Like many runners I enjoy a love-hate relationship with my foam roller. My fiancé really likes it, but mainly uses it to prop the window open! Lots has been said about them by fellow runners though few have had such a unique view as @4races4cities. One of my favourite descriptions comes from @Jens_Itchy_Feet,

“A lot of strange humping and squealing in pain on the living room floor…my muscles felt like they’d been worked over by one of those moustachioed-man-woman masseurs you may expect to find in a Moroccan Haman”

But there’s much more to using a foam roller than swearing and pain – recent research has started to show great benefits in improving flexibility. The work of McDonald et al (2012) is so recent in fact that it’s yet to be published in full although it has been accepted for the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. An abstract is available here. They found that performing Self Myofascial Release with a foam roller on the quadriceps muscles improved range of movement without impairing muscular performance. We’ll look at their research and that of others in this area to try and answer some of the common questions around using a foam roller.

What does using a foam roller actually do?

Muscles are surrounded by a soft tissue known as fascia. It is thought that this tissue can influence flexibility and joint range of movement. Research suggests that using a foam roller is a form of “Self Myofascial Release” and that it makes the fascia more flexible and breaks down scar tissue and adhesions.

Which one should I buy?

McDonald et al used a roller with a hollow but solid PVC core surrounded by a layer of neoprene foam and had very positive results. Miller and Rockey (2006) used the more traditional roller composed entirely of foam and found rolling made no significant difference to hamstring flexibility. Curran, Fiore and Crisco (2008) compared these 2 types, the Multilevel Rigid Roller and Bio-Foam Roller and found “significantly higher pressure and isolated contact area” with the Multilevel Rigid Roller.

In short, it appears the hollow but solid core design is more effective than the traditional foam roller as it appears to place higher pressure on the fascia. This is the design favoured by The Grid, which is the foam roller I currently use. I find it effective but at close to £40 it may be out of many people’s budgets and there may be cheaper alternatives available.

How long should I use it for?

McDonald et al got good results from using the roller for just 2 minutes in the form of 2 x 1 minute sessions separated by a rest period of 30 seconds. Other research suggests between 1 and 5 minutes on each muscle group or working until a sensation of release is felt.

How often?

The guidance from the research on this is far less clear. In fact, as with many things, there is a lack of in depth research in this area. Most studies seem to focus on the acute effects of using a foam roller rather than long term useage. Miller and Rockey (2006) used the foam roller 3 times per week over 8 weeks but offered no justification in the research as to why. This can hardly be used as guidance considering they also didn’t report any beneficial effects!

I think how often you use a foam roller depends on your goals and your body. If you are a flexible runner who seldom suffers from muscular tightness there may be very little benefit in doing regular sessions with the foam roller. If, like many runners, you struggle with persistent tight areas a or are trying to stretch as part of rehab (e.g. ITB) you may want to use it every other day for a short period, until symptoms/ tightness improves. There is a balance here, as with most things. If you are too aggressive with the roller and use it too often you may cause a build up of micro-trauma in the muscles and cause pain. I would suggest a frequency of 2-3 times per week is usually adequate in most cases but you can increase this to as much as 3 times per day providing it isn’t increasing your pain levels and you make this change gradually. In some ways using a foam roller is comparable to stretching and many stretching protocols recommend as much as 3 times per day so it should be feasible with a roller too. You have to ask though why is this area so tight, and why is it needing this level of input to release it? Sometimes persistent muscle tightness continues due to weakness elsewhere or because you keep aggravating by continuing to train too much or too intensively.

What’s the technique?

McDonald et al describe the technique nicely in their article. There are a host of videos on YouTube to look at if you want specific ideas for certain muscles but this is the technique used in McDonald et al’s research;

  1. Place as much of your body mass as possible on the foam roller (within pain limits).
  2. Begin at the proximal part of the muscle (the part closest to the body) and roll down the length of the muscle using short kneading like motions.
  3. One you’ve covered the length of the muscle quickly return to the start position moving the roller in once fluid motion.
  4. Roll the length of the muscle 3-4 times within each 1 minute session.
  5. Swearing is optional.

(I may have made that last one up)

Other studies used similar techniques with fairly similar time frames, however what’s more important is what works for you. If you have a technique you find effective for your needs then stick with it. There is also the technique of finding a sore area and holding the pressure on this area for 30-60 seconds or until you feel it release. This can be beneficial but is often very sore!

Using the roller when injured

I haven’t found any convincing research on the use of the foam roller to manage specific injuries. Several studies mention it but these tend to be expert opinion pieces rather than randomised controlled trials (which is really what we want). Our rational comes from clinical reasoning rather than high quality research. For example where we know that tissue flexibility plays an important part we can reason that using a foam roller can be useful as the research suggests it improves flexibility. Following that reasoning we can make a few broad recommendations on which areas to work on with the foam roller;

Plantar fasciitis

Gastrocnemius and Soleus (calf muscles)

Plantar Fascia itself – using a pedi roller or cold can

Patellofemoral Pain (runners knee)

Quadriceps

ITB and TFL (Tensor Fasciae Latae – muscle on the outside of the thigh – roughly where your pocket is)

Hamstrings

Calf muscles

ITBS

ITB itself – be cautious when using the foam roller directly over the tender area, work into this gradually. It’s often best to work above the area first.

