Over the last few years rolling ourselves over an uncomfortable, cylindrical object has become somewhat of a trend. Foam rolling has developed a lot a steam and involves applying direct pressure into our soft-tissues (muscles, fascia and so on). Many of us (including myself) make this part of our exercise regime, but what are the reasons behind doing so? And, are we performing it as efficiently as we could be? This blog post explores the answers to such questions and presents some of the evidence behind foam rolling.
The current (debated) reasons behind why we foam roll can be split into 3 categories:
To enhance range of movement
To aid performance
To aid recovery post-training
Enhancing range of movement
Evidence suggests that foam rolling can have a positive correlation with acute, short-term increases in range of movement, as well as long-term benefits if performed regularly and consistently. A study by Sullivan et al (2013) compared the effects of foam rolling the hamstrings for 5sec and 10sec durations, comparing between 1 and 2 sets of each variable time. They identified an increase in hamstring range (with sit-and-reach test) in each group. Greater increases in range were associated with the longer duration of 10secs. However, there was no significant change between multiple sets, indicating that one set of longer duration may be of most benefit to range of movement.
Skarabot et al (2015) looked into the comparison between foam rolling and static stretching on mobility of the ankle when stretching/rolling the calf muscles. It was identified that both foam rolling and static stretching enhanced ankle mobility for up to 10minutes, but highlighted that a combination of rolling and static stretching generated the most significant changes.
With regards to performance, the waters that foam rolling bathes within become very murky. The evidence is limited but one study by Monteiro et al (2017) reported that foam rolling of the hamstrings between sets of repeated knee extensions led to a decrease in the number of repetitions that could be performed compared to those who performed passive rest between sets. This is possibly consistent with evidence that reports the detrimental effects of static stretching on performance parameters, and therefore led to the indication of more dynamic warm-ups or pre-activation prior to training/competition. However, if mobility is a key aspect of your sport/athletic performance, you could advocate more dynamic foam rolling methods (see below) that can be performed in conjunction with a dynamic warm-up.
So, you’ve increased your range of movement, and you’ve incorporated rolling into the dynamic warm-up to prepare you for performance. Upon completion of a strenuous physical task, what do we now do? Well, luckily Pearcey et al (2015) identified that a 20minute bout of foam rolling immediately post-exercise and every 24hours thereafter helped to reduce markers of Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS) such as muscle tenderness.
We’ve now discussed the benefits of foam rolling, but how can we apply this practice? It is worth noting, that the evidence base around foam rolling is still in it’s infancy and we can debate each of these studies mentioned here regarding the applicability of the results to the masses. It is therefore prudent to apply some general common sense and theoretical knowledge when creating your own foam rolling programme. Typically when we see others foam rolling, we then see them applying downward pressure onto the roller and then applying linear/lateral movements and literally rolling over the roller. However, I’m here to argue that this may not be the most efficient method (controversy alert!).
For ease of imagination, lets say that we have someone rolling up and down the length of their quadriceps (as seen in the picture at the top). What we tend to do is brace (tighten) to support and stabilise ourselves and quite often guard against the discomfort that rolling can produce. We also roll through the muscle in one length (i.e the muscle doesn’t get longer or shorter). It is therefore unlikely that we are influencing a significant change in range of movement.
Instead, we could mobilise the muscle/fascia through range. If we take the quadriceps as an example once more, we could place ourselves in a similar position (as the picture above) and slowly explore the muscle to find a trigger point/area of tightness. Once you have located this spot, try to relax and sink into it. As you do so, then slowly flex and extend the knee. Repeat this for approximately 20secs before relocating the roller and finding another tight area/swapping legs and going through the process again. In this way, we release the soft-tissues through range, and we can relax our nervous system a little more, allowing a greater range to be explored. I have a video of this on the Mindfully Active Physio social media pages, which can be found by clicking here.
As always, don’t hesitate to contact me should you have any questions or thoughts on the subject. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
But for now, signing off. Thanks for reading.
Feel, Think, Move
Monteiro, E. R. et al (2017) Maximum repetition performance after different antagonist foam rolling volumes in the inter-set rest period International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 12 (1) 76.
Skarabot, J. et al (2015) Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range of motion in adolescent athletes International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10 (2) 203-212
Sullivan, K. M. et al (2013) Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8 (3) 228