SCIENCE TALK: foam rolling, beneficial or not?

Foam rolling has gained popularity in recent years, and various foam rollers have been developed. Almost all gyms have at least one foam rollers and also many have a roll at home too. Foam rolling has been considered an easy way to self-massage and myofascial release. Some people have even replaced stretching with foam rolling. Is the foam rolling really useful?

What is myofascial release?

Myo means muscle and fascia connective tissue. Myofascia covers our whole body, simply you can think it about a tough layer on the muscle surface which help with balance and movement. Foam rolling adds pressure to this layer and aims to release its tightness and help improve movement.

Most commonly believed benefits are:

  • Increased flexibility, including increased range-of-motion (ROM).
  • Reduce the delayed onset of muscular soreness (DOMS) and improve recovery.
  • Improve short-term athletic performance

What science says about foam rolling?

Foam rolling and flexibility

Foam rolling may increase flexibility, but only short term (10-20 min). Some studies have shown that regularly performed rolling may increase long term flexibility and joint range of motion (ROM).

Foam rolling and recovery – DOMS

Some studies suggest that foam rolling might reduce pain, especially after high-intensity exercise. Self-myofascial release (SMR) increase blood flow, oedema reduction and increase oxygen delivery to the muscles.

Post-rolling has shown a lower reduction in a sprint (+3.1%) and strength (+3.9%) performance and muscle pain (+6%). Jump performance was trivial (-0.2%). However, sprint and strength performances were not significant.

In spite of positive effects, SMR also releases endorphins, which might cause placebo effects.

Foam rolling and performance

Foam rolling may increase subsequent power, agility and speed when included effective and sports-related warm-up.

Pre-rolling improves shorth term sprint performance (+0.7%) and flexibility (+4%). It doesn’t show the effect of jump performance or strength performance. Also, pre-rolling effects on flexibility have shown to last up 20 minutes and effects to sprint performance might be due to placebo or other warm-up routines.

Finally, it should be noted that there is not much research on foam rolling and its effectiveness and further studies should focus on different sports types and foam rolling mechanisms.

Should you use foam rolling?

Unlike some people are ready to throw foam rollers away and only see bad sides of it, I wouldn’t do that yet. There are still some benefits it and studies has shown foam rolling to be dangerous for the body if it performed correctly. You can add it to your routine, but it should not replace dynamic stretching or warm-up. Rolling is a part of other self-care maintenance, you should never rely on one thing. Keeping things simple doesn’t mean performing only one exercise.

Do the 3-5 sets of 20 seconds repetitions. Do not perform every day, use other techinique too.

Can foam rolling be harmful?

Don’t ever roll over your joints, the pressure can cause hyperextension.

Don’t roll your lower back, it causes too much pressure your vertebrae and makes your muscles contract to be able to protect your lower back. In case of lower back pain, use foam roller your buttock, hip flexors and thighs.

Don’t roll your IT band, even though the IT band may cause knee pain. For instance focus on gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae, which are connected to the IT band and might be behind the pain. IT band is not muscle and so its act differently than muscles. Rolling IT band can cause more problems.

Don’t roll a long period of time in one sit.

Remember that foam rolling and stretching might only help temporarily for pain and stiffness. Pain and muscle stiffness is often caused by muscle weakness or imbalances.

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.

Wiewelhove, Thimo et al. (2019), A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery, Frontiers in physiology, 10(376).

Behm, David G., and Jan Wilke, (2019), Do Self-Myofascial Release Devices Release Myofascia? Rolling Mechanisms: A Narrative Review, Sports Medicine, 1-9

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