Can Foam Rollers Improve Performance?

By Laird Harrison

Last year I flunked a test at a health club. I was meeting with the owner about working there as a personal trainer. She wanted to get a taste of my style, so she pretended to be a client and I pretended to be her trainer. For warm up, I prescribed some dynamic stretches and a fast walk on the treadmill.

“Foam rollers!” She pointed at the brightly colored cylinders piled in a corner of the room. “You should always start your clients out on foam rollers.”

My lack of fervor for foam rollers was only one of the reasons I didn’t end up working at that club. But it wasn’t my last encounter with foam roller true believers. Another trainer I know brings them to soccer games. He cited a favorable New York Times blog post as evidence that everyone should use them to warm up.

All this foaming enthusiasm got me wondering whether foam rollers can improve performance, and I was fascinated to talk with some people who have put them to the test. It turns out there is a lot of evidence that foam rollers can soothe some types of pain, and increase range of motion.

But there is weak evidence that foam rollers improve performance, or prevent injury, and no evidence that they’re better than the kind of warm-up I recommended for my imaginary client.

Self-Myofacial Release

Foam rolling belongs to a category of massage called “self-myofascial release.” Other equipment for self-myofascial release includes small balls, such as tennis balls. You apply force by lying on these objects and moving around. Your weight provides the force for a massage. Another approach is to massage yourself with a hand-held roller.

foam rollers improve performance
Debra Stroiney of Gannon University tested whether self-myofascial release makes runners faster. Photo by Laird Harrison.

The idea is that injury, disease, inactivity, and inflammation cause adhesions to form in muscle tissue. This restricts movement. The right sort of rubbing breaks the adhesions, “releasing” the muscles.

When I was at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting, I talked to three teams of researchers who were studying self-myofascial release.

  • A team from Gannon University asked 16 men to run on a treadmill twice. They ran once after using foam rollers and once after resting for 20 minutes. There was no significant difference in their speed or aerobic capacity between the two bouts of running.
  • A team from the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire asked 19 men to peddle as hard as they could on exercise bikes. The power they generated was no different after using foam rollers than after no preparation, even if they massaged themselves up to 90 seconds per muscle group. “Some previous studies saw an increase in power output with myofascial stretching,” says lead author Aleksander Hansen. “What we found is that it doesn’t do anything.”
  • A team from DeSales University divided 19 college students into two groups. One group rolled on foam rollers. The other group did static stretching. (That’s the type of stretching where you get into a mildly uncomfortable position and hold it for a few seconds.) The two groups increased their range of motion by the same amount, as measured by a test similar to a toe-touch.

I also took a look at a recent review of the major studies that came before these. This review did find some evidence that foam rollers improve performance. Some people jumped higher after foam rolling, for example. But other studies found no effect on performance.

On the other hand, several studies showed that self-myofascial release could relieve soreness and increase range of motion. “If someone is complaining of pain and tightness, I would be more likely to recommend foam rolling, ” said Jessica Watson of DeSales, who has also looked at this literature.

The studies showed that self-myofascial release doesn’t hurt performance. That’s important, because some other research suggests that static stretching temporarily reduces your muscles’ strength.

But other studies have found that dynamic stretching — in which you move constantly instead of holding one position – also improves range of motion without hurting your strength. And the advantage is that you don’t need any equipment.

The Bottom Line

Use self-myofascial release if you’re feeling stiff or in pain, or just because you like it. “A lot of them just came up to me and said they felt better,” Ohio State researcher Debra Stroiney said about the runners who rolled.

But don’t count on foam rolling to make you run faster or jump higher – unless the pain is what’s hampering your performance.

And don’t listen to a fitness expert who says there’s only one right way to warm up.

For more technical details on this study, read this article in Medscape.

Featured photo: “Austin Marathon Relay 2009” by Peter Mooney.

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