What is foam rolling and what are the potential benefits?
You’d be hard-pressed in today’s world, especially with the ever-increasing obsession with maximizing recovery, to find an athlete or coach that has never used foam rolling as part of their training or practice. So, if foam rolling is ubiquitous amongst athletes and coaches alike, then it must have benefits, right? I’ll start by stating that, yes, it does indeed have benefits; and many of these benefits are now being realized and documented in the research literature. That is the focus of this post today, to delve deeper into the research-backed benefits of foam rolling, ultimately helping you understand how to best use and apply foam rolling to your practice as an athlete and/or coach.
First, let’s start by briefly going over what foam rolling is and what it is typically used for. Foam rolling is a form of self-massage or myofascial release (MFR). There are a range of types of foam rollers out there, and these range from firmer foam rollers to softer ones as well as rollers with and without dimples or grooved surfaces. In addition to foam rollers, other tools can be used for self-massage/MFR, including massage balls, roller sticks, and many more types of tools. However, by far the most common self-massage/MFR tool is the classic foam roller.
Why foam roll? Foam rolling, like I’ve mentioned is a form of self-massage, helps to increase blood flow to the areas that are being foam rolled. This increase in blood flow makes it a potentially useful warm-up activity as well as a potentially beneficial recovery tool (increasing blood flow will help facilitate recovery). Self-massage also may improve range of motion around joints and reduce tension in muscles, therefore making it a potentially beneficial tool for improving mobility.
These benefits all sound well and good, but what has the research literature actually shown us? There has been quite a number of research studies conducted on the subject, and we will begin by going over a very recent study that aimed to investigate the impact that a foam rolling protocol had on recovery after hard exercise. We will then put this into context within the larger body of evidence surrounding foam rolling.
What did the researchers study?
Researchers in this study enrolled 37 college-aged men and had them perform 40 x 15-meter all-out sprints to induce muscle damage. Immediately after sprinting and for four days after the sprints, 18 of the 37 participants foam rolled (protocol: 60-seconds of rolling spent on each of the hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and calves) whereas 19 participants did not foam roll and served as control subjects. All participants completed a battery of tests assessing recovery from the sprint session, including:
1) Perception of muscle soreness
2) Hip abduction range of motion
3) Hamstring muscle length
4) Vertical jump height
5) Agility test
Participants completed the tests prior to completing the sprinting session so that they had a baseline assessment of these measures, and then completed these measures on each of the four days following the sprint session to assess different aspects of their recovery from the sprint session.
Researchers were looking to see how subjects that completed foam rolling each day compared to those who did not foam roll in terms of their recovery from the sprint session.
What are the major findings?
The only measure that researchers found a difference in was the agility test. Those that foam rolled saw a quicker recovery of their agility to baseline levels (pre-sprint session) when compared to the control condition that did not foam roll. Researchers saw no differences in any of the other testing measures described above. Researchers from this study concluded that foam rolling may help athletes expedite/accelerate recovery of agility following a demanding, high-intensity, sprint-based session.
What do these findings mean to YOU as an endurance athlete or coach?
Although the findings of this study were in individuals that completed a hard sprint session, these results are applicable to many endurance athletes, particularly runners. Runners, unlike other endurance athletes competing in swimming and cycling, rely on a mechanical process in the body known as the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) for some of their forward progress. The SSC is the process within the body that allows us to store elastic energy when muscles are stretched upon impact (think of when the foot lands on the ground during running) and then use that stored elastic energy, much like a rubber band, to help propel us forwards when the muscle shortens/contracts (think of when the foot pushes off of the ground). Researchers in the above study essentially found that foam rolling may help accelerate recovery of this mechanical process within the body as agility-based movement requires significant use of the SSC, much like running does. Therefore, foam rolling may be a great choice of recovery activity for runners as it may help them recover better between demanding training sessions, allowing them to better perform in subsequent sessions.
What about the benefits of foam rolling for other athletes? Luckily, there has been plenty more research shedding light on the benefits of foam rolling for other aspects of performance and recovery. A recently published systematic review (one of the highest levels of evidence) supports foam rolling for:
1) Improving joint flexibility: When used as a warm-up or cool-down activity before or after exercise, foam rolling can help improve flexibility around joints. The benefits of foam rolling may be enhanced when combined with static stretching immediately afterwards due to the foam rolling enhancing blood flow to the muscles and warming them up prior to them being stretched, thereby allowing a deeper stretch.
2) Enhancing recovery of performance and reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS): Foam rolling, when done in the days following an intense training session, can help to accelerate the recovery of performance, particularly the recovery of one’s ability to perform quick, explosive, and rapid movements that utilize the SSC (think sprinters, runners, etc.). Foam rolling, when done in the days following an intense training session, can help to reduce the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS – the painful days following a session resulting from an inflammatory response generated by the normal micro-tearing of muscle from the intense session).
3) Foam rolling prior to an intense training session DOES NOT negatively affect performance: This is a good thing, and research here suggest that it would be safe to foam roll prior to training sessions as one’s performance won’t be negatively affected. This is in contrast to static stretching (which many of us probably did before exercise growing up), which has been shown to have a negative impact on performance, particularly exercise involving quick, explosive movement and the need for high levels of strength output.
In summary, foam rolling is a great choice of activity for those looking to 1) warm-up for or cool-down from a training session, 2) improve their flexibility, 3) and accelerate recovery between training sessions. How much foam rolling is enough? Research tends to show these benefits with the performance of 1-2 sets of 60-second bouts of foam rolling on each of the intended muscle groups. For example, if I want to warm-up before a hard run session, I would choose to roll the major muscle groups in my lower body for 1-2 sets of 60-seconds each.
Look out for this month’s “Instructional Video Post” mid-way through the month as I will be covering how to foam roll all the major muscle groups of the body!
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS
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