Foam rolling is used frequently for many reasons. When people workout they are damaging muscle and fatiguing the body. For many, especially athletes, the ability to recover as quickly as possible is of extreme benefit because you can continue the cycle of breaking down muscle and rebuilding it again, without an increased risk of overtraining. There are many ways to enhance muscle recovery such as sleep, nutrition, rest, just to name a few. In this blog I investigate what the research says about foam rolling (myofascial release) and muscle recovery.
I will refer to muscle recovery as the muscle rebuilding after a workout or competition. This could be delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), joint stiffness (usually due to sore muscles), or a decrease in athletic performance (strength, speed, power). This is not referring to muscle strains or tears where the muscle damage is due to a single event, causing injury.
What is Foam Rolling & Muscle Recovery?
Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release. Myofascial release uses “pressure to relieve soft tissue restriction and pain with the hope of improving motion and function.”6 The main goal of myofascial release is to enhance muscle recovery. When working out, we are stressing our body. With this, our body goes through the general adaptive syndrome (GAS). The first phase is the alarm phase where there is a decrease in performance from “soreness, fatigue, stiffness, and reduction in available energy stores.”7 The next is the resistance phase where adaptation from the stress will develop and the body will return to baseline or increase performance measures.7 This leads to the supercompensation phase where the body is able to endure more stress because of the adaption to the previous stress.7 Lastly, if the stress is too high you can enter an overtraining phase which often leads to overtraining syndrome.7
Essentially, the theory behind myofascial release is to shorten the alarm phase (enhance recovery) so you can progressively overload the body while avoiding overtraining.
Does Foam Rolling Influence Muscle Recovery?
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
DOMS is the extreme muscle soreness that is experienced multiple days after an intense workout/competition. Usually this occurs when you start a new training regimen and your body is not used to the exertion being placed on it. The majority of people have experienced this at some point.
In a systematic review by Cheatham,1 one of their clinical questions was to see what the research had to say about self-myofascial release, through foam rolling, and its influence on DOMS. They found that foam rolling after a workout reduced the perceived pain from DOMS.1 Hughes2 came to the same conclusion. Hjert3, found in his systematic review that there was solid evidence to suggest foam rolling reduces muscle soreness from DOMS at 24, 48, and 72 hours after intense exercise. However, they failed to find research that supported reduced muscle soreness immediately after physical activity.3
Joint Range of Motion (ROM)
If you ever had DOMS, you probably realized your joints can’t move through the ranges of motion they are accustomed to. Now, reducing the pain will likely cause you to be more tolerant of moving through the normal ranges of motion. In other cases, we tend to “get loose” before a workout by stretching. It is known that stretching before physical activity can decrease performance measures like power, speed, strength, ect.8 If you are an athlete, you do not want this, but many have a false comfort in increasing range of motion, or getting loose (from stretching), prior to a game or workout. Well I have great news, foam rolling can offer short-term increases in ROM without affecting muscle performance!1 What does this mean? You get the same comfort of stretching before activity (increase in ROM) with foam rolling without the decrements in athletic performance.
Hughes2, Junker4, and Wiewelhove5 have also supported the claim that foam rolling can increase ROM in the short term.
Athletic Performance Measures
The research seems to support the use of foam rolling for reducing pain associated with DOMS and increasing joint ROM, but how does it influence performance? Reduction of pain is a sign of recovery, but logically, wouldn’t full recovery indicate returning to normal performance measures?
For example, let’s say my vertical jump is 30 inches, then I do a leg workout and test my vertical jump again. After the workout it is 25 inches. That doesn’t mean I got worse, but it shows that my leg muscles have been damaged/fatigued (from the workout) and there is a decrease in power (alarm phase). The next day I am sore, I test my vertical jump again and it is 25 inches. The day after that my soreness is gone, I test my vertical jump and it is 27 inches (resistance phase). The pain is gone, and the data suggests I am recovering, but I am not fully recovered. Then on day four my vertical jump is 30.5 inches, I can tell my muscles have recovered and rebuilt more powerful (supercompensation phase).
Cheatham1, Wiewelhove5, Junker4, and Hughes2 all concluded that foam rolling, by itself, had no significant influence on performance measures. This finding could be good and bad. Good in the fact that foam rolling before a game or competition will not affect performance. Bad in the fact that it is not a performance enhancer. It would be interesting to read research on how foam rolling influences performance measures after a DOMS-inducing protocol. If you come across articles that answer this, don’t be afraid to reach out to me!