TFL

Quadriceps

Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome “Shin Splints”

Calf muscles

Achilles Tendinopathy

Calf muscles

You’ll see a few areas come up regularly so a programme of rolling calf, quads, ITB and hamstrings will cover most things and could be used for injury prevention as well as treatment.

Does using the roller impair muscle performance?

One of the key findings of McDonald et al was that the roller increased flexibility without reducing muscle performance. Other studies have reported similar findings. As a result some have recommended it as a part of a warm to improve flexibility. However, none of these studied have demonstrated improved running performance or reduced injury rate as a direct result of using a foam roller.

How does it compare to static stretching?

Static stretching used to be a huge part of an athlete’s regime but in recent years research has suggested it may be detrimental to performance and it’s now not recommended prior to sport. It still has a role in improving and maintaining flexibility and I continue to recommend it as part of a cool down after sport or within a rehab programme.

To some degree tight, fairly inflexible tissues can be very effective – they help to transmit the impact of running into forward momentum more efficiently than loose flexible tissues. There tends to be a connection between strength and tissue tightness – tight tissues are often strong. The downside is when this tightness starts to cause pain, affects movement patterns or places structures under a greater tension (e.g. Calf tightness increases tension on the plantar fascia, ITB tightness affects movement of the knee cap, TFL tightness affects the ITB etc).

So like many things, it’s a balance – enough tightness to be effective with enough flexibility to move freely.

D’Amico and Morin compared stretching the hamstrings and using the foam roller in a pilot study, that, as far as I’m aware is yet to be published in a Journal. They concluded that using the roller increased range of movement as much as static stretching but that the foam roller improved isometric strength and jumping ability compared to static stretching (and the control group). They went on to conclude that Self Myofascial Release using a foam roller could be used to aid strength or power performance.

In theory then the foam roller could be used as part of a warm up as it appears to improve flexibility without impairing performance.

Limitations in the research

It’s worth noting that the research on foam rollers isn’t extensive. What is there is fairly limited and has a number of limitations. McDonald et al’s research only involved 11 subjects and all were male. D’Amico and Morin only had 13 subjects and neither studies examined direct the effect of using a foam roller on running performance. There have also been some conflicting studies, such as Miller and Rockey (2006) who found no change in hamstring flexibility after 8 weeks of foam rolling, 3 times per week and there is very little evidence on use of rolling for specific injuries. Clearly further research is needed, until then we can take some guidance from what evidence is available, while being aware of its limitations.

Closing thoughts: Foam rolling is a form of Self Myofascial Release which is thought to improve flexibilty without reducing muscle performance. As little as 2 minutes can create changes in range of movement and it has potential to help a number of injuries… And finally….credit to @seesteverun for the title, the man’s a genius!

 

31 COMMENTS

  1. Stretching and rolling can only provide temporary relief. The only thing that can fix messed-up fascia (and muscle tissue) is good nutrition.

  2. I am becoming more and more less convinced by rolling as time goes on. I actually feel it causes major distress on the body and the only reason you feel relief is because your brain is sending out chemicals once you release yourself from the roller in order to recover from the pain. The relief is only very short lived and you find yourself rolling again and again for the same relief, becoming somewhat dependent on it although it is not actually fixing the problem. This is why thousands of people end up including rolling into their every day lives. Dependence on something for a quick relief. It is not fixing the cause in any way. I am of course just going by my own experience and it has left me thinking quite seriously about the logic behind it. Just my thoughts. I am of course not a professional in this area.

    • Hi, you raise some good points there! You’re right you do have to try and deal with the cause of the tightness too. Often one area is weak and the tightness develops to compensate e.g. ITB tightens if glutes are weak. In which case you combine the roller/ stretches with a glutes programme.
      That said many transient problems will go away with a session or 2 of stetching or using a roller. It can be very useful.

      • Thanks! I am off to a new physio early next week to try and work on things such as hips, glutes, pelvis. I feel the more I roll the more things seem to radiate (which makes me wonder if it is an IT problem seeings as I dont even have knee pain, although it did all start with a pull on the outer knee). So confusing. I will try a full body conditioning program!

  3. Hi! Interesting article! Personally foam rolling has helped me with my tight back and my ITB. But, yes there is so little research on it.
    Could you post the titles of the scientific articles you consulted and the authors’ names?
    Thanks!

  4. Cheap and effective alternative to foam roller are some PVC drain pipe off cuts found easily on any building site. Having said that you can use the longer rollers for some awesome pec minor stretching and some spectacular dynamic core exercises….in addition to the rolling. Check out you tube for some varied clips on their uses. Great article again….love them.

  5. Nothing and I mean nothing, can take the place of a really good remedial massage session, especially one qualified in myofascial release. A good therapist can get to places no foam roller can reach!

