For runners, using a foam roller is quickly becoming the recovery method of choice. However, whether foam rolling can assist in recovery and how it actually works has endured a long running debate. In this article we look at the possible benefits of foam rolling and if foam rolling can improve performance.
- Foam rolling may be able to increase blood flow and release of “happy hormones”.
- Evidence shows foam rolling is unlikely to physically stretch fascia.
- Foam rolling can lead to short term pain relief and increased range of movement.
- Using a foam roller post exercise may improve symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness as well as next day performance measures.
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
Many runners and athletes swear by foam rolling as a key recovery tool. However when asked, most wouldn’t be able to tell you how it works.
The mechanisms of how foam rollers works remains controversial. Below we have outlined 3 commonly proposed mechanisms.
1. Myofascial Release
Fascia is a sheet of connective tissue surrounding your muscles, primarily comprised of collagen. Fascia is a strong structure made from similar tissues to tendons. To be able to physically manipulate or stretch this structure by leaning on a foam roller is impossible. If this was the case, humans would be very fragile creatures. Research backs this up, showing that foam rolling has no effect on tissue morphology (Zugal et al., 2018).
2. Increased Blood Flow
Foam rolling has also been shown to increase vascular blood flow to the area being massaged (Lohman et al., 2011). Increased blood flow to an area will increase flow of key nutrients including proteins, satellite cells and oxygen. So in theory, this leads to improved muscle healing times and therefor improved recovery.
3. The Nervous System
Foam rolling likely has the biggest effect on the nervous system. The research and theory behind it’s effects are quite complicated. If you are a sports science geek and want to know the nitty gritty, search for “Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control” (DNIC).
In simple terms, foam rolling provides a stimulus to an otherwise painful area, such as the calf or thigh. The pressure applied when foam rolling activates “pain receptors”, despite most people reporting it as a “good pain”. By activating these receptors, the brain releases “happy drugs” such as noradrenaline and serotonin. This reduces the perception of pain in the surrounding areas.
For example, we have a painful lateral thigh, along the illio-tibial band. When we foam roll, the above mechanism is activated and suddenly our ITB feels better for a short period. It’s works in the same way as rubbing your toe to reduce the pain when you stub it.
Furthermore, once the DNIC mechanism has reduced our pain, the surrounding muscles become less guarded. This helps increase range of movement for a short period of time. Using a foam roller to improve joint range of movement is a hot topic, however it’s importance for runner’s is debatable and we won’t go into it today.
The key point of the DNIC is that it does not lead to any actual improvements in injury healing, it just opens up our brains happy drug cabinet.
Benefits of Foam Rolling for Recovery
Before we start on recovery, remember that sleep, nutrition and load management are far more important for recovery and injury prevention than foam rolling (article comings soon). So don’t stress about foam rolling before you have sorted out the more important domains of recovery.
I’ll get straight to the point. Foam rolling CAN help recovery from delayed onset muscles soreness (DOMS).
Early research in this area points to significant improvements in perceived muscle soreness and dynamic performance measures when post exercise foam rolling is performed (Cheatham et al., 2015). A small study by Pearcy et al. (2015) found that foam rolling for 20 minutes post exercise improved sprint time, muscle soreness, muscle power and muscle endurance at 24 hours and 48 hours post exercise.
One last thought…
Foam rolling can be great and you should use it as an adjunct for recovery if you find it beneficial. However, if you haven’t optimised your sleep, nutrition, load management and stress management, you have more important things to focus on.
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 therapy, 10(6), 827.
Casanova, N., Reis, J. F., Vaz, J. R., Machado, R., Mendes, B., Button, D. C., … & Freitas, S. R. (2018). Effects of roller massager on muscle recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage. Journal of sports sciences, 36(1), 56-63.
Lohman III, E. B., Bains, G. S., Lohman, T., DeLeon, M., & Petrofsky, J. S. (2011). A comparison of the effect of a variety of thermal and vibratory modalities on skin temperature and blood flow in healthy volunteers. Medical science monitor: international medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 17(9), MT72.
Pearcey, G. E., Bradbury-Squires, D. J., Kawamoto, J. E., Drinkwater, E. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2015). Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of athletic training, 50(1), 5-13.
Zügel, M., Maganaris, C. N., Wilke, J., Jurkat-Rott, K., Klingler, W., Wearing, S. C., … & Bloch, W. (2018). Fascial tissue research in sports medicine: from molecules to tissue adaptation, injury and diagnostics: consensus statement. Br J Sports Med, 52(23), 1497-1497.