Next time you exercise, take five minutes to roll out beforehand. Short bouts of foam rolling have been shown to improve performance, mobility, recovery time, arterial function, and reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Why It Matters
Static stretching is the most common form of warm-up before exercise - even though it reduces force production and thereby reduces training performance. Foam rolling is a simple technique that provides immediate improvements without sacrificing performance.
- Foam Rolling is better than static stretching prior to exercise
- Choose multi-level surface rollers when possible
- Foam roll before exercise for warm up aid or post exercise for recovery aid
- Apply strong pressure and hold on tender spots for 30 to 90 seconds
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
Foam Rolling is a variation of self-myofascial release (SMFR); a technique that involves applying pressure to a given muscle group with an external object. SMFR raises the temperature and blood flow within a desired area leading to increased arterial function and acute improvements in flexibility (2,4). The increase in arterial function can improve recovery time and reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (9,10,11).
While the effects of SMFR have been studied and replicated, the mechanisms responsible are highly debated. The literature for potential mechanisms has been separated into two categories, mechanical and neurophysiological (1).
Mechanical mechanisms were the first to be proposed in scientific literature. They theorize that the pressure from SMFR causes physical change in the properties of fascial tissues. Fascia is a connective tissue that is formed by layers of collagen fibers, and surrounds the muscles and organs in the body (1,14). The most commonly proposed mechanisms include fascial adhesions, fluid flow, and myofascial trigger points. The fascial adhesion model proposes different layers of fascia that would normally slide relative to each other begin to stick causing an adhesion. Then the act of SMFR releases the fascial adhesion by moving the tissue through full range of motion under traction (15). In the fluid flow model, researchers suggest “SMFR could increase the pliability of fascial tissues via temporary changes in water content that allow mobilization before the tissue rehydrates” (1, 16). The myofascial trigger point model indicates that SMFR reduces inflammation in the fascia by releasing trigger points and increasing blood flow to the tissue (1). While these proposed mechanisms have not been disproven, they are criticized under the basis that the amount of pressure necessary to cause such structural change would be unachievable.
In contrast, neurophysiological mechanisms propose that SMFR has an effect on the body’s nervous system. They include the Golgi reflex arc and mechanoreceptor model. A Golgi tendon organ (GTO) is a receptor found throughout the body where muscle attaches to the tendon. The receptor is responsible for giving feedback to the spinal cord while a muscle is being stretched to prevent overstretching and injury. The Golgi reflex arc model suggests that pressure from SMFR stimulates the GTO decreasing muscular tension (1). The mechanoreceptor model follows a similar path, but instead of stimulating GTO’s, researchers suggest the pressure stimulates mechanoreceptors found in fascial tissue. Mechanoreceptors are found throughout the body in tissue and organs. They respond to physical stimuli such as touch and sound (1). The stimulation causes a down regulation of the central nervous system relieving muscular tension similar to massage therapies.
What does all of this science mean to you? In short, regardless of the mechanism behind why foam rolling works, it’s a simple addition to an exercise routine which has little to no downside while improving performance and recovery.
Why Not Just Stretch?
Stretching is another popular form of warming up. While stretching has been shown to improve joint mobility and flexibility, it comes at the expense of force production (2). A study was done comparing the acute effects of foam rolling and static stretching before a workout. The study found that roller massage increased range of motion and force output, while the static stretching group increased range of motion but showed a decrease in force output. The researchers concluded the use of roller massage may be more effective as a warmup for activities that depend on high force production (2). Stretching is still beneficial for your health and movement, but is better placed by itself throughout the day, or following exercise.
Which Foam Roller is Best?
As foam rolling has become more popular, many different rollers and other implements have become available. Rollers that have multi-level or grid type surfaces have been shown to be more effective than smooth surface rollers. This has been accredited to a greater cause of tissue deformation when compared to smooth rollers (4). Other small implements, such as lacrosse balls have also been introduced as a form of SMFR. These provide a greater ability to apply pressure into trigger points, while the rollers allow for more coverage.
When Should you Foam Roll?
Foam rolling at specific times will elicit different responses from the body. Foam rolling before a training session will acutely improve joint range of motion by increasing tissue flexibility, and down regulating Golgi tendon organs (5,6,7,8). Foam rolling immediately after exercise will improve recovery time and reduce soreness in the following days through the increase in arterial function, and stimulation of the nervous system (1,9,10). Short bouts throughout the day will also help to alleviate tight muscles caused by sitting and poor posture.
What’s the Ideal Foam Rolling Protocol?
To properly foam roll, focus on a specific muscle group for 1-2 minutes. The amount of pressure should create a tolerable level of discomfort, but never sharp pain. When you remove the pressure, the discomfort should go away immediately. If a tender spot (trigger point) is found while rolling through a muscle, hold on that spot and apply pressure for 30-90 seconds (12,13). Then make small rolls back and forth over that area for another 15 seconds. Repeat this process as needed throughout the entire muscle group. Focus on a particular section of the body based upon the demands of an upcoming session, or individual areas of soreness.
Foam rolling is a quick and simple technique that will make you more available to train at a high level. Once you have completed foam rolling, you should consider adding in basic stabilization and strengthening exercises to fully reap the benefits of SMFR.
Sam Bartlett, MSc
- Beardsley, C., Skarabot, J. (2015). Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S136085921500217X?casa_token=yxgXKqGThZcAAAAA:nCy1hA0lpuIUxY5_KoUW2F_hWZElGAm_sI2d9dNfPFH39_ze4MUggUyw4AGED5eqZ4uDhsLlIWo
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