  6. Personally, I feel that using the foam roller is described by McDonald does not provide the optimal response of using a foam roller. In my personal use, i feel that if you use the foam roller in the same light that trigger point massage is used, you will get better results. What I mean by this is that instead of rolling consistently over your muscles without stopping, you roll on your muscle (starting proximally) until you come across a very sore/painful spot in your muscle belly. Once you have found this area, and it will be blatantly obvious, you hold the foam roller on that spot for 30 sec or longer until the pain has substantially subsided. This way of using the techniques is very similar to trigger point release and I believe that it works miles better than the McDonald method.

    Russell McCluskey, SPT

  7. I found the best foot rollers in The Pound Shop. Dog rope chew things – knobbled and about 10 inches long. Made for the job! (as long as you don’t let Rover near them) – sadly they seem to have stopped selling them.
    Great piece. It’s good that you have looked for research to back it up. Lets hope there is more done.
    One thing that always makes me cringe when I look on any runners forum, is advice from lay people to roller over acute, inflamed injuries, so glad to see that e.g in the case of ITBFS, you point out that this should be done with the greatest of care. (I personally would say, work the proximal areas and don’t roller the inflamed area at all during the acute stage – surely you are going to make it worse if you do?)
    Interested in your thoughts about this, and relating to PF too – thanks

  8. I am extremely impressed together with your writing skills and also with the structure for your blog. Is this a paid subject or did you customize it your self? Either way stay up the excellent high quality writing, it is rare to peer a nice blog like this one these days..

  9. Interesting article, if you wanted further reading on this I have just finished my dissertation titled the effects of intervention using a foam roller on passive knee joint flexion, where I did my own study on this subject, when compared with the MacDonald study it does have some very interesting results, let me know if you want a shortened version to read through (Mike.trott@student.anglia.ac.uk) 🙂

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comments, I’ll give you an email – I’d be interested in reading your work
      Tom

  10. Thanks for the article and particular thanks for discussing some research into foam rolling. My own experience has been this: Years ago I spent lots of time foam rolling in an effort to fix various chronic pain issues including back pain, shoulder pain and other such stuff.

    Sadly, foam rolling didn’t deliver the expected results.

    Fast forward to now and I’m hugely devoted to SMR in the form of foam rolling, the Stick, using a lacrosse ball, and any other object to soften my tight, gunked-up tissues. I’ve come back to these methods thanks to DPT Kelly Starrett at MobilityWOD.com and PT Gray Cook. I’ve realized several things.

    First, foam rolling by itself may not accomplish much. We often foam roll a sore spot but what we don’t realize is that sore spot is very likely a symptom of a problem that’s rooted elsewhere. In contrast to only foam rolling, foam rolling plus fixing your poor movement patterns can be massively helpful. If we retain poor, inefficient movement patterns then we can expect foam rolling to provide very temporary relief.

    Second, some of my restricted tissues have been restricted for a long time and I’ve held poor movement patterns for a long time. If that’s the case then it may take more than one go-round w/the roller to get the result you want. There are certain muscles and regions that seem to need more work than others. That needs to be coupled with learning new muscle recruitment patterns in order to create better, more efficient movement.

    I see a lot of people foam rolling at the speed of light and not spending sufficient time parking on the sore tissue and really working on the restricted area. I’ve found effective foam rolling work really takes some dedicated time, both as you’re doing it and the frequency throughout the week with which you’re rolling.

    Finally, I’m not sure where this fits, but the modern, Western lifestyle–one that involves LOTS of sitting (sitting for work, sitting for transportation, sitting for entertainment) is a huge problem in our quest to move better and feel better. We sit for hours on end and for years and years. The result is tight hips, tight thoracic spine, weak glutes, weak shoulders–a whole host of conditions that lead to poor movement, poor performance and pain. Unfortunately the time spent setting may win out over the time spent foam rolling and stretching.

    Again, thanks for the article.

  11. Rightly said about the Self Myofascial Release the most important use of a Foam Roller. I also liked the techniques describe here on how to use a foam roller. Will definitely share this info with my friends. The next big thing is to know which type of foam roller is suitable for you. At runnersworld foam roller articles I found some interesting tips on how it is beneficial for fellow runners.

  12. Hi Tom

    Is there any primary evidence that foam rolling does actually do anything to fascia – or is that an assumption that has been uncritically accepted?

    ANdy

  13. Foam rolling is probably nothing more than any other type of technique that activates stretch receptors in a muscle. There is no ‘myofascial release’ going on here. That term is mostly BS and not supported by any evidence. The effect of foam rolling is no more then a temporary neurophysiological effect. Long term foam rolling/stretching may have an effect on flexibility of a muscle but the effect is not specific to foam rolling.

    Another effect that foam rolling, iastm or a lot of other manual techniques is simple desensitization of painful tissue. If u rub something that hurts it’s going to feel better temporarily whether u do it with your hands, a Graston tool or a foam roller.

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