The mobility/flexibility market has seen a huge boom in recent years. With the rise of foam rollers and various mobility tools, along comes an onslaught of marketing material by companies, and it's hard to cut through the BS.
Fitness and professional sport is more demanding than ever, (ie Insanity workouts, CrossFit, adventure/obstacle racing, etc.), with the intensity and volume increasing, the wear on the body becomes more demanding. Foam rolling is considered to be one of many ways to keep muscles healthy long term.
In the fitness market, you’ll find vibrating rollers, cold rollers, hot rollers, crazily shaped rollers, soft rollers and hard rollers. And of course, each roller is acclaimed to be the best one. It has left many people with lots of questions; which one is best for me, should I buy a hard one or a soft one, etc... The biggest question though is:
What does Foam Rolling Actually Do?
Minimal scientific research (17 publications since 2013) has been published, and of that, there has been “contradictory results of Foam-rolling exercises on flexibility, force-production, athletic performance, and delayed onset of muscle soreness.” 1.
Foam rolling is thought (we still don’t actually know) to affect the muscle and fascial system (myofascial). Some research on foam rolling explores the term “fascia system”, others the “muscular system”, and others will simply use the term “myofascial system” as there is no clear cut evidence that it affects one or the other.
Both of these systems are challenging to understand and have many variables. For example, the fascial system is incredibly complex due to its involvement in many functions in the body. Thomas Myers has nicely put it this way:
“...fascia... includes all the tissues traditionally designated as ‘fascia’ in classical anatomy, plus all the other very similar tissues arrayed in different ways around the body; tendons, ligaments, bursae, and all the tissue in and around the muscles – endomysium, perimysium, epimysium. They are all made out of largely the same stuff and created in much the same way.”
A recent literature review (collecting over 190 articles relating to Foam rolling) tried to give some clarity to foam rolling and its usefulness (1). Unfortunately, they were left with more questions than answers:
...future studies should examine in detail, whether foam rolling effects are positive or negative for both sportive and therapeutic purposes...
I believe that foam rolling affects many different tissues in the body; the majority positively. I think the easiest way to conceptualise the effect of foam rolling is to think of myofascial trigger points (3,4).
Scientifically speaking, there isn’t much clarity in trigger point research either. The Physical Therapy in Sports Journal tried to answer how to reduce trigger points and suggested there are many anecdotal theories but “... scientifically, very few of them stand up to scrutiny…” (4).
What is known is that putting pressure on a tender spot for around 60s can reduce the sensitivity of the muscle tissue and pain felt. This research was done using massage therapists, not foam rolling. However, both rolling and massage are closely related, I believe you can apply the same theory (3).
All we know scientifically is that more research is needed. From my experience, I believe that when using a foam roller you downregulate the neuromuscular and fascial system to improve mobility around joints, reduce pain and increase the range of motion (flexibility) (5). As suggested from the research above, spend 60s+ putting pressure on a tender spot to reduce pain and increase flexibility when foam rolling.
I haven’t given you any concrete answers because the research just isn’t there yet. We are not 100% sure what foam rolling will effect in our bodies, and further research is needed. What I do know from my own experience, is that foam rolling can increase the range of motion and reduce the pain. How that process works biologically and physically isn’t clear.
Sports Orthopaedics and Traumatology - Foam-Rolling in sport and therapy – Potential benefits and risks: Part 1 – Definitions, anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics
Journal of Sport Rehabilitation - A Comparison of the Pressure Exerted on Soft Tissue by 2 Myofascial Rollers
Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies - The effect of manual pressure release on myofascial trigger points in the upper trapezius muscle
Physical Therapy in Sport - Myofascial trigger points: the current evidence
Journal of Sport Rehabilitation - Self-Mobilization Using a Foam Roller Versus a Roller Massager: Which Is More Effective for Increasing Hamstrings Flexibility?