Foam rollers are a favourite of professional athletes and amateurs alike. They are used both as a warm-up method before exercise as well as a means to speed up recovery. But does foam rolling actually work? I packed my stuff and ran straight to the university library to find out. Here’s what science has to say about foam rolling.
Feel free to scroll straight to the conclusion for a quick answer on foam rolling
A couple of weeks ago I held a poll (as part of my #QD) on mastodon asking people whether they would choose a foam roller over a massage gun if they had to pick one. It was then suggested to me by Kigelia that there was limited evidence for the actual benefits of foam rolling. I vaguely remembered reading something similar in a distant past but wasn’t quite sure about the details. I therefore promised to roll into the apparent desert of foam rolling evidence myself.
What are foam rollers for?
Foam rollers are used to release the the muscles and fascia in your body by stretching them. It is a type of self myofascial release (SMR). It is in fact a type of alternative medicine. Foam rollers are used by athletes (distance runners but others too) primarily in two ways: they are used in a warming up pre-exercise and in a cool down post-exercise. As such they are considered to be performance enhancing.
What does science have to say?
I’m lucky enough to work as a researcher-teacher at the university so I get to scroll through all these science databases. As stated in the beginning of this post, there are not too many studies on the effects of foam rolling out there. Or at least not of high enough quality that I feel confident to bring them in. Luckily there are a couple of recent systematic reviews on the topic. A scientific review is basically a summary of a bunch of (or all) studies on a specific topic. In this case foam rolling.
Quality of the studies
The first thing I noted when reading the articles is that some mentioned the limited amount of quality studies on SMR. For example this review stated: ‘many studies point out that there is still a lack of robust scientific evidence documenting the exact mechanisms that explain its true effects’. They obviously excluded the poor quality studies.
Should I use that foam roller?
First of all: it does not do any harm! The study mentioned before noted that foam rolling does not benefit muscle strength per se (faster sprints, higher jumping, etc) but compared to static stretching, either foam rolling or dynamic stretching seemed to be a more valid option’: static stretching has more negative effects on muscle strength. So if anything, avoid static stretches!
When it comes to recovery the results were much more obvious: this study stated ‘there was compelling evidence that SMR instruments seems to be beneficial for recovery after exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD), delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and other physical performance decreases’.
And according to this review foam rolling ‘may reduce muscle stiffness and increase ROM’ (Range of Motion). Furthermore the review states that foam rolling ‘reduced DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness]’. And it increases flexibility ‘by removing the limitation of soft tissue adhesion and consequently increasing the extensibility of target muscles’ according to this review.
So foam rolling (and other SMR tools for that matter) do seem to be beneficial for recovery. Personally, I don’t use the foam roller pre-exercise that much (I actually do some plyometric stuff, dynamic stretches), but I use it post-training a lot. I use both the bigger one as on the photo above, but also a small foam roller for the bottom of my feet.
Conclusion: does foam rolling actually work?
Science seems to agree that foam rolling has proven to be beneficial for recovery as it increases flexibility, range of motion and reduces delayed onset muscle soreness. In terms of recovery foam rolling seems to be a better option than static stretches. So swapping your static stretch with foam rolling isn’t such a bad idea!
When it comes to performance, the results are at least a little foggy. As a distance runner, flexibility is beneficial for my performance. But foam rolling before a run won’t make you a faster sprinter. As a final note from my side: you could argue that by reducing delayed onset muscle soreness you are actually better prepared for your next tempo session and as such say that foam rolling improves your performance. But then the discussion is what is considered performance?
Verdict: I can safely continue rolling that foam!