The Research on the Effectiveness of Foam Rolling

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Guest blog by John Davis (RunnersConnect)

Earlier this week we published an article on the 4 common mistakes runners make when using the foam roller. In that article, we simply brushed over the idea that foam rolling works.

Of course, we got a lot of emails from savvy readers like you that wanted to see the proof.

And we appreciate it! After all, we’re not about fluff here at RunnersConnect and we want to substantiate every piece of advice we give you.

Since foam rolling is so new, there hasn’t been much research published on it until recently. But with several studies coming out in the last two years, it’s now possible to learn more about what foam rolling can do for your running.

The Science of Foam Rolling for Recovery

A study published this year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise sought to find out whether foam rolling can reduce soreness and boost recovery by investigating the impact of a foam rolling program on post-exercise soreness following a series of squats.

In the study, twenty men with weight lifting experience were split into two groups. Both groups underwent a very fatiguing squat protocol, which consisted of ten sets of ten back squats at 60% of one-rep squat maximum. After the initial bout of squats, both groups were evaluated for their soreness level, quad and hamstring range of motion, performance on a vertical leap test, and a variety of measurements of muscle electrical activity. These measurements were repeated one, two, and three days after the squat protocol as well.

After the initial post-squat soreness and range of motion tests, half the men did a five-exercise foam rolling routine targeting the muscle groups in the thigh, while the other half did no additional exercise.

In the foam rolling routine, each muscle group was rolled twice for sixty second on each leg, for a total of about twenty minutes of foam rolling. This foam rolling routine was repeated after the one- and two-day post-exercise evaluations as well.

Designing the experiment this way ensured that the study did not merely identify a short-lived effect of foam rolling: for a difference in soreness or range of motion to be detected, it would have to be the result of the previous day’s foam rolling routine.

In the results, foam rolling had a statistically significant impact on three important measurements when compared to the control group.

  • First, it reduced muscle soreness one, two, and three days after the squat routine.
  • Foam rolling also resulted in a small but statistically significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
  • Finally, it led to better performance in a vertical leap test.

While it’s hard to apply these results too directly to running, it does look like good news: less soreness and better performance on a vertical leap test both suggest that foam rolling can give your recovery a potent boost, and allow you to run better in subsequent workouts.

And improvements in range of motion could open up new possibilities for treating and preventing injuries, which often are associated with poor range of motion in a particular muscle group.

Foam rolling and range of motion

The range of motion issue was investigated more directly in a study published last year by Graham MacDonald and other researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

This study looked at the “acute” effects of foam rolling—the immediate benefits you get within a few minutes of finishing a foam rolling routine. To do so, they evaluated the range of motion and maximum strength of the quadriceps muscle in eleven men before and after two sets of one minute of a foam rolling exercise which targeted the quads.

Like the previous study, foam rolling had a small but noticeable impact on range of motion.

  • After only two minutes of foam rolling, quadriceps range of motion increased by ten degrees, but less than one degree after a control trial of two minutes’ rest.
  • Moreover, the increase in range of motion persisted for at least ten minutes after the foam rolling; the study participants still had nearly nine degrees more motion at their knee joint after foam rolling, versus only one and a half degrees after rest.

Ongoing research

Still, there’s a lack of scientific evidence on foam rolling for runners specifically. Undoubtedly, lifting weights is very different than doing a hard 10k on a hilly course.

Can foam rolling help in these kinds of situations too?

That’s the topic of research currently underway at the University of Minnesota. A study led by Emma Lee, a graduate student in kinesiology, is examining whether foam rolling can boost recovery after a session of downhill running.

Downhill running is a form of eccentric exercise, which is where muscle fibers lengthen and contract at the same time, and has been shown to cause soreness and impair running economy,” she says.

Lee’s study aims to uncover whether a one-time session of intense foam rolling after a downhill run will have a detectable effect on running economy and performance in a 3k time trial. If it does, this study will further cement foam rolling as an invaluable recovery tool after a hard workout, long run, or a race.

Why foam rolling works

The underlying biology of foam rolling is not yet clear—what’s the mechanism by which foam rolling decreases soreness, boosts recovery, and increases range of motion?

According to Lee, manipulating connective tissue may be the key to foam rolling’s success.

Eccentric exercise damages connective tissue, which stimulates pain receptors and inhibits muscle activation,” she explains. Using a foam roller might help repair damage to your connective tissue, thereby decreasing soreness and preventing a drop in performance after a hard workout—a hypothesis also forwarded by MacDonald et al.

However, more work needs to be done to confirm this theory.

Conclusion (and tips for foam rolling)

Our knowledge on foam rolling is still in its infancy, but there are still some useful tips to be gained from the research done so far.

  • Foam rolling is a fairly effective way to increase a muscle’s range of motion in the short term and decrease soreness when done daily. Current research supports rolling for two one-minute segments per muscle group every day following a tough workout or a hard race.
  • There also appear to be some benefit to using a dense foam roller: MacDonald et al. cite research which proposes that a hard foam roller, made by wrapping a thin layer of foam over a solid PVC pipe, is more effective at manipulating connective tissue than a softer all-foam roller, but it’s unclear what firmness is ideal, and whether a roller can be toohard.

There’s sure to be more research published in the next few years, but so far, foam rolling looks like a cheap, easy, and very promising recovery method.

If you need help with specific foam rolling applications and routines to treat your injuries, check our our Foam Rolling for Runners program.

The guide includes detailed videos and instructions help you understand the “why” behind every movement and exactly how to execute so you’re confident you’re foam rolling correctly, avoiding common mistakes and you’re getting the most from your session. Check it out here.

Get more great injury prevention advice from John Davis (plus other great training & maintenance tips from Jeff Gaudette & Co) on the RunnersConnect blog.

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