Foam Rolling: Is the Hype justified?

If you are physically active, it is also very important to give your body the time to regenerate. So, there are some tools that you can use to reduce this time. One of the currently most discussed tool may be foam rolling. Foam rolling (FR) is a form of self-massage in which the targeted musculature is rolled and compressed utilizing an FR device (2). Mostly, FR tools include the foam roller and various types of roller massage bars and sticks in several sizes (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Types of Foam Rollers (Source: https://www.rei.com/dam/van_dragt_122916_0216_how_to_choose_foam_rollers_lg.jpg, Retrieved from 19.05.2021)


With foam rollers, athletes use their body weight to apply pressure to the soft tissues during the rolling motion (2). The motions place both direct and sweeping pressure on the soft tissue, stretching it and generating friction between it and the FR device (2). Consequently, FR can be considered a form of self-induced massage because the pressure that the roller exerts on the muscles resembles the pressure exerted on the muscles through manual manipulation by the user himself (2).


Physiological Mechanisms of FR

  • Reduction in tissue adhesion, altered tissue stiffness, and thixotropic responses (2)

  • May potentiate analgesic effects and muscular recovery by mediating pain-modulatory systems (e.g., nociceptor and mechanoreceptor sensitivity and/or diffuse noxious inhibitory control) (2)

  • Increased blood flow and parasympathetic circulation, as well as inflammatory responses and associated trigger-point break down (2)

  • Improved perceptions of well-being and recovery due to the increase of plasma endorphins, decreased arousal level, activation of the parasympathetic response, and/or placebo effect (2)

  • FR can improve both acute athletic performance as well as recovery from an intensive bout of physical activity (2)

Next, I want to examine the use of FR as a warm-up activity (i.e., pre-rolling) or as a recovery strategy (i.e., post-rolling), starting with pre-rolling.


Relevant effect sizes for average improvements in performance due to pre-rolling were found for example for sprinting (2). Unfortunately, the average percentage improvement in sprint performance was only 0.7% (2). An furthermore, the effects of pre-rolling on sprint performance seem to be more relevant for elite athletes, while it is possible that recreationally active individuals may not benefit substantially from pre-rolling (2). Several potential physiological effects of FR could explain the trend of improved sprint performance following pre-rolling. One possibility is that FR immediately prior to sprinting breaks up what are known as barrier trigger points (2). Alternative explanations for acute benefits in performance could be a potential warm-up and/or placebo effect (2). Also, self-massage with a foam roller necessitates supporting one's partial body weight with the upper body, similar to planking exercises (2). In addition, the largest average effect of pre-rolling was related to flexibility (2). This indicates that 62% of the population will experience short-term improvements in flexibility when using pre-rolling as a pre-exercise warm-up (2). It can be also assumed that the effects of FR on flexibility would be attributed to the altered viscoelastic and thixotropic properties of the fascia (i.e., remobilizing the fascia back to a gel-like state), as well as increases in intramuscular temperature and blood flow due to the friction created by the foam roller and the mechanical breakdown of scar tissue (2).


The current reviews demonstrate that post-rolling recovers exercise-induced decreases in sprint and strength performance more quickly than passive recovery (2). However, the effects of post-rolling on performance should again be interpreted with caution, as the overall effects on sprint and strength performance are not significant and the number of available studies are limited. The largest average effects of FR in general and post-rolling, in particular, were found for the alleviation of perceived muscle pain (2). In terms of athletic performance, muscle soreness, as previously described, can have negative consequences (2). It may result in altered muscle functions which can reduce athletic performance (2).


Figure 2 Foam Rolling (Source: https://www.therecreationalist.com/wp-content/uploads/NO629_OV_012720.jpg, Retrieved from 19.05.2021)


So you see, unfortunately, the literature on FR that does exist is equivocal and insufficient, which is why the widespread use of FR is to date not fully supported by the available empirical data. Most data and physiological facts are inconsistent and not really proved by scientific data.


But in conclusion, pre-rolling seems to be an effective strategy for short-term improvements in flexibility without decreasing muscle performance. The article also shows that the improvement of sprint performance can be expected from the use of pre-rolling, as well as the recovery rate of the performance measures of speed and strength with post-rolling, which are significant enough to be relevant for at least elite athletes. The underlying mechanisms, however, remain elusive and the effects are in part contradictory. While the effects of FR on muscle function were less clear, the positive effects of alleviating muscle soreness with a larger body of evidence endorse the utilization of post-rolling. Furthermore, other important findings are that FR was beneficial in attenuating muscle soreness while improving vertical jump height, muscle activation, and passive and dynamic ROM (1). As psychological aspects play an important role in most sports, the fact that athletes or you feel less pain after pre-rolling might be sufficient to justify its use despite the absence of measurable physiological benefits.


Therefore, you will get a Foam Rolling routine with the most common and beneficial exercise for your recovery after an intense workout on Friday.


Literature

(1) MacDonald, G. Z. (2013). Foam rolling as a recovery tool following an intense bout of physical activity (Doctoral dissertation, Memorial University of Newfoundland).


(2) 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.


Additional Literature

Hendricks, S., den Hollander, S., Lombard, W., & Parker, R. (2020). 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, 24(2), 151-174.


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