Is foam rolling an effective technique?
MacDonald et al (2013) suggest that fascial restriction is a common response to injury in which fascia loses elasticity and becomes dehydrated. As a result, fascia can bind around traumatized areas and fibrous adhesions form, which prevent normal muscle mechanism and limit range of movement (ROM). Barnes (1997) developed myofascial release (MFR) therapy to help reduce fibrous adhesions and in the last decade, self-myofascial release (SMR) has become an increasingly popular technique for treating soft tissue injuries and preventing muscular dysfunctions (Healey, Hatfield, Blanpied, Dorfman, & Riebe, 2014). SMR works under the same principles as MRF, but it involves patients using their body weight with a myofascial foam roller to treat restrictions in the soft tissue. Healey, Hatfield, Blanpied, Dorfman and Riebe (2014) say that regular over exercise or misuse can result in microtrauma which over time may lead to fascia scar tissue. The foam rollers used in SMR, vary in length, diameter, density and surface texture for varying amounts of pressure in different areas of the body.
A benefit of SMR is that it can be used in a variety of body positions to isolate specific areas of the body or certain muscle groups to improve mobility. A study by Griefahn, Oehlmann, Zalpour, and Von Piekartz (2017) found that foam roll exercises significantly improve the mobility of the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF) in the young, healthy population. The study divided 38 healthy active men and women into three conditions: exercises with the foam roller, placebo group and control group. They found that the use of a foam roller increased the mobility of the TLF by 1.7915mm compared to 0.1681mm with the placebo and 0.0139mm in the control group. This highlights the effectiveness of foam rollers and provides evidence for the use of foam rollers in increasing mobility of the fascia.
Foam rolling prior to a workout has been said to have a similar effect to a soft tissue massage (STM) in restoring the muscle length-tension relationship (Boyle, 2009). Foam rollers allow for a better warm-up by allowing an athlete to increase their volume of training and decrease dysfunctions without the expense of hiring a sports therapist. Foam rollers are commonly found in gyms, as they can be used before and after a workout (Healey et al., 2014).
A drawback to the use of foam rollers is that there is limited empirical evidence on the different effects of SMR. Healey et al. (2014, p. 61) stated that: “To date, there is no research investigating whether SMR enhances performance through massage-like treatment to the soft tissue or if there is simply a warm-up effect to performing the isometric hold.” This implies that there is evidence that SMR does enhance performance, but further research is required to identify the mechanisms behind why the improvement occurs. In addition, the literature that does exist focuses on the chronic effects of SMR and not the acute, therefore the results of available research studies may not be applicable to all injuries.
A further limitation is that the prescription for foam rolling is subjective, so there is a lot of variance between studies. It can be seen from a variety of studies, that the amount of time a patient is advised to use the foam roller differs from study to study. Research by Healey et al., (2014) compared the effects of 30 seconds of foam rolling and planking and found no significant difference between the two methods other than participants showing fatigue post planking. This suggests that foam rolling for 30 seconds doesn’t improve performance but does cause less fatigue than planking. In contrast, research by Murray, Jones, Horobeanu, Turner, and Sproule (2016) looked at the effects of 60 seconds of foam rolling and found it had no impact on the change in the participant’s quadriceps contractility and temperature. Furthermore, Couture, Karlik, Glass, and Hatzel (2015) carried out research into whether the duration of a foam roller treatment, affected the hamstring ROM. They found that neither short duration (67.30 ± 10.60 deg) nor long duration (67.41 ± 10.81 deg) produced significant increases in knee extension compared to the baseline. This suggests that further research is required to develop guidelines on the optimal duration for foam rolling.
To conclude, foam rolling has the potential to be a useful treatment and a cheaper alternative to sports therapist massage pre and post workout. However, more research is required to determine the optimum time prescriptions in order to gain the best individual effects from this equipment. Further research may be useful in order to establish the physiology behind why foam rolling is or is not as effective as STM.
Barnes, M. (1997). The basic science of myofascial release: Morphologic change in connective tissue. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapy, 1(4), 231–238.
Boyle, M. (2009). Using foam rollers. Retrieved from https://www.performbetter.com
Couture, G., Karlik, D., Glass, S., & Hatzel, B., (2015). The effect of foam rolling duration on hamstring range of motion. The Open Orthopaedics Journal,9, 450–455.
Griefahn, A., Oehlmann, J., Zalpour, C., & Von Piekartz, H. (2017). Do exercises with the Foam Roller have a short-term impact on the thoracolumbar fascia? – A randomized control trial. Bodywork & Movement Therapies, 21(1), 186.
Healey, K., Hatfield, D., Blanpied, P., Dorfman, L., & Riebe, D. (2014). The effects of myofascial release with foam rolling on performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(1), 61–68.
MacDonald, G., Penney, M. D., Mullaley, M. E., Cuconato, A. L., Drake, C. D., Behm, D. G., & Duane, C. (2013). An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(3), 812–821.
Murray, A., Jones, T., Horobeanu, C., Turner, A., & Sproule, J. (2016). Sixty seconds of foam rolling does not affect functional flexibility or change muscle temperature in adolescent athletes. International Journal of Sports Therapy, 11(5), 765–776.