Dr. Frank Wen, DC
Active Ingredients Podcast, Episode 2 -Foam Rolling: Can it help with mobility and soreness?
Updated: Oct 9, 2019
In this episode of the Active Ingredients Podcast, Donny, Zach, and I discuss self-myofascial release with foam rollers and roller massagers after our literature round-up. There still isn’t an abundant amount of research out there on foam rolling, but there appears to be enough to support their regular use. We find that foam rollers or roller massagers can be an excellent and low-cost way to help you prepare for or recover from exercise or sports by increasing mobility, reducing muscle soreness, and maintaining muscle performance. Listen to our conversation below and read on for more detailed information!
Should I Use a Foam Roller or Roller Stick/Massager?
While foam rollers have been studied more, there doesn’t appear to be a big difference in effect in one study that compared them for hamstring mobility. It has been suggested from several studies that more pressure leads to increased pain pressure tolerance or the ability to warm up soft tissue better, hence decreased pain in the muscle. Therefore you might find better success with the foam roller if you are rolling independently and maybe better results with a roller massager if you have someone to help.
How Long Should I Foam Roll For?
From what we gather, 30 seconds to 2 minutes of foam rolling to a muscle can help give you a quick boost in mobility to the joint that muscle acts on before exercise or sport participation without the decrease in performance that is seen with static stretching (that we covered last episode). The gains in mobility are often transient as they last from 10 minutes to 1 hour. That’s not bad for the relatively small effort expended. While it's uncertain whether daily long-term application will make lasting changes, it certainly is not a bad idea if you are a very active person or want to move better in general.
Going for Even More Mobility?
Combining foam rolling with static stretching (4-5 minutes is what we seen as effective from like in the examples from our Squat Guide) may give you more gains in mobility which can be a good way to improve flexibility on your days off so you don’t have to worry about the mild decrements to performance caused by static stretching.
Reduce Post Workout Muscle Soreness
Foam rolling for several minutes the days after intense exercise may also help reduce the intensity of pain felt with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and help preserve aspects of performance such as muscle activation and jumping if you need to play after training periods.
How Does Foam Rolling Work?
While it has been shown to be effective, it’s still not totally clear how foam rolling and stick rollers help. Theories suggest that they help warm and loosen connective tissue and fascia,increase pain tolerance via pressure, and increase circulation to help increase flexibility and aid in pain management. (See Fascia here. Warning- may be too graphic for some individuals)
Watch Us Play With Them
Check out the video we made of us demonstrating and trying various myofascial release tools, including interesting tempering tools from Kabuki Strength.
Foam Rolling and Self Myo-Fascial Release Article Summaries
We sifted through a little over a dozen articles to help enlighten us about foam rolling and self-myofascial release. Below are the short summaries. Remember, always be sure to check with your health care professional or trainer if you are uncertain what you should be doing. If you’re looking for a knowledgeable chiropractor in Kirkland or near you, don't wait to reach out to me.
Junker D, Stöggl T. The Foam Roll as a Tool to Improve Hamstring Flexibility. Journal Of Strength & Conditioning Research (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins). December 2015;29(12):3480-3485.
The Take Away: The authors examined a 4-week foam rolling protocol on hamstring flexibility and compare its effectiveness in relation to conventional contract-relax proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Foam rolling was found to create a change in the flexibility of the hamstrings in the 4-week period but it was not any more effective than the PNF stretching model.
Cheatham S, Kolber M, Cain M, Lee M. THE EFFECTS OF SELF-MYOFASCIAL RELEASE USING A FOAM ROLL OR ROLLER MASSAGER ON JOINT RANGE OF MOTION, MUSCLE RECOVERY, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. International Journal Of Sports Physical Therapy. November 2015;10(6):827-838.
The Take Away: Foam rolling and roller massage may offer short-term benefits hip, knee, and ankle joint ROM without affecting performance. An application of 30 seconds to 3 minutes may be enough to induce a short term change in flexibility up to 1-hour without a loss in performance. But there is no consensus on how long, how hard, or how fast you should roll. Combined with static stretching the benefits increase. Foam rolling and roller massage after exercise for 10-20 minutes can help reduce post workout muscle soreness and pain and may continuing helping when continued for 20 minutes a day for several days following.Overall, we still don't know how rolling muscles reduce pain but it may be due to increasing pain tolerance, improving circulation to facilitate waste product removal and nutrient delivery.
