[Julio is an Exercise Science graduate student at Old Dominion University and is an Athletic Development Intern for Athletic Lab]
Foam rolling is a type of self-myofascial release (SMR) technique that has been getting much attention lately. It is an excellent way to boost recovery from training, enhance joint range of motion (ROM), and improve tissue quality. SMR is a physical therapy technique in which an individual uses his own body weight to massage the whole body musculature against a roller placed on the floor by performing slow and controlled motions that generate pressure on the different fascial/muscle tissues. It is often touted as an excellent warm-up starter, recovery day strategy, and even everyday de-stressor to help relax the body and the mind.
Despite the numerous claims of benefits found by many experienced coaches out there, the research on foam rolling is unfortunately shallow. The most recent research by MacDonald (2013) aimed to investigate whether an acute (2 minutes) bout of high pressure foam rolling (they used a neoprene-covered PVC roller) on the quadriceps muscle group affected knee ROM, subsequent maximum voluntary activation (MVC), evoked muscular response, and electromyography (EMG) activity during an isometric quadriceps contraction. These variables were measured before, 2 and 10 minutes after foam rolling, and compared with a controlled condition (no foam rolling). Results showed that foam rolling improved ROM 2 minutes (12.7%) and 10 minutes (10.3%) post intervention with no subsequent reduction in muscular force production or EMG activity.
This study suggests that foam rolling may be an excellent strategy to improve joint ROM during the warm-up portion of the training session. Moreover, the increased mobility could improve the stretch tolerance and reduce injury risk while avoiding the dulling effect that static stretching usually has on muscular force production. Is it worth noting that this study has some important limitations in terms of applicability. The small sample size (11 subjects) and the fact that only one muscle group was used to test the experiment’s hypothesis are both limiting factors. In a similar study, researchers Miller & Rockey (2006) found that hamstring flexibility did not change as a result of foam rolling.
Another study by Healey (2013) aimed to investigate the effects of foam rolling vs. plank (core strength exercises) warm-ups on vertical jump, isometric force, and agility, as well as levels of fatigue, soreness, and exertion. No significant differences were found between conditions in any of the athletic tests. Despite the lack of improvements in performance from the foam rolling, post-exercise fatigue was lower with the foam rolling protocol vs. plank exercises, suggesting that the reduced exertion experienced during the warm-up could help extend the workout time and volume and allow for enhanced performance improvements.
Much research needs to be done with respect to this particular SMR technique in order to determine the physiological mechanisms of action explaining its purported effectiveness, as well as to identify the best materials, protocols, and rolling techniques to use under different circumstances (warm-up vs. recovery session). Despite the lack of scientific studies, several experienced coaches such as Cressey & Robertson (2004) have been huge supporters of foam rolling in the past decade. According to these coaches, the focus during a foam rolling session should be on applying as much pressure as possible in a slow and controlled manner, moving down the muscle starting at the more proximal aspect (closer to the trunk) and toward the more distal part (further from the trunk).
Relaxation and breathing is very important and often overlooked when foam rolling. In order to allow the foam roller to fully penetrate the tissues with enough pressure, one must focus on lowering the muscle tone by inhibiting any voluntary contraction. Focusing on a controlled breathing pattern may help reduce the muscular tone, increase relaxation, and fight the discomfort. A final recommendation for whenever a really sore or tight spot is encountered is to focus on applying constant pressure for at least1 minute while fully relaxing and controlling the breathing pace.
It is important to note that the duration of a foam rolling bout could be longer or shorter depending on whether is being used as part of a dynamic warm-up before heavy training or just as a recovery/relaxation session.
If you have any further questions do not hesitate to ask your coach for clarification, guidance, and movement demonstrations. Our goal here at Athletic Lab is to provide you with the best quality training service to improve your sports performance and develop your fitness to unimaginable levels.
Cressey E, Robertson M. (2004, July 12). Feel Better for 10 Bucks [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from https://www.tnation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_repair/feel _better_for_10_bucks
Eric Cressey. (2008, July 1). Cressey Performance Foam Roller Series. Retrieved June 6, 2013, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8caF1Keg2XU
Healey KC, Hatfield DL, Blanpied P, Dorfman LR, Riebe D. (2013). The effects of myofascial
release with foam rolling on performance. J of Strength Cond Res. [Epub ahead of print].
MacDonald, GZ, Penney MDH, Mullaley ME, Cuconato AL, Drake CDJ, Behm DG, Button DC. (2012). An acute bout of self myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in neuromuscular performance. J of Strength Cond Res. 27(3), 812-821.
Miller JK & Rockey AM. (2006). Foam rollers show no increase in the flexibility of the hamstring muscle group. UW-L Journal of Undergraduate Research, IX:1-4.