Rolling in the Deep: Foam Rolling for Muscle Pain & Performance
Written by: Alicia Walker, PT, DPT, CMT, RYT and Alex Victoria, SPT
Drowning in muscle soreness and stiffness from that new workout routine? Want to improve your sprinting speed? Read on for some quick tips on the best uses for foam rolling, backed by research. Foam rolling is a type of self-massage that allows you to release muscle tension and recover quickly from workouts.
Don’t have a foam roller yet? You can buy them on amazon or any sporting goods store for as little as $10. If you’d rather not invest in one, foam rolling has exploded in popularity in the past decade, and most gyms nowadays have several tucked away for gym goers.
Benefits of Foam Rolling:
- Decreased DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) if used post workout.
- Improved flexibility without negatively impacting muscle performance.
- Run faster: research showed athletes had improved sprinting speeds if used pre-workout.
Prerequisites- What do you need to use the foam roller?
- Ability to hold a plank position
- Ability to lie down and stand up from the floor
Contraindications-When & where to avoid foam rolling:
- Avoid foam rolling over your IT band (iliotibial band) the taut ligament running down the outside of your thigh to the knee. This is a popular move, but only serves to bruise the tissue underneath the IT band. Instead, target the attachment sites at the lateral knee and hip.
- Impaired sensation- are you experiencing numbness or tingling anywhere? If so, avoid rolling and tell your doctor!
- This is common sense, but if you have any open wounds, don’t roll it!
- Please, stay off the foam roller if you’ve had any recent fractures.
- Osteoporosis- significant bone loss as diagnosed by an MD.
- Connective tissue disorders such as Ehlers-Danlos.
Foam Roller Technique
- Pre-rolling (warm-up)
- Technique: 30-60s before or after static stretching exercises targeting all major muscle groups
- Effect: Increased muscle length without negatively affecting muscle performance
- Post-Rolling (cooldown)
- Technique: 10-20min session following intense exercise
- Effect: reduces muscle pain
Physiology: How does the foam roller work?
Ultimately, the mechanism is still unknown, but there are multiple theories that may contribute to different effects:
Warm up effect: warming up your muscles before a workout has been shown to improve performance.
Placebo effect: because it is impossible to do a double-blind study while researching foam rolling, it is
unknown how much of the effects of foam rolling are due to placebo.
Mechanical effects on muscle tissue: Mechanical effects like pressure on the muscles from the foam roller
increase circulation to the tissues, stimulates stretch receptors, and promotes relaxation.
Stretch receptors release muscle tension: The Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) is a proprioceptive stretch
receptor in all of your muscles that prevent muscle activation when a load is applied to a muscle that is heavy
enough to do damage to the body. Have you ever been carrying a very heavy weight and suddenly your arm
“gives out”? That’s the GTO protecting you! Pressure on this receptor by the foam roller can inhibit the muscle
leading to tension release.
Muscular pain reduction:
Pain relieving hormones: just like with exercise, foam rolling promotes the release of “feel good” hormones in
your brain such as oxytocin and endorphins, who doesn’t want that?
Pressure simulates trigger-point therapy: the foam roller releases tender spots within the muscle that
develop due to repetitive stress or reduced blood flow to the area.
- MacDonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, & Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2013;46(1):131-142. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182a123db
- Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, & Lee M. The effect 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 Nov;10(6):827-838.
- Wiewelhove T, Doweling A, Schneider C, Hottenrott L, Meyer T, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, & Ferrauti A. A meta-analysis of the effect of foam rolling on performance and recovery. Front Physiol. 2019;10:376. doi:10.3389/fphys.2019.00376
- Cheatham SW & Stull KR. Roller massage: a commentary on clinical standards and survey of physical therapy professionals part 1. Int J Phys Ther. 2018 Aug;13(4):763-772.