Foam rolling has been about for over a decade and is used as a form of manual therapy to reduce myofascial tightness. (Cheatham et al 2015) (Peacock et al 2014).
Myofascial tightness develops over time as a result of muscular microtrauma or after an injury. This can lead to scarring or thickening of the fascia which in turn can lead to a reduced range of motion (ROM), neuromuscular dysfunction, joint, nerve or vascular compression, reduction in strength, pain and injury, all of which affect physical performance (Healy et al 2014) (Barnes 1997) (Curran et al 2008)
Multiple studies have shown the effect of self-myofascial release (SMR) to be, improved ROM, increased muscle performance, enhanced recovery after exercise, and reduced stress. However, there is so much variation between studies regarding protocol and parameters, that there is a need for longer-term studies to add to the literature out there.
Let’s look at what the science says about foam rolling and try and breakdown what it is beneficial for.
Foam rolling and ROM
Foam rolling for improving range of motion is probably the most studied aspect of SMR. Many studies have shown an increase in ROM after the use of a foam roller with durations ranging from 10secs up to 3mins. However, most of the studies including two by Bushell et al (2015) and Jay et al (2014) noticed that after improving ROM in hip extension after rolling the anterior thigh, the gain in ROM was lost and started to go back to the baseline measurement after just 10mins.
Bradbury-squires et al (2015) noted that longer bouts of SMR lead to greater changes in ROM and proposed that ROM may increase and become more permanent after prolonged everyday use. This needs more longer-term studies to prove this proposition.
Studies have looked at the effect of SMR on athletic performance measures and again there have been mixed results. One interesting point is that even though some studies showed no advantageous effect of SMR on athletic performance, none of them showed any negative effects. So, if you use it before performing, even if it’s only psychological, you now know that it won’t have a negative effect on your performance.
All the studies that did show a beneficial difference in performance had used the foam roller for a minimum of 100secs, this is compared to the other studies that showed no effect who only rolled for anything between 5-30secs. So maybe longer bouts of rolling are more beneficial after all.
Some of the studies looked at showed that performing a total body SMR session along with a dynamic warm-up improved power, agility, speed, and strength. These were measured by vertical jump, standing long jump, !rm bench press, pro agility test, and 37m sprint. This was compared to the athlete performing a dynamic warm-up on its own.
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
Using SMR after a training session that has introduced DOMS reduced muscle soreness and the athletes didn’t experience any decline in athletic performance (30m sprint test). (Macdonald et al 2014) (Jay et al (2014).
This means that SMR would be a good cooldown option especially if the athlete may need to perform again in a short period of time.
SMR has been shown to improve range of motion, although it is usually short-lived lasting anything from 10mins to 30mins before returning to its original range. SMR and static stretching have shown greater increases in ROM although static stretching is detrimental to performance so it shouldn’t be used in a warm-up scenario. If the athlete is performing in an event using power, speed, agility, and strength then SMR has been shown beneficial as a warm-up when combined with a dynamic warm-up also.
SMR has also been shown to reduce the effect of DOMS with no negative effect on athletic performance. This would make it a great tool for athletes who compete in events that are performed close together. It would also be a good tool for athletes to use as a cooldown along with static stretching as these two performed together have shown a greater effect on ROM.
There is a need for some longer-term studies to see the effect of SMR on range of motion over longer sustained periods.
Barnes MF (1997). The basic science of myofascial release: morphologic change in connective tissue. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 1(4): 231-238. DOI: 10.1016/S1360-8592(97)80051-4.
Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, Behm DG, Power KE and Button DC (2015). Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(2):133-140. DOI: 10.4085/1062-6050-49.5.03.
Bushell JE, Dawson SM and Webster MM (2015). Clinical relevance of foam rolling on hip extension angle in a functional lunge position. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(9):2397-403. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000888.
Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M and Lee M (2015). The effects of self-myofascial using a foam roll or roller massage on join range of motion, muscle recovery, and performance: a systematic review. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(6):827-838.
Curran PF, Fiore RD and Crisco JJ (2008). A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 17(4):432-442. DOI: 10.1123/jsr.17.4.432.
Halperin I, Aboodarda SJ, Button DC, Andersen LL and Behm DG (2014). Roller massager improves range of motion of plantar flexor muscles without subsequent decreases in force parameters. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(1):92-102.
Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR and Riebe D (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(1):61-68. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182956569.
Jay K, Sundstrup E, Søndergaard SD, Behm D, Brandt M, Særvoll CA, Jakobsen MD and Andersen LL (2014). Specific and cross over effects of massage for muscle soreness: randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 9(1):82-91.
Peacock CA, Krein DD, Silver TA, Sanders GJ and von Carlowitz KPA (2014). An acute bout of self-myofascial release in the form of foam rolling improves performance testing. International Journal of Exercise Science, 7(3):202-211.
MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ and Behm DG (2014). Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 46(1):131-142. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a123db.
Mauntel TC, Clark MA and Padua DA (2014). Effectiveness of myofascial release therapies on physical performance measurements: a systematic review. Athletic Training and Sports Health Care, 6(4):189-196. DOI: 10.3928/19425864-20140717-02.