improves joint range of motion 
    • Reduces soreness and improves tissue recovery 
    • Increases blood flow in muscles
    • Better movement / power in workout 
    • Improve posture by loosening tight shoulder muscles from working at a desk 
    • “Makes you more flexible in the same way that stretching does without losing strength or performance.” - Evo Fitness
  • Scientific research: (see above) 
    • Provides short-term benefits in flexibility and joint range of motion without negatively affecting muscle performance 
    • Reduces feelings of soreness / perceived muscle fatigue 
    • Improved recovery from increase parasympathetic nervous system activity.

Some evidence that it can improve recovery time and reduce DOMS

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