What does the science supporting foam rolling say?
Posted: Oct 06, 2020
Foam rolling is something that has been gaining in popularity among athletes and gym junkies as a supplement to their workout routines. These cylinder shaped foams of varying densities and types are used and the muscles are rolled over them. Foam rolling is a type of self myofascial release therapy. The aim or claim is that they are supposed to break up adhesions in the muscles, help facilitate stretching, and help you warm up and to also to promote recovery from exercise. Fitness professionals and all sorts of alleged experts are advocating their use. However, despite the claims of all the benefits, there is very little scientific research to back up if they really make any difference or not. Regardless, they are a relatively cheap approach to manual therapy as the equipment is not expensive and you do not need the more expensive services of a health professional.
The foams are cylindrical in shape and are available in various sizes and densities from soft to hard and some are made for specific body parts, such as the PediRoller for the bottom of the foot designed by a Podiatrist. The roller is placed on the ground and the muscles to be treated is rolled over it. The concept is that you roll the muscles over the foam roller back and forth at an even tempo to work on any tightness and myofascial issues in that muscle. As they are portable, they can be used at the gym, the track or at home without supervision.
The main claimed benefits for foam rolling are increased flexibility to increase the range of motion; an improved athletic performance if using the foam roller as part of the warm-up routine; and improved recovery after exercise and a decrease in the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Due to the lack of research that has been done on this topic there is a lot of confusion amongst experts with many stating that these benefits are still just theoretical and the whole concept is just a theory as not all of those benefits are supported, particularly in the long term by strong evidence.
There is some reasonable evidence that shows that foam rolling does have some shorter-term benefits for flexibility, but nothing shows that it helps in the long term. It may be useful as part of a warmup routine to make the muscles more ready for activity. The research that has been done is clear that there are no negative consequences on athletic performance. The research evidence on using the foam roller after activity may have a small effect on assisting DOMS. There is no evidence what-so-ever that foam rolling improves cellulite, improves the posture, or helps scar tissue, or sciatica and back pain.
It is still early days in the scientific research and some or more of those claimed benefits may or may not get more or better research to support the usage. For athletes there is no reason that foam rolling might not be helpful during warm-up sessions since it does appear to improve flexibility in the short term and may benefit in post-exercise recovery.
Craig Payne is a University lecturer, runner, cynic, researcher, skeptic, forum admin, woo basher, clinician, rabble-rouser, blogger and a dad.