Whilst lot of athletes and coaches swear by foam rolling as a means of reducing DOMS, improving flexibility and strength, we explore the results of a meta-analysis and systematic review to understand what the research says about the effectiveness of foam rolling.
Over the recent years, there has been a spate of foam rolling devices flooding the market. There are various varieties of foam rollers – solid cylindrical, hollow core ones, roller sticks or even ones with various different types of lumps/ protrusions. But do these really have any significant impact?
People who swear by foam rolling report benefits like more flexibility, increased range of motion, better blood circulation, injury prevention, and improved muscle recovery. However, is that really true?
A recent meta-analysis by Wiewelhove et al (2019) evaluated the effects of foam rolling applied before (pre-rolling as a warm-up activity) and after (post-rolling as a recovery strategy) exercise on sprint, jump, and strength performance as well as on flexibility and muscle pain outcomes and to identify whether self-massage with a foam roller or a roller massager is more effective.
The authors undertook a literature search using the standard biobliographic databases. The selection of articles for inclusion in this meta-analysis was based on the following criteria. First, only publications that appeared in an international, peer-reviewed scientific journal were selected. Second, a FR intervention had to have been done as part of the analysis, regardless of which type of FR device was used for the intervention. Third, the FR intervention had to have been used either as a warm-up or a recovery routine. Fourth, before and after the FR intervention, measurements of performance, flexibility, and/or muscle pain outcomes had to have been conducted. Fifth, there had to have been a control condition, where athletes were subdivided either as their own controls or randomly into an intervention and control group.
21 studies, 14 of which used pre-rolling as an exercise warm-up routine, while seven used post-rolling to enhance recovery mechanisms were included. Of the twenty-one studies, fourteen used foam rollers, while the other seven used roller massage bars/sticks.
Pre-rolling resulted in a small improvement in sprint performance and flexibility, whereas the effect on jump and strength performance was negligible. Post-rolling slightly attenuated exercise-induced decreases in sprint and strength performance. It also reduced muscle pain perception, whereas the effect on jump performance was trivial.
The authors concluded that pre-rolling seems to be an effective strategy for short-term improvements in flexibility without decreasing muscle performance. The review has also shown that the improvement of sprint performance to be expected from the use of pre-rolling, as well as the recovery rate of the performance measures of speed and strength with post-rolling, are significant enough to be relevant for at least elite athletes. The positive effects of alleviating muscle soreness with a larger body of evidence endorse the utilization of post-rolling.
The authors acknowledged that whilst the results from their meta-analysis support use of foam rolling, low number of studies, variety of foam rollers, rolling methods as well as methodological heterogeneity, there is no consensus on the optimal FR intervention (i.e., in terms of treatment time, pressure, and cadence, etc.)