Welcome to Integrative Soccer’s recovery series, where we give you the most updated evidence for (and against) the most common recovery tools on the market.
What’s good? What’s overrated? We’re here to tell you.
Let’s check out foam rolling and bridge the gap between what we think it benefits and what it actually benefits…
What is a Foam Roll, Really?
The foam roller is, and always has been, a literal roll of foam used to enhance the body system in some capacity.
Foam rollers were first used in the 1920s by Moshe Feldenkrais in his Feldenkrais Method to improve body aches through movement awareness.
Initially, they were used during balance activities as something to use as semi-stable support. Very different than how we typically use them today… almost disposable.
It wasn’t until the 1980s when foam rollers were adopted as massage tools. It started when a physical therapist (Feldenkrais’ student) tried self-massaging with the roll, and others started doing the same.
Then, in the early 1990s, foam rollers were most commonly used for self-massage in therapy and professional sport because of the self-reported benefits for achy muscles.
The first sport? Dance – which led to an explosion of foam roller popularity on Broadway. Obviously, that was just the beginning.
What’s the Foam Roller Used for Now?
As you know, foam rollers are everywhere.
There are over a thousand types on Amazon. Gyms supply them. People have them in their living room and offices.
Foam rollers have been used under various circumstances with a myriad of claims:
- Better recovery
- Less soreness
- Improved performance
- Increased flexibility
- Activates muscles
- Relaxes the body
But how many of those claims are actually true?
Is the foam roller really helping you with any of those goals, or are you just wasting your time?
A Quick Note on Placebo Effect
If someone uses a foam roller, there’s always the chance that they feel better just because they think they’re supposed to. That’s called the placebo effect.
Does this happen outside of research in real life? Yes. All the time.
Does it matter? Honestly, not in this case.
If you foam roll everyday and you feel better for it, even though research may contradict your intent, you should still do it. It’s safe and there’s very little harm, if any.
But, if you’re a player, parent, or coach looking for an efficient regimen, keep reading.
A Foam Roller’s Benefits
Foam rollers are good for two specific things:
- Improving muscle tolerance to stretch, which causes short-term improvements in flexibility. (2, 4)
- Improving pain perception, which decreases perceived muscle soreness. (2, 4)
Let’s break that down.
Short-Term Flexibility Improvements
The reason is still not totally clear. It’s possible that the heat generated from the friction in foam rolling can enhance elastic properties in muscle and mobility in fascia. However, once the body cools back down, everything goes back to the way it was. (4)
For this reason, the most recent systematic review on foam rolling suggests to use it as part of a warmup consisting of dynamic stretching and activity for the best carryover into sport performance possible. (2)
However, a foam roller isn’t shown to improve much performance at all.
On the same note, foam rolling doesn’t hurt performance, either.
Warmups that consist of long, static stretches are terrible for jump and agility performance. That’s because jumping and cutting need stiff tendons to act as springs, but if they’re too flexible, that spring-like action goes away. (3)
So, if stretching improves my flexibility but decreases my performance in jumping and agility drills, wouldn’t foam rolling do the same?
Foam rolling can improve flexibility before sport without a negative effect on jumping and agility. That’s a big deal. (4)
This phenomenon isn’t understood yet, but it’s probably because foam rolling doesn’t change muscle length at all. It only improves a muscle’s tolerance to stretching. Sudden changes in muscle length affect force generation, but foam rolling just doesn’t do that.
Improving Pain Perception
Another benefit of foam rolling is decreased pain. This includes pain from injury or muscle soreness.
Muscle soreness isn’t from lactic acid or direct exercise-induced muscle damage (in a good way). It’s likely from the body’s inflammatory response, which is necessary for muscle rebuilding.
Rather than icing or taking anti-inflammatories that inhibit the muscle building response, foam rolling or massage seems to help decrease pain while allowing inflammation to run its course.
Why? Because foam rolling and massage can release oxytocin, a “happy” chemical, in our bodies. Oxytocin overrides pain signals which helps us feel better. (4)
If this is true, technically, you could do anything that makes you happy it should improve soreness.
Next time you’re sore, try holding a puppy and see if your soreness decreases!
When A Foam Roller is Useless
Foam rollers are not great when your goal is:
- Long-term soft tissue mobility and flexibility (including a fascial release)
- Long-term recovery
- Improved performance, especially sprinting/speed
Heeeeeere we go.
Long-Term Soft Tissue Mobility, Flexibility, and Facial Release
If sustained flexibility and improved fascial mobility is your goal, foam rolling is not your friend.
We already discussed how foam rolling only promotes flexibility in the short term.
Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons people use foam rolling is to improve fascial mobility and reduce adhesions.
But foam rolling can’t do that.
When you foam roll, you are only compressing fascia, not sliding it. That means you can’t reduce adhesions between soft tissue layers. The best way to slide fascia is by moving your body.
If you’re trying to lengthen fascia (like your IT band), it’s almost impossible. Your fascia has the tensile strength of steel.
That’s barely an exaggeration!
According to a famous study in 1931, you need to generate 1000 pounds of force to change the IT band length by only 1%. (1)
If you can’t stretch you fascia without 1000 pounds of force, you most definitely cannot change fascia using a foam roller.
We already mentioned that foam rolling improves pain perception, which helps short-term perceived recovery. When we hurt less, we can return to our routine sooner. (4)
However, foam rolling is no substitute for the biggest contributors to long-term recovery: sleep and nutrition.
And, you already know that it doesn’t improve muscle or fascia mobility in the long term… at least, not on its own.
If you’re regularly foam rolling throughout the day with the goal of long-term recovery or “maintenance”, you may be wasting your time.
Foam rolling has negligible effects on improved performance, and it’s not consistent across the board.
The most broadly researched performance measures in foam rolling are related to sprinting, jumping, and agility.
There are no significant improvements (or detriments) to jumping and agility measures after foam rolling.
There are minor improvements in small studies, related to sprint performance after foam rolling. The reason is not clear and the statistics aren’t significant enough to consider it “proven”.
Because stats are inconsistent, researchers think that any performance enhancement could be due to a placebo effect or due to core activation during the foam rolling activity. Those of us who have rolled out our quads know how much it feels like planking.
We know that you need plenty of core activation and coordination to sprint, so warming up the core muscles could be the real reason for occasional positive results… which is not the actual foam rolling intent. (4)
Let’s Wrap It Up
This article definitely needs a summary.
Foam rollers can help:
- Improve soft tissue stretch tolerance for short-term flexibility changes
- Decrease pain perception like soreness
Foam rollers cannot:
- Change tissue quality or perform fascial release
- Promote long-term recovery
- Improve performance consistently
If you love using your foam roller and it works for you, no matter how or when you use it, continue using it because it makes you happy.
But please, please do not tell people it’s because you’re releasing your fascia.
1. Gratz CM. Tensile strength and elasticity tests on human fascia lata. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1931;13(2):334-340.
2. Hendricks, S., den Hollander, S., Lombard, W., & Parker, R. (2020). Effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery: A systematic review of the literature to guide practitioners on the use of foam rolling. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 24(2), 151-174.
3. Simic, L., Sarabon, N., & Markovic, G. (2013). Does pre‐exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta‐analytical review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 23(2), 131-148.
4. Wiewelhove, T., Döweling, A., Schneider, C., Hottenrott, L., Meyer, T., Kellmann, M., … & Ferrauti, A. (2019). A meta-analysis of the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery. Frontiers in physiology, 376.