It is quite common to see people performing foam rolling after their workouts. So what’s that all about and do we need to know how to foam roll?

Is there any benefit to this?

What are the potential mechanisms behind any benefits?

I will answer these two questions in this article…

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Benefits of foam rolling

Advocates of foam rolling as a recovery tool after training propose that it corrects muscular imbalances, alleviates muscle soreness, relieves joint stress, improves neuromuscular efficiency, and enhances range of motion. Foam rolling has been used in several different rehabilitation and training programs to help promote soft tissue extensibility, enhance joint range of motion and promote optimal skeletal muscle functioning (1,2).

Despite its popular use, there has been extremely scant research on the effects of foam rolling. In fact, there have only been three peer-reviewed articles published to date (1-3).

Given the rudimentary evidence to validate the use of foam rolling as a recovery tool from physical activity, it is practical to further investigate the effectiveness and potential mechanisms.

Many individuals experience exercise-induced muscle damage resulting in delayed onset muscle soreness after an intense bout of physical activity. Exercise-induced muscle damage is characterized by:

  • Muscle soreness
  • Muscle swelling
  • Temporary muscle damage
  • Passive muscle tension
  • Decrease in muscular strength & range of motion (4,5)

Exercise-induced muscle damage can also affect neuromuscular performance by decreasing shock attenuation and altering muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns, potentially placing unaccustomed stress on muscle tendons and ligaments (4). Some treatments (i.e. cryotherapy, light exercise, and compression) have shown potential benefits in treating symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage but no one therapy has proven to be beneficial in treating the full array of symptoms often presented by exercise-induced muscle damage.

The research…

A group of scientists from Canada and Australia collaborated on a study to substantiate if foam rolling was an effective tool to aid recovery from an intense bout of physical activity and identify potential mechanisms (6). They specifically addressed the effects of foam rolling on muscle soreness, voluntary and evoked contractile properties, vertical jump and ROM.

Twenty physically active resistance-trained participants (≥ 3 yr strength training experience) were assigned into a control or foam rolling group.

The volunteers performed an exhausting 10 sets of 10 reps squat protocol at 60% 1 RM (repetition maximum) that was designed to cause exercise-induced muscle damage. Testing sessions were done immediately after the squat protocol and again at 24, 48, and 72 hours after. The only difference was the foam rolling group performed a 20-min foam rolling exercise protocol at the end of each testing session (immediately after, 24h, and 48h after the squat protocol).

The foam rolling protocol consisted of five different exercise targeting major muscle groups of the thigh and gluteal muscles.

how to foam roll_2The results…

Results demonstrated that foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness at all time points while considerably improving range of motion. In addition, foam rolling markedly improved muscle activation at all time points and vertical jump at 48h time point after the squat protocol.

Bottom line

This is the first study that examined the potential physiological mechanisms regarding the recovery benefits seen with foam rolling that have previously been outlined in one study (3). The most crucial finding of this research was that foam rolling improved dynamic movement, percent muscle activation, and both passive and dynamic ROM while decreasing muscle soreness.

Some key findings are:

  • There was considerably higher muscle soreness readings recorded at all time points for the control group, demonstrating the effectiveness of foam rolling in decreasing muscle soreness. The improved recovery rate in muscle soreness in the foam rolling group signifies that foam rolling is an effective means in treating delayed-onset muscle soreness (6).
  • The foam rolling group showed greater muscle activation in comparison with control group after the squat protocol
  • Foam rolling improved both passive and dynamic range of motion in comparison to the control group. This improvement in range of motion was attributed to foam rolling acting in similar fashion to myofascial release techniques, potentially diminishing muscle soreness, decreasing inflammation, and/or reducing adhesions between layers of fascia (1).
  • The foam rolling group demonstrated substantial benefits in comparison with the control group when assessing dynamic performance (i.e. vertical jump) at 24h and 48h post squat protocol. The likely mechanism behind these improvement are that foam rolling acts by reducing neural inhibition (7,8) due to accelerated recovery of connective tissue as a result of decreased inflammation and increased mitochondria biogenesis (9), allowing for better communication from afferent receptors in the connective tissue (8). It is plausible that improved communication with afferent receptors allows for maintenance of natural muscle sequencing and recruitment patterns (8) which maintained vertical jump.

Conclusion

The authors of this study speculate that foam rolling provides recovery benefits primarily through the treatment of connective tissue (6). Further research is needed to substantiate this, but it was shown in this study that the foam rolling group exhibited considerably less pain at all time points in comparison with the control group. Connective tissue (i.e. myotendinous junction) is the major site of exercise-induced muscle damage disruption and pain (10), therefore foam rolling can be considered helpful in the recovery of connective tissue.

Below in table 1 are practical guidelines to incorporate foam rolling for your lower body.

Table 1. Practical guidelines for foam rolling (6):

Perform each of 5 exercises on both right and left legs for two 60-sec outs each
  1. Anterior thigh
  2. Lateral thigh
  3. Posterior thigh
  4. Medial thigh
  • Place bodyweight on the foam roller, starting at proximal aspect of thigh and rolling down the thigh, using small undulating movements, gradually working your way to the knee.
  • Once reach distal aspect of thigh, return the roller to the starting position in one fluid motion and continue sequence for remainder of 60 seconds
  1. Gluteal muscles
  • Sit on top of foam roller, and place both hands on floor behind foam roller. Cross right/left leg over left/right knee, positioning body so right/left gluteal muscles are in contact with the roller, with your bodyweight placed on foam roller. Undulate back and forth, with foam roller running inline with origin to insertion point of gluteus maximus muscle.
Complete all five exercises on one side of body and then switch to other side and repeat

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References:

  1. Curran, P.F., R.D. Fiore, and J.J. Crisco, A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. J Sport Rehabil, 2008. 17(4): p. 432-42
  2. MacDonald, G.Z., et al., An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(3): p. 812-21
  3. Pearcey GEP, B.-S.D., Kawamoto JE, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG, Button DC., Effects of foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train., In press.
  4. Cheung, K., P. Hume, and L. Maxwell, Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sport Med, 2003. 33(2): p. 145-64.
  5. Torres, R., et al., Evidence of the physiotherapeutic interventions used currently after exercise-induced muscle damage: systematic review and meta-analysis. Phys Ther Sport, 2012. 13(2): p.101-14.
  6. MacDonald, G.Z., et al., Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2014. 46(1): p. 131-42
  7. Connolly, D.A., S.P. Sayers, and M.P. McHugh, Treatment and prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res, 2003. 17(1): p. 197-208.
  8. Saxton, J.M., et al., Neuromuscular dysfunction following eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1995. 27(8): p. 1185-93.
  9. Crane, J.D., et al., Massage therapy attenuates inflammatory signaling after exercise-induced muscle damage. Sci Transl Med, 2012. 4(119).
  10. Eston, R.G., et al., Muscle tenderness and peak torque changes after downhill running following a prior bout of isokinetic eccentric exercise. J Sports Sci, 1996 14(4): p. 291-9.

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