Why are you foam rolling?
Are you foam rolling in order to improve your joint range of motion in the short term by releasing your myofascia? Are you doing it to improve the healing of delayed onset muscle soreness? Are you doing it to improve your post-exercise muscle performance? If so, then it appears you MIGHT be on the right track as the evidence appears promising, however not conclusive.
According to the research, foam rolling has been shown to have short-term benefits of:
1. Increasing joint range of movement without decreasing muscle performance.
2. Reducing perceived pain after an intense bout of exercise (DOMS).
3. Enhancing post exercise recovery.
The days of expecting foam rolling to "break up scar tissue" are becoming more and more distant. A 2008 study by Chaundry showed that the pressure required to create just 1% compression or 1% shear to the fascia lata or plantar fascia would require a load of 852kg. Unfortunately this kind of force simply cannot be generated by common tools such as foam rollers, lacrosse balls or even a practitioners hands. The change in sensation felt in these tissues when using a tool such as a foam roller is thought more likely to be reflexive in nature.
How should you foam roll?
Foam rolling is generally best used over the muscle bellies, particularly when a a taught portion of the muscle is found - that is the spot to focus on. Directly foam rolling tendons, bones and thick bands of fascia like the ITB is generally not recommended as it is less effective and can cause irritation.
What remains unclear is how long you should foam roll for. Usually 30 seconds to 3 minutes per muscle group should do the trick for most reasons, however every body is different so it’s important to listen to your own body. Something else to consider is the size of the muscle group, a larger group of the muscles such as the quadriceps or hamstrings will probably require more time than a smaller group such as the calves.
Foam rolling can be used as part of a warm up routine and/or part of a cooling down routine. Short bouts of foam rolling or roller massage for less than 1 minute, prior to physical activity have been shown to produce no negative affects on muscle performance.
If you are using the foam roller with the goal to improve mobility, then it might be a good idea to do a bit of a warm up prior to foam rolling so that the tissues and joints are more mobile and easier to release. Interestingly, a somewhat recent study has shown that the best effects for improving joint mobility are achieved when foam rolling is followed by static stretching. A 2014 study by Mor showed good results for improving hip flexion by having the individuals sit on the foam roller with the legs extended, while rolling up and down the hamstrings at a cadence of 1 second per direction for 1 minute. Optimal results were shown for 3 x 1 minute sets with 30 second breaks between each set, followed 3 x 1 minute static stretching of the hamstrings.
In order to maintain improvements in range of motion from foam rolling, it is important to consider retraining motor patterns to incorporate the increased mobility or else the body will likely resort to the old motor patterns and the gains might be short lived. In other words this means use it or lose it. An example might be be doing some light drilling after the foam rolling.
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2. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. Journal of sport rehabilitation. 2014 Nov;23(4):296-9.
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4. Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Current sports medicine reports. 2015 May 1;14(3):200-8.
5. Ward RC. Integrated neuromusculoskeletal release and myofascial release. Foundations for Osteopathic Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 2003:931-965.
6. Chaudhry H, Schleip R, Ji Z, Bukiet B, Maney M, Findley T. Three-dimensional mathematical model for deformation of human fasciae in manual therapy. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2008 Aug 1;108(8):379-90.
7. Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. Journal of sport rehabilitation. 2014 Nov;23(4):296-9.
8. Su H, Chang NJ, Wu WL, Guo LY, Chu IH. 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. 2017 Nov;26(6):469-77.