Foam rollers are often touted by fitness professionals as a must-have tool for any athlete or gym goer, but what are the real benefits of foam rolling?

A quick Google search will bring up all sorts of claims a foam roller can help, however, a large number of these suggestions are either unproven or untrue. So let’s take a look at the proven benefits of foam rolling and also dispel any myths, so that you are clear on how this small firm cylinder can really improve your training/recovery.

Foam Rolling Background

The ever-growing popularity of using a foam roller has seen it become the preferred method for self-manual therapy technique, but do they even work? First up let’s look at the theory behind the foam rolling technique.

The Theory Behind How Foam Rolling Work?

When performed correctly foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR) or self-massage. It is mainly used by athletes and gym goers for reducing soreness and muscle tension. There are two general theories that explain how foam rolling works:

  1. When you foam roll a muscle, the pressure generated causes friction leading to an increase in heat in the muscle. By heating the muscle it becomes muscle fluid and flexible.
  2. The most popular theory is known as autogenic inhibition, this is when the pressure of the foam roller on the muscle causes the Golgi Tendon Organ to signal the muscle spindles to relax and lengthen.

So, now we’ve gone over the theory lets assess the proven benefits of using a foam roller?

Benefits of Foam Rolling

Before we delve into the scientific research regarding foam rolling, lets first go over some of the general benefits of owning or using a foam roller.

But first here’s a great introductory video by HowCast on the general benefits of foam rolling:

Foam Rolling Benefit 1 – Cheaper Than Sports Massage

Although a foam roller cannot (and should not) replace a sports massage or therapist, it can definitely give some degree of help in improving recovery (more on this below) at a fraction of the price.Visiting a sports therapist can cost before £30 – £60 a time which is unrealistic unless you are a professional athlete. This is why foam rollers have become so popular, as they are affordable with a one-off payment. Plus the robust dense roller last years if looked after properly.

Foam Rolling Benefit 2: You Control the Pressure

Foam rolling is often referred to as ‘the poor man’s massage’ and if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a deep sports tissue massage they can be quite painful. Although in most cases the pressure a sports therapists exerts on your muscle is necessary, when you foam roll daily you are in control of the pressure and therefore decrease the chances of bruising or excessive pain. This enables you to spend more time on the sore areas understanding which parts of your body require more work.

However it is still necessary to get regular sports massages throughout the year, but foam rolling will keep your muscle fascia healthy between visits.

Foam Rolling Benefit 3: Reduces Tissue Tension

Foam rollers can help reduce tissue tension and muscle tightness which leads to an increase in the range of motion at the joint (ROM).This is important as injuries or heavy workouts can cause adhesions to form and bind between layers of tissue. This binding increases tension of the muscles, restricting joint movement and muscle lengthening. Therefore you should use a foam roller regularly to ensure the health of your muscle tissues.

Foam Rolling Benefit 4: Improves Muscular Imbalances

Throughout our bodies, we have muscles that work in unison to create movement at the joint. If one of these muscles is tight, it creates a muscular imbalance at the joint, causing improper movement patterns and can lead to injury. This also effects performance by inhibiting your movement, and preventing you from producing optimal force.Regular use of a foam roller can help to reduce these imbalances by reducing tightness and restoring optimal muscle balance at the joint.

Foam Rolling Benefit 5: Reduces After Exercises Soreness

The sensation of muscle pain after exercise is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and can affect the consistency of your daily training programme. This is due to inflammation during the tissue repair process and can also lead to adhesions in the muscle. These injured tissues are repaired by the production of collagen within the muscle. However, this collagen can bind the tissues if the muscles are not properly moved/massaged.
Using a foam roller post exercises can help speed up recovery by reducing the chance of collagen forming between the muscle layers. There are various studies which prove how foam rolling can reduce the sensation of DOMS after training including an International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy study  and a Journal of Athletic Training study .

Foam Rolling Benefit 6: Increases Flexibility

Studies have shown that regularly performing foam rolling can improve long-term flexibility. The most significant study was performed in 2014 by Mohr et.al and highlighted the effect foam rolling has on flexibility . Of the 40 participants who took part, the best improvements in flexibility were seen among subjects who performed a stretching routine along with a foam rolling routine.

Foam Rolling Benefit 7: Increases Blood Flow

Another great benefit of foam rolling its that it can help to increase blood flow. A Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study showed an increase in absolute blood flood of 74% in the 30 minutes after foam rolling. This heightened blood flow can help improve both your warm up and recovery during exercise periods. Foam rolling paired with a dynamic warm-up will help to reduce injury, whilst post-exercise rolling can help to speed up recovery by helping to remove metabolic waste from your muscles.

Foam Rolling Benefit 8: Improves Athletic Performance

In recent years foam rolling has been adopted as a replacement for static stretching. This is due to the increasing amounts of research highlighted the negative effects of static stretching on performance including reductions in:

Whilst most studies show that foam rolling has no negative effects on performance, this study  actually shows how foam rolling before exercise can actually increase strength, speed, power, and agility if performed with a dynamic stretching routine.

PlayerScout’s Thoughts on Foam Rolling

First off lets recap over the benefits::

  1. Cheaper than a sports massage
  2. You are in control of the pressure
  3. Reduces tissue tension
  4. Improves Muscular Imbalances
  5. Reduces DOMS
  6. Increases Flexibility
  7. Increases Blood Flow
  8. Improves Athletic Performance

As the popularity of foam rolling increases more research will surface on the benefits of adding a foam rolling routine to your weekly/daily exercise programme.

At present research is still on the thin side, however, there are clear benefits to performing foam rolling exercises before and after exercise.