Morton R, Oikawa S, Phillips S, Devries M, Mitchell C. Self—Myofascial Release: No Improvement of Functional Outcomes in 'Tight' Hamstrings. International journal of sports physiology and performance. 2016:658.
The Take Away: The authors wanted to examine if doing Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) and static stretching (SS) together was more effective in increasing joint range of motion while decreasing the muscles stiffness of the hamstrings. They found that simply SS was an effective means of increasing joint ROM and the addition of SMR, while not detrimental, did not increase the effectiveness overall.
DeBruyne D, Dewhurst M, Fischer K, Wojtanowski M, Durall C. Self-Mobilization Using a Foam Roller Versus a Roller Massager: Which Is More Effective for Increasing Hamstrings Flexibility?. Journal of sport rehabilitation. 2017:94.
The Take Away: The authors examined four studies (two for foam rollers, two for roller massagers) and suggest that roller massagers might edge out foam rollers for improving at least hamstring mobility in adults without symptoms, but the gains are short-lived like foam rollers. As a result they recommend either may be beneficial for those looking for a temporary boost in flexibility before activity. As it is still speculative as to what is causing the increase in flexibility, be it temperature increase or stimulating the release of chemicals by the brain to help relieve tightness, people who have not benefited from static stretching may benefit from using a foam roller or roller massager. The authors also reference the commonly cited study by Mohr which suggests that foam rolling + static stretching is more effective than either alone.
Vaughan B, McLaughlin P. Immediate changes in pressure pain threshold in the iliotibial band using a myofascial (foam) roller. International Journal Of Therapy & Rehabilitation. December 2014;21(12):569-574.
The Take Away: The authors wanted to examine the changes to a person’s pressure pain threshold (PPT) after a short bout of using the foam roller. The study focused specifically on the right iliotibial band and all participants were asymptomatic before beginning. Measurements of the participants PPT were taken at 3 points along the leg pre-intervention, immediately post intervention, and 5 minutes post intervention. The conclusion was that foam rolling produces an immediate increase in PPT of the lower leg but those effects diminish over time.
MacDonald G, Button D, Drinkwater E, Behm D. Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity. MEDICINE AND SCIENCE IN SPORTS AND EXERCISE. 2014:131.
The Take Away: The authors examined the effects of foam rolling versus not foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and functional measurements (muscle activation times, vertical jump height, and range of motion) for several days after a 10x10 back squat exercise at 60% of the subject’s 1 rep max. They found that foam rolling can decrease overall levels of muscle soreness and that peak DOMS was experienced the day after the exercise in the foam rolling group whereas peak DOMS was experienced two days after in the control group. Foam rolling can also help maintain performance measures such as vertical jump height, muscle activation, and dynamic hip range of motion compared to control. Foam rolling was also able to improve passive hip range of motion.
Feldbauer C, Smith B, Van Lunen B. The Effects of Self-myofascial Release on Flexibility of the Lower Extremity: A Critically Appraised Topic. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ATHLETIC THERAPY AND TRAINING. 2015:14.
The Take Away: The authors look at 3 studies (one of them being the Mohr study) and conclude as well that foam rolling can help to increase range of motion in the lower extremity and is most effective with static stretching. Foam rolling for 2-3 sets of 1 minute before static stretching appears to produce the best outcomes.
Beardsley C, Škarabot J. Review: Systematic literature review: Effects of self-myofascial release: A systematic review. Journal Of Bodywork & Movement Therapies. October 1, 2015;19:747-758.
The Take Away: The authors investigate the effects of foam rolling on several areas of interest. The relevant areas we are interested in are flexibility, performance, and delayed-onset-muscle-soreness (DOMS). In regards to flexibility, studies have demonstrated that foam rolling for 1-2 minutes can help increase short-term flexibility from anywhere from 10-60 minutes. However, with no significant detriment in performance measures such as jumping, running, and knee flexion and extension strength it may be a good way to help athletes get a quick increase in mobility before exercise or play. There is inconsistent information as to whether foam rolling can help improve long-term flexibility. Foam rolling has been found to help alleviate DOMS, making it a useful recovery tool for exercise recovery.
Mohr A, Long B, Goad C. Effect of Foam Rolling and Static Stretching on Passive Hip-Flexion Range of Motion. Journal Of Sport Rehabilitation. November 2014;23(4):296-299.
