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The research behind foam rolling

This is an excerpt from Complete Guide to Foam Rolling by Kyle Stull.

Foam rolling research is a hot topic, with a couple of studies published each month on either foam rolling or self-myofascial release. The following paragraphs take a brief look into the research on foam rolling. The intent of this information is not to overwhelm you with scientific detail but to offer an overview of findings. Application of these principles will be covered later in this book.

Foam Rolling and Flexibility

A review of literature published in Current Sports Medicine Reports (ACSM) (Schroeder & Best, 2015) found that foam rolling appears to have a positive effect on flexibility before exercise and results in decreased soreness and fatigue following exercise. Many studies compare foam rolling to another tool or stretching technique. For example, researchers Skarabot, Beardsley, and Stirn (2015) compared foam rolling to traditional stretching, and the results suggested that both stretching and foam rolling can increase flexibility. However, to gain the most flexibility, participants needed to use a combination of both foam rolling and stretching. Participants who foam rolled for one minute before stretching had the best results.

Similarly, researcher Goran Markovic (2015) compared foam rolling to a therapist's use of a handheld tool on hip and knee motion in soccer players. Markovic found that both foam rolling and the handheld tool improve the motion at the hip and knee. It should be noted that the foam rolling group was able to perform the rolling by themselves and the other group had to have a therapist apply the tool. This is significant because foam rolling is a self-application technique. The true value is that people can do it themselves and not rely on others to help.

Foam Rolling and Performance

Foam rolling has been found to be an effective tool before a workout. According to a review of literature published in Current Sports Medicine Reports (ACSM) (Schroeder & Best, 2015), foam rolling appears to have a positive effect on flexibility before exercise and decreases soreness and fatigue following exercise. These findings suggest that foam rolling affects performance.

Similarly, researcher Cheatham and colleagues (2015) concluded that foam rolling is effective at increasing the ability of joints to move and improving performance. In another study by Peacock and colleagues (2014), foam rolling before basic performance testing (such as jumping, agility drills, and heavy weightlifting) increased performance. The best results were found among participants who foam rolled followed by stretching that mimicked the workout (also referred to as dynamic stretching).

Lanigan and Harrison (2012) found that foam rolling the bottom of the foot may increase jump height. Several studies have supported this notion. Even when foam rolling has not been shown to increase jump height, it also did not decrease jump height. While researchers have not yet demonstrated why foam rolling can sometimes increase jump height, the finding can likely be attributed to the positive effect of foam rolling on overall movement: If one area of the body can move optimally, then surrounding muscles may fire better. When one muscle contracts, the muscle on the opposite side of the joint relaxes.

In a nervous system that's functioning optimally, this mechanism works great and allows us to efficiently move from point A to point B. However, if a muscle is stuck in a shortened position, which is frequently the case, then the muscle on the opposite side of the joint cannot contract when needed. Consider walking, running, or performing any number of activities that require the hips to move. During optimal function, someone can use their glutes to propel forward. However, if someone has a shortened hip flexor (the muscle opposite the glutes), then the glutes cannot fully contract. They are inhibited. Performance is likely to decrease, and the chance of injury is likely to increase. If this same person used a foam roller to decrease tension and tightness in the hip flexor, it would increase the ability of the glutes to contract, thereby increasing performance and decreasing the chance of a hamstring injury.

Foam rolling has also been shown to reduce fatigue when performed before a workout (Healey et al., 2013). A reduction in fatigue could lead to more enjoyment during training, more consistency, and better results overall.

One consistent theme that emerges from the current research is that foam rolling before exercise does not appear to negatively affect performance. To further support these findings, reputable organizations such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine, TriggerPoint, and Functional Movement Systems have encouraged the use of a foam roller before exercise for more than a decade.

Foam rolling has also proven to serve as a great cool-down after a workout. Researchers MacDonald and colleagues (2014) found that foam rolling after heavy weightlifting can speed up recovery, decrease soreness, and help improve performance on many tests (such as jump height). The participants performed heavy squats and then foam rolled. They returned to the research lab 24 hours later to measure soreness and repeat performance testing. In the days following the heavy squats, the foam rolling group's soreness peaked at 24 hours, whereas the non-foam rolling group's soreness peaked at 48 hours. Pearcy and colleagues (2015) supported the finding that foam rolling after intense exercise can decrease the soreness that occurs 24- to 48-hours after a workout, while also increasing performance. It is important to note that many participants did experience soreness in both of these studies, but the soreness was not as severe and appeared to dissipate more quickly when compared to those who did not foam roll. This suggests that soreness after an intense workout is likely, but foam rolling may improve the body's ability to recover. Edmunds and colleagues (2016) performed a study to explore the difference in muscle recovery after a workout. One group of participants foam rolled and another performed traditional stretching. The researchers found that foam rolling may help maintain muscle force the following day when compared to stretching. Collectively this research on foam rolling after exercise suggests that spending just a few minutes foam rolling after a workout can have a huge impact on how quickly someone recovers.

Learn more about Complete Guide to Foam Rolling.

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