Foam rolling has been a part of many athletes training warm up and part of multiple mobility programs. Over the years it has grown in popularity, almost every athlete I have ever coached or trained would have one lying around at home, some can’t leave the house for training without it.
But why has foam rolling started to be added into warm ups, mobility programs, etc.? What does the literature tell us about foam rolling? How can we optimally apply this when training?
These are the questions I am going to try to answer in this blog, and hopefully you can learn a thing or two about how you should best go about this.
What is foam rolling and how does it work?
Foam rolling has become popular in recent years because of what the goal of this is. Simply put, foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (massage), aiming to release tension/tightness in your muscles. The most common phrase I hear for tight muscles these days is “ye mate, just stretch and foam roll it and you’ll be sweet!” Whilst this can be a way of releasing tension/tightness, it is a recommendation that is not the "be all and end all!" It might be better for athletes to spend a bit more time focusing on dynamic drills/stretches specific to the persons perceived "tightness."
The reason why foam rolling can work is because of its ability of "neurological tone reduction in the targeted muscle tissue" (Rusin, 2018). What this means is that when we foam roll, we add external pressure that essentially targets peripheral sensory receptors, that sends a message to our central nervous system that we need to relax that pain sensation (i.e. your perceived muscle tightness). So its not the fact that your muscle is relaxing, rather you are telling your nervous system to "chill" in that specific area of perceived tightness. Find below a diagram explaining this if you still feel unsure.
Note: I know this might also look a bit confusing. If you are feeling that you are still struggling to understand how foam rolling works the way it does, feel free to message me and I am happy to go through it with you.
What does the evidence say about foam rolling?
Although there isn't a lot of research into the effects of foam rolling on the general population, or those with existing health risk factors/medical conditions. However, it is safe to say that studies have investigated its use within sporting populations (which I am assuming most who read this are involved with one way or another).
Depending on what you are using your foam roller for, there might be different benefits that will impact training and recovery.
It is unfortunate that there is little-to-no literature on the effect of foam rolling before a bout of running. It seems that all the research looks at foam rolling before agility/explosive movements and actions, which is a real shame (anyone want to undertake a PhD?).
However, based on a literature review by Hendricks et. al (2019), foam rolling can improve exercise performance through its effects of flexibility when incorporated into a warm up. Foam rolling has been shown to improve flexibility and joint range of motion (Su et. al, 2017; MacDonald et. al, 2013), which is believed to increase force production by your muscles, and therefore improve performance.
But be careful, as this is yet to be tested on runners. Whilst this is a good theory to follow as part of your warm up pre run, future studies might show this might not be the case. I do not believe foam rolling is a performance dampener, just that there has been no studies specifically looking at runners, so I cannot tell you that there is evidence behind this because there isn't. But when a few research journal articles are released on this issue, we will definitely get a better understanding of when to best apply it.
Foam rolling between bouts of exercise doesn't seem to improve performance specifically. A study by D’Amico & Paolone (2017), asked runner to participate in foam rolling between bouts of 800m reps. They found non-significance between the foam rolling group and control group, meaning there was no difference in decrease in performance times.
Plus, as middle/long distance runners, we do not have enough time between reps to foam roll, unless we skip reps. If this were to occur, I'd believe it can be of major concern and you'd either need rest and/or introducing extra mobility drills into your warm up/cool down to help over the long run.
If you are looking to improve your recovery process, there is evidence to suggest that foam rolling post a workout can reduce your perceived DOMS and help you return back to baseline faster (Hendricks et. al, 2019). One study by Lee et. al (2020) found that foam rolling post a down hill running session was more effective for recovery, when compared to wearing compression garments, for trained distance runners.
Again, there has not been a lot of studies looking at this in the context of middle/long distance running. However, it is still something that you can try and add in to your cool down post run or quality session (if you haven't done so already).
How should we best go about foam rolling?
So now that we know that pre/post running is when we should try and implement foam rolling, here's how to best go about adding foam rolling into your program.
Now I must be clear that foam rolling should be prescribed for a warm up ONLY IF you have flexibility/mobility issues that are present and impeding your running performance. "Don't fix something if it isn't broken!" is a phrase that best describes how we should use this. I recommend that you really should be focusing your time on game/running-specific warm up drills instead of using a foam roller, as this helps your body warm up specifically for what you plan on doing. And as I am about to write about, you don't need to spend too much time on the roller during your warm up anyway.
I am going to use the FITT principle to show you how we should best go around foam rolling when training. Now the time and type of foam rolling will be different for both, which affect each other. Let me explain:
Warm up - you should spend no longer than 1-2 minutes foam rolling and should be including "acute trigger point techniques" (i.e. directly on the muscle/s that are experiencing immobility). This is because you SHOULD be completing a dynamic warm up that will also address your immobilities.
Post exercise - you should spend around 10 minutes doing this, with an emphasis on "global foam rolling techniques" (i.e. around the whole body). This is because we want to aid the recovery process and reduce the "neurological tone" after our session and return back to baseline before our next training session. I tend to start with my thoracic spine (DO NOT FOAM ROLL YOUR LOWER BACK!!!), then moving down to my glutes, hamstrings, quads (with a bit of hip flexors) and finally my calves.
I hope all of you who read this learnt a thing or two about foam rolling, what it can be used for and how to optimally perform this.
Keep up the running,
D’Amico, A., & Paolone, V. (2017). The effect of foam rolling on recovery between two eight hundred metre runs. Journal of human kinetics, 57(1), 97-105.
Hendricks, S., den Hollander, S., Lombard, W., & Parker, R. (2019). Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies.
MacDonald, G. Z., Penney, M. D., Mullaley, M. E., Cuconato, A. L., Drake, C. D., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2013). An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(3), 812-821.
Rusin (2018), 5 Foam Rolling Myths Debunked [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from: https://drjohnrusin.com/5-foam-rolling-myths-debunked/
Su, H., Chang, N. J., Wu, W. L., Guo, L. Y., & Chu, I. H. (2017). Acute effects of foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching during warm-ups on muscular flexibility and strength in young adults. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 26(6), 469-477.
Wiewelhove, T., Döweling, A., Schneider, C., Hottenrott, L., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., ... &
Ferrauti, A. (2019). A meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery. Frontiers in physiology, 10, 376.