Myofascial foam rolling has become a popular tool as part of both warm-up and cool down prior to activity. Despite its popularity, little research has been performed on the mechanisms or efficacy of foam rolling.
Researchers at Memorial University in Canada have led the way with the first published studies on the effectiveness of foam rolling. In 2013, they published a paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that found as little as 2 minutes of foam rolling on the quadriceps muscle increased knee range of motion by 10%, which was significantly more than a control group. In addition, they showed the immediate increase in flexibility did not affect muscle performance. These findings suggest foam rolling can increase range of motion as effectively as muscle stretching without the immediate decrease in performance seen with static stretching as part of a warm-up.
More recently, the Memorial University researchers published a paper in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise on the effects of foam rolling after intense physical activity as a recovery tool. The researchers wanted to investigate the effectiveness of foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and identify potential mechanisms of action.
They randomly assigned 20 healthy males with strength training experience to either a foam-rolling group or to a control group. Both groups performed squats to induce DOMS in their legs. The foam-rolling group then performed 5 different rolling techniques on their anterior, lateral, posterior, medial thigh, and gluteal muscles. They performed each of the 5 exercises on both legs for 60 seconds each, for a total of about 20 minutes.
Foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness while also increasing range of motion compared to the control group. In addition, the foam-rolling subjects had improved vertical jump and muscle activation levels compared to the controls. In contrast, the control group suffered substantial deficits in muscle performance.
Because there were no effects on isolated muscle function with the foam rolling, the researchers suggested that foam rolling might affect the neurological system and connective tissue more than the muscle itself. DOMS is thought to result from damage to connective tissue with resultant inflammation.
In conclusion, the researchers stated, “The improved recovery rate in muscle soreness in the foam rolling group signifies that foam rolling is an effective tool to treat DOMS.”
REFERENCE: Macdonald GZ, et al. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Jan;46(1):131-42.