Updated: Mar 28
I’ve received so many questions about foam rolling recently that I thought it might just save me some time if I wrote a blog post that answers all the questions you may have. In this post I’ve taken a look at the most recent research to find out what foam rolling works for, what the best methods are and why, for some cases, it doesn’t seem to work at all.
In this article:
What does foam rolling work for?
Foam rolling can improve your flexibility and range of motion and, unlike passive stretching, it doesn’t seem to have any negative effect on how your muscles function afterwards. This is important because it makes it safe to use shortly before you compete.
The only problem is that the effects does not seem to last for a very long time – only about 10 minutes. This means that you may have to combine foam rolling with other techniques if you want to have a more lasting effect on your flexibility.
With this in mind a group of researchers from France designed a study to test if foam rolling is as effective as an active warm-up (cycling) at improving hamstring flexibility. The researchers found that combining the cycling and foam rolling produced the best results. Foam rolling on its own was not as effective as cycling on its own, but when they combined the two they saw a large increase in range of motion that lasted more than 30 minutes.
DOMS or exercise induced muscle soreness
There is strong evidence (ref, ref) that show that foam rolling, just like massage, can decrease the muscle soreness that you feel after exercise. You could make your life a lot more comfortable if you get into the habit of using your foam roller after hard training sessions or races.
Foam rolling does not seem to have any effect on athletic performance. Early reports that suggested that foam rolling could improve vertical jump height and muscle function have now been disproven.
Why foam rolling is sometimes not effective
You should avoid foam rolling over injuries that are less than 2 weeks old. At this point the injured tissue is still weak and you risk making it worse if you apply strong pressure to the area.
You will likely find that the muscle tightness associated with the injury slowly disappears by itself as your injury recovers.
This is a common cause I see in practice. Muscles that are fatigued and overworked will feel tight and sore and no amount of massage or foam rolling will get rid of it. What it needs is rest and time to recover.
Common training errors that can lead to this include training too often, suddenly increasing your training load or intensity or switching to different training surfaces e.g. Astro turf.
Our nervous system is continuous from our brains to the tips of our toes and fingers and it should slide freely as we move. If for some reason a nerve gets stuck, it will stretch rather than slide. When this happens we refer to it as increased neural tension.
The sciatic nerve (that runs down the back of your leg) often suffers increased neural tension due to issues in the lower back or tight glutes. Nerves don’t like to be stretched and this can lead to injuries in the muscles supplied by the nerve that’s stuck. Increased neural tension of the sciatic nerve has been shown to contribute to hamstring and calf injuries.
Get yourself checked out by a good sports clinician if you struggle with persistent muscle tightness e.g. tight calves or hamstrings that does not react to foam rolling or stretching. This is something that we can easily check via video call if you wanted to consult our team of sports physios online.
How to foam roll for best effect
I’ve deduced these guidelines from the protocols that the researchers have used in their studies and combined it with my own clinical experience. Not enough research has yet been done to produce a gold standard so feel free to use this as a rough guide, to improvise and find the method that works best for you.
In this video I summarize the key points and demonstrate the different foam rolling strokes.
Type of roller
A firm roller works best. You won’t be able to exert enough pressure if it is too soft. The researchers mostly used smooth rollers in their studies, but this does not mean that the spiky ones aren’t effective.
Where to roll
Make sure that you cover the full length of the muscle. Avoid strong pressure over bony points as you’ll likely just bruise your tendons.
Pressure should be firm but not painful and you should not bruise yourself. When massaging, I find that I get the best results when applying pressure that can be described as being “comfortably uncomfortable” or “uncomfortable but not painful”.
Foam rolling and massage are thought to work mainly by calming the nervous system down and thereby decreasing muscle tone. If you are too aggressive (even without bruising), you’ll get the opposite effect.
Movement and Duration
I would suggest that you use two types of movements when massaging yourself:
1. Long strokes that cover the whole length of the muscle. This is the method that they tend to use in the research studies. Spend about 1 to 2 minutes per muscle.
2. Sustaining pressure on painful spots. I actually find massage balls can be more effective for this as it's easier to apply pressure to a specific point with them. Sustain the pressure for about 30 to 60 seconds before moving on to the next spot.
Foam rolling specific areas of the body
I've made some videos that show how to foam roll your:
Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.