Foam Rolling Literature Review – Does it Work?

Recently I have been asked a lot about my view on foam rolling, so I have decided to put together a post highlighting my personal opinion, as well as a little bit of the current research.

Foam rolling has been around for a while and while it’s widely used, the mechanisms of how it works are still not completely known. The common understanding is that foam rolling is used as a form of self myofascial release (SMR), in which it works to break down scar tissue. In reality there is actually very little research to support this. Largely this misconception is due to the resilient nature of the type of tissues effected, and instead most recent research suggests the effects are caused by the reaction of the nervous system as opposed to the mechanical effect on tissues. This is important to note, as it effects the way in which we should foam roll and will be referred to later.

What we do know is that a plethora of studies have shown foam rolling to improve flexibility and performance. Interestingly, when compared to static stretching, foam rolling has been shown to improve flexibility without having a negative impact on the athletes performance (Peacock et al., 2014 ; Sullivan et al., 2013). It has also been shown to have a better impact on performance than a dynamic warm up (Peacock et al., 2014).

Post workout, the best improvements in flexibility have been shown to come from both static stretching and foam rolling utilised together (Skarabot, Beardsley and Stirn, 2015). This combination elicited the best improvements in flexibility when compared to individual stretching or foam rolling.

Lastly, one of the other main misconceptions to foam rolling is that the longer you foam roll for the better the benefits. This comes back to what I said earlier about the effects largely coming from the nervous system. This again comes from the train of thought that foam rolling has a mechanical effect on the soft tissues, therefore the longer duration is able to break down more scar tissue and therefore provide better results. Research suggests this isn’t the case.

Research is now starting to show that most of the improvements in flexibility and muscle tightness actually comes from the foam rollers ability to stimulate the nervous system. To get the benefit from this, it is thought that smaller durations need to be spent on the roller. Excessive foam rolling is now being shown as unnecessary, however it is hard to find a suggested duration for foam rolling that has sufficient research behind it.

While all of the above is backed by a large amount of studies the research does have its limitations. Most importantly there is a gap in research for long term benefits to foam rolling. The majority of the research shows the positives of foam rolling but within a 30 minute timeframe. Additional research in to longer periods needs to be completed for a more comprehensive overview of foam rolling to be made.

I believe that foam rolling is a great tool for warm ups, cool downs and rehab/recovery sessions. The time spent foam rolling should be kept to 30 – 60 seconds per muscle group and for improvements in flexibility it should be used along side static stretching. Excessive foam rolling on one particular muscle group does not bring additional benefits and is therefore unnecessary. While not covered on this post, foam rolling the lateral aspect of the leg and the illiotibial band is also unnecessary and this will be covered in a separate post next week 👌🏼

References

  1. Skarabot, J. Beardsley, C. Stirn, I. (2015) Comparing the effects f self myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range of motion in adolescent athletes. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy
  2. Peacock, C. Krein, D. Silver, T. Sanders, G. Karlowitz, K. (2014) An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release in the Form of Foam Rolling Improves Performance Testing. International Journal of Sports Exercise Science
  3. Sullivan, K. Silvey, D. Button, D. Behm, D. (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.