What does Foam Rolling Actually Do?
The Foam Roller has become almost ubiquitous across gyms and households over the last few decades. Made popular by Israeli Physicist and Martial Artist Mosh Feldenkrais and his method of training – these cylindrical chunks of foam have been touted to do everything from “release tissue adhesion’s” to “lengthen the IT band”, improve muscle length and more (1). As Foam rolling has become more common place in gyms, sports clubs, clinics and training centres – research into what it actually does and how it works has been scarce until more recently (2). So, what does it actually do?
Foam Rolling is most commonly described as a self-myofascial release technique – but the scientific literature available suggests that this term is misleading (3). Myofascial release, particularly in the context of foam rolling, is believed to improve range of motion and performance measures by releasing myofascial constrictions due to scar tissue, blood flow reduction-induced muscle spasms and other pathologies (3). However, evidence that myofascial release is the main mechanism that explains alterations of flexibility, pain suppression or performance enhancement from foam rolling is scarce (3).
Although there is some evidence suggesting local tissue-specific effects such as an increase in blood flow or a reduction in stiffness, these by far do not seem to represent the only mechanisms, as the term ‘self-myofascial release’ implies (3). Manual forces, like those placed on the body whilst foam rolling, are typically not sufficient to directly change or deform connective tissue (particularly if it is as strong as the iliotibial band) (3). There may be a small release, or change occurring that is delayed via stimulation of joint position detecting nerve cells (proprioceptors) or local hydration changes – but this effect is minimal in comparison to broader systemic, non-local effects of foam rolling (2,3).
Muscle, fascia (connective tissue) and skin are highly innervated by sensory nerve cells. Within the skin layers, cells such as Merkel receptors, Meissner corpuscles, Ruffini cylinders and Pacinian corpuscles possess a spectrum of receptor field areas, which respond slowly or rapidly to different stimulation frequencies (3). This information is then passed up the spinal cord to the Brain where a range of descending neural processes can occur in the local area being foam rolled; such as inhibited pain sensitivity and increased tolerance to muscle stretch (2,3). As such the most plausible hypothesis we have at present for the effects of foam rolling is neuro-modulatory (3).
The intent and applications of foam rolling are highly variable – just look around your local gym, clinic or sports club and see. Some do it to improve mobility, others to assist in recovery and reducing muscle pain. Generally, foam rolling can be split into two different categories: ‘Pre-Rolling’ as a warm-up tool before an activity, and ‘Post-Rolling’ as a recovery tool (2). To explore the scientifically proven uses of foam rolling we will split them into these two categories:
As mentioned above, Pre-Rolling refers to the use of foam rolling prior to an activity as a tool for warming up/ preparation (2). This way of foam rolling is generally less popular, with most people (in my experience) tending to foam roll after their activity of choice. However, we do have scientific evidence of reasonable quality to suggest that foam rolling can have a small acute positive effect on sprint performance (+0.7%), and flexibility (+4%) (2). Although the effect on sprint performance was largely played down to a placebo effect or as a secondary effect of warming up, as Pre-Rolling has shown no effect on jump, or strength performance – which cross over with sprinting in their physical requisites (2). The largest pre-rolling effect was on flexibility – albeit transient, with some studies suggesting an effect lasting only up to 20 min (2,3).
Post rolling refers to the completion of foam rolling after an activity – with more of an intent on recovery and muscle pain reduction. With this form of foam rolling – we see slightly lower reductions in sprint (+3.1%) and strength (+3.9%) performance respectively, along with a small reduction in muscle pain perception (+6%) (2). However, the effects of post-rolling on performance should be interpreted with caution, as the overall effects on sprint (p = 0.12) and strength performance (p = 0.28) were not significant and the number of available studies was limited (2).
Overall the largest post rolling effect was on muscle soreness – potentially because massage-like mechanical pressure can provide analgesic effects through the ascending pain inhibitory system (gate theory of pain) and the descending anti-nociceptive pathway (diffuse noxious inhibitory control) (2,3).
The exact mechanisms of foam rolling require more research to further elucidate what is specifically happening physiologically at both local and global levels (3). The current available scientific evidence on the effects of foam rolling for performance and recovery are quite small and insignificant, but can be relevant in some cases (e.g., to increase sprint performance and flexibility or to reduce muscle pain sensation) (2).
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- Heffernan, Conor. “The History of the Foam Roller.” Physical Culture Study. February 02, 2016. Accessed August 20, 2019. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/02/02/the-history-of-the-foam-roller/.
- Behm, David G., and Jan Wilke. “Do Self-Myofascial Release Devices Release Myofascia? Rolling Mechanisms: A Narrative Review.” Sports Medicine (2019): 1-9
- Wiewelhove, Thimo, Alexander Döweling, Christoph Schneider, Laura Hottenrott, Tim Meyer, Michael Kellmann, Mark Pfeiffer, and Alexander Ferrauti. “A meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery.” Frontiers in physiology 10 (2019): 376