Foam rolling has become an increasingly popular intervention used by runners, cyclists, weight lifters, and athletes alike. When it comes to foam rolling, there are many questions that beginners may have, including: “Is it better to roll before or after exercise?”, “If I foam roll, do I need to stretch?”, and “How long should I be rolling for?” With endless amounts of fitness blogs, magazines, and websites, it can be hard to sift through the plethora of information. Luckily, I have the resources (from school, woohoo!) to look into the research and literature on the topic so I can synthesize it for you.
Let’s start with the basics: Foam rolling is a lay-term for self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR is used primarily to increase the extensibility of the muscle fascia aimed towards muscle recovery. It has also been recently linked to increased performance when used as a pre-exercise technique (1). There is very little research on the effects of different durations of SMR on muscle recovery, flexibility, and performance. However, recent studies have looked into the effects of using foam rolling as both a pre-exercise and post-exercise intervention.
A study by Skarabot et al. showed significant effects of foam rolling the calf muscles on ankle dorsiflexion range of motion (i.e. ankle flexibility) only when including static stretching directly after foam rolling. The subjects foam rolled 3 sets of 30 seconds with 10 second rest breaks in-between and used the same protocol for static stretching (2).
Junker and Stoggl conducted a randomized clinical trial with 47 participants foam rolling 3 times a week for 4 weeks (3 sets of 20-30 seconds on each leg) and concluded foam rolling of the hamstrings improved hamstring flexibility significantly compared to the control group (3).
A literary review of nine randomized clinical trials concluded SMR can decrease soreness following delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS), increase muscle flexibility, and can be beneficial before and after exercise (4).
My advice to you? If you are having trouble getting adequately warmed up for a workout or recovering quickly before your next workout, consider foam rolling. If you are already foam rolling and not seeing the benefits, try playing around with duration and frequency. You may start foam rolling maybe 10 times on each muscle before and/or after a workout and then work up from there. You can start with a simple foam roller and gradually increase to a more dense or textured foam roller. Either way, warm up and recovery are both MAJOR components of fitness that are easy to rush through or skip entirely.
- Peacock, C.A., Krein, D.D., Silver, T.A., Sanders, G.J., Von Carlowitz, K.A. An acute bout of self-myofascial release in the form of foam rolling improves performance testing. International Journal of Exercise Science 2014; 7(3): 202-211.
- Skarabot, J., Beardsley, C., Stirn, I. Comparing the effects of self-myofascial release with static stretching on ankle range-of-motion in adolescent athletes. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 2015; 10(2): 203-212.
- Junker, H.J. and Stoggl, T.L. The foam roll as a tool to improve hamstring flexibility. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2015; 29(12): 3480-3485.
- Schroeder, A.N. and Best, T.M. Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Training, Prevention, and Rehabilitation 2014; 14(3): 200-208.
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