By Andy Austin
Physiotherapist at Life Ready Physio Scarborough
Foam rollers have become more and more popular in the last number of years, but are the masses simply following a fitness trend or is it actually beneficial and backed up by research? More often than not, foam rolling is used as a method of reducing the muscular soreness than comes on after exercise. We have all experienced the agony of those 24-48 hours (and sometimes longer) after doing a new bout of physical activity. This dreaded feeling is often referred to as DOMS, or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.
It is thought that DOMS is a result of the multiple micro traumas that occur to a muscle during intense exercise. When the muscle is broken down like this it will take a couple of days to recover fully and until then, it is common to experience pain and stiffness in the muscles directly affected by the exercise. Aside from the pain, research has shown that DOMS can have a negative effect on an athlete’s performance due to the reduced strength and power of the muscle while it is in this state.
Foam rolling has emerged as a new method of aiding muscle recovery over the past 5-10 years, but at times it can be difficult to find good quality information on what is the most effective strategy to use it. However recently, a number of studies have been published in the area. We are beginning to see some clearer evidence to support foam rolling and more concrete guidelines on the optimal way to use it.
A good quality study was performed in 2017 highlighting the potential benefits of foam rolling on reducing muscle soreness and improving performance after exercise. A group of professional soccer players performed a normal training session. The players were then randomly split into a foam rolling group and a group that simply rested after the session. The foam rolling group performed a total of 20 minutes of rolling on each muscle group in the legs. When measured the next day it was found that this group showed a significant reduction in overall muscle soreness and a quicker recovery of agility (Rey et al 2017).
A smaller trial in 2015 showed that 20 minutes of foam rolling performed after a difficult squat session reduced DOMS and improved the recovery of strength and power when retested (Pearcey et al 2015). This highlights the potential value of foam rolling across the board and provides support for its use as a recovery method for exercise that does not fall under the field sport category.
Not all of the research is completely supportive of foam rolling and its benefits in terms of performance. Another study in 2017 tested a group of athletes over two 800m runs. The athletes were allowed a 30 minute break between the two runs and half of them were randomly assigned to perform foam rolling during this period. However no differences were then found in the athlete’s second performances (D’Amico et al 2017).
This research has helped to shape more accurate and effective methods of foam rolling. Prior to this there was very little in the way of evidence to suggest any useful specifics. When taking each one into account it seems that foam rolling is more likely to have a benefit on your performance on the following day. We have seen above that when the tests are separated by 30 minutes there is not much change. But when retesting occurred 24 and 48 hours later, there were several performance indicators that had improved including strength, power and agility. As a result it is likely to be of more benefit if you can perform between 20-30 minutes of foam rolling on two or three days of the week depending on how much exercise you are doing. This way your muscle recovery and preparation will remain consistent across your season.
Certainly for anyone who competes in distance running, you should aim to get these recovery sessions in around your longer and tougher sessions of the week. By completing a foam rolling session in the 24-48 hours prior to your long run you will be preparing your muscles for a better performance on the day. By completing a foam rolling session shortly after your long run you will be reducing the potential DOMS and muscle irritation that can occur afterwards. This point can be made similarly for any sport where there is a variance in the intensity or duration of the exercise. For example, before and after weekend football matches or particularly tough weights sessions.
- D’Amico et al. (2017). ‘‘The Effect of Foam Rolling on Recovery Between two Eight Hundred Metre Runs.’’. Journal of Human Kinetics.
- Rey et al. (2017). ‘’ The Effects of Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool in Professional Soccer Players’’. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
- Pearcey et al. (2015). ‘’ Foam Rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures’’. Journal of Athletic Training.