With all of this, I think foam rolling has an indirect influence on muscle recovery. It is only a piece to the puzzle of muscle recovery. A reduction in pain and joint stiffness are often cues of recovery for musculoskeletal conditions. In the case of exercise-induced soreness and stiffness, the improvement in these variables will automatically increase performance measures because of the tolerability to increase force output. When you have DOMS and joint stiffness your inability to produce force is reduced not because the muscles are not able to, instead it is likely due to the low tolerance of pain.
When Should Foam Rolling Be Used?
Now that we know foam rolling is effective at reducing the effects of DOMS and increasing joint ROM, how can we incorporate this into our training regimen? I see two questions that arise from this: (1) Is it better to foam roll before or after a workout/game? (2) How long do I need to foam roll to receive the desired benefits?
Hughes2 and Junker4 reported increases in range of motion from foam rolling, however their research did not indicate if this is done pre- or post-workout/game. Hughes2 actually used foam rolling as a lone intervention which made it impossible to determine whether it is more beneficial before or after a workout. Junker4, on the other hand, did not mention if the studies used foam rolling as a warm up or a post-workout modality, and was also unable to come to a general consensus for optimal foam rolling duration that elicited an increase in joint ROM.
Cheatham1 and Wiewelhove5 showed increases in ROM and included data on time and duration. Cheatham1 found foam rolling before or after a workout would be beneficial for increasing ROM. The research also showed foam rolling 2-5 sets for 30-60 seconds was the most beneficial.1 He also added that foam rolling combined with stretching after a workout may elicit the best results in ROM.1 Wiewelhove5, did not report any data regarding foam rolling after a workout, but did show significant improvement to ROM when foam rolling before working out (p<0.01; 95% CI: 0.13-0.55; ES: 0.34).5
Recovery from DOMS is usually in the form of reduced muscle soreness, or increased pressure tolerance. Cheatham1, Hughes2, and Hjert3 showed foam rolling decreased the perception of pain. Wiewelhove5 (his study looked at foam rolling after a workout) displayed a p value that suggested a significant decrease in muscle soreness (p<0.05), however the confidence interval showed this to not be significant (95% CI: -0.10-0.85). Hughes2 (mentioned above), found that foam rolling for a minimum of 90 seconds per muscle provided the most benefit in reducing muscle soreness. Cheatham1 showed foam rolling after a workout for 10-20 minutes (total) reduced the pain from muscle soreness.
- Foam rolling can reduce the muscle soreness and increase ROM
- As of now, foam rolling has no direct influence on performance measures, however it may indirectly.
- Foam rolling is best when doing 2-5 sets for 30-60 seconds per muscle, and combined with stretching after workouts.
- Foam rolling before workouts has no harmful effects on performance measures
- Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, 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. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(6):827-838.
- Hughes GA, Ramer LM. DURATION OF MYOFASCIAL ROLLING FOR OPTIMAL RECOVERY, RANGE OF MOTION, AND PERFORMANCE: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2019;14(6):845-859.
- Hjert CS, Wright CJ. The Effects of Self-Myofascial Release Foam Rolling on Muscle Soreness or Pain After Experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness: A Critically Appraised Topic. International Journal of Athletic Therapy & Training. 2020;25(6):294-298. doi:10.1123/ijatt.2019-0078
- Junker D, Stöggl T. The Training Effects of Foam Rolling on Core Strength Endurance, Balance, Muscle Performance and Range of Motion: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2019;18(2):229-238. Accessed January 11, 2021. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=ccm&AN=137229716&site=ehost-live
- Wiewelhove T, Döweling A, Schneider C, et al. A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery. Front Physiol. 2019;10:376. Published 2019 Apr 9. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00376
- Houglum PA. Chapter 6: Manual Therapy Techniques In: Houglum PA. Therapeutic Exercise for Musculoskeletal Injuries. 3rd ed. Human Kinetics, 2010: 158-159
- Haff GG. Chapter 3: Periodization and Power Integration In: McGuigan M. Sports Performance Series: Developing Power. Human Kinetics, 2017: 34-38
- Faigenbaum AD. Chapter 3: Dynamic Warm-Up In: Hoffman JR. NSCA’s Guide to Program Design. Human Kinetics, 2012: 52-53
This site has content that is subject to my thoughts and opinion. Implement the content at your own caution as the author is not responsible for your actions. If you have pain, discomfort, or symptoms of any kind you should seek formal medical care from a medical professional.
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