The Take Away: This study is one of the most frequently cited studies in papers that came after it that also investigated foam rolling. The authors in this study investigate the effects of static stretching, foam rolling, and the combination on hamstring flexibility. Over 6 sessions in the course of 2 weeks it was found that hamstring flexibility increased with all treatment arms but the combination of static stretching and foam rolling produced the greatest gains followed by static stretching alone then foam rolling alone. The authors utilized a 3 sets of stretching and/or foam rolling for 1 minute followed by 30 seconds of rest.
Cheatham S, Kolber M. Does Roller Massage With a Foam Roll Change Pressure Pain Threshold of the Ipsilateral Lower Extremity Antagonist and Contralateral Muscle Groups? An Exploratory Study. Journal Of Sport Rehabilitation. March 2018;27(2):165-169.
The Take Away: The authors found that foam rolling the left quadriceps will also increase the pain pressure tolerance (PPT) of the left hamstrings and opposite quadriceps muscle groups. They suggest that foam rolling may be modulating the central nervous system’s perception of pain and muscle tone, opening up more possibilities for its ability to target more than just the tissue in question.
Griefahn A, Oehlmann J, Zalpour C, von Piekartz H. Fascia science and clinical applications: Original research: Do exercises with the Foam Roller have a short-term impact on the thoracolumbar fascia? – A randomized controlled trial. Journal Of Bodywork & Movement Therapies. January 1, 2017;21:186-193.
The Take Away: The thoracolumbar fascia is a broad region of connective tissue that wraps around and connects several muscles in the low back. Its poor mobility has been associated with those with low back pain. The study demonstrated that foam rolling the region of the low back that is covered by the thoracolumbar fascia improves the fascia’s mobility by about 1mm measured by ultrasound, but it does not improve overall range of motion to the low back or its pain tolerance significantly, at least in the short-term.
Okamoto T, Masuhara M, Ikuta K. Acute Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roller on Arterial Function. JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING RESEARCH. 2014:69.
The Take Away: While many athletes use SMR as a way to restore some tissues' extensibility, the effects of foam rolling on arterial stiffness and vascular endothelial function are unknown so the authors set out to study this. Both brachial-ankle pulse wave velocity (baPWV) and plasma nitric oxide concentration were measured both before and after the trial of foam rolling. The results of both show a significant decrease in baPWV and a significant increase in plasma NO concentration that suggest that SMR reduces arterial stiffness and increases vascular endothelial function. Blood vessels and arteries are similar to muscles in that when exposed to the pressure of a foam roll they become distorted and may experience a reduction in stiffness. This reduction in stiffness allows for greater vasodilation which then leads to better arterial function. The compression of the vascular endothelium also triggers the release of vasodilator substances like NO which increases blood flow. The implications of improved flow may be better waste and nutrient transport, helping to improve recovery.
Hsuan S, Nai-Jen C, Wen-Lan W, Lan-Yuen G, I-Hua C. Acute Effects of Foam Rolling, Static Stretching, and Dynamic Stretching During Warm-ups on Muscular Flexibility and Strength in Young Adults. Journal Of Sport Rehabilitation. November 2017;26(6):469-477.
The Take Away: We reviewed this article in our episode of stretching and repeat the summary here. The authors find that foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching are good at improving flexibility of quadriceps and hamstrings with a slight edge for the foam roller. Foam rolling doesn't appear to change strength for better or worse. Increased in knee extension peak torque (work of quadriceps) is found to improve with dynamic stretching. Authors are also unsure if the increase in flexibility comes from mechanical changes to tissue to changes to the sensation of the stretch endpoint.
Bradbury-Squires D, Noftall J, Sullivan K, Behm D, Power K, Button D. Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. Journal Of Athletic Training. February 2015;50(2):133-140.
The Take Away: While it is known that static stretching may decrease muscle performance and strength, the authors investigate the effects that foam rolling has on range of motion and muscular efficiency during a lunge following an application of roller massage. They utilize a controlled apparatus to apply rolling with a pressure that is 25% of body mass to the quadriceps in a 5 x 20 second and 5 x 60 second treatment arm. They find that knee joint ROM increased by 10% and 16% respectively in the lunge after treatment. They also observed less EMG activity in the vastus lateralis during the lunge indicating that the muscle is working more efficiently. They recommend roller massage to be used as a warm-up tool or as a tool to augment stretching during flexibility training.92.
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