How to foam roll effectively

There’s a lot of back and forth between parties on the internet regarding the use of foam rolling. Research has been done and we know the answers (to some degree). The controversy is typically founded in a lack of context, as most of the “best practices” come down to what your goal and situation is. There is no “one size fits all” answer.

How does it work?

First off, lets address how foam rolling works. I’ll start this post off with some controversy and give it to you straight - we don’t quite know yet. That being said, we do have some theories as to how it may work. One theory is that we are using the foam roller to break up adhesions and restrictions within the muscle for improved range of motion afterwards. This theory, all things considered, is probably the least likely. We know from research that connective tissue and scar tissue takes supra-physiological (i.e. more than you could generate with your body weight and muscle strength without hydraulics) forces to break up fascial adhesions and deform connective tissue, such as the iliotibial band (IT band). As a quick aside, you physically CANNOT STRETCH the IT band due to this concept. You can only stretch the muscles that attach to the IT band and improve the ability of the band to glide and slide past adjacent tissue.

A second theory is that the pressure of the foam roller causes a local vasodilation response and an increase in blood flow, which is generally a positive thing for recovery and performance. Another theory has a basis in modulating tone (the resting tension) of the muscle. That is, using an input (the foam roller) to provide a stimulus to the nervous system and change the output (muscle “stiffness” and range of motion). As with many concepts in my field, we have theories based in the science of biomechanical, neurological, and endocrine/chemical physiology. It is short-sighted to think that any of these areas of study work in isolation within the body, and therefore the answer is probably some combination thereof.

My best guess

So that was a lot. Allow me to summarize and explain what I believe to be the consensus at this time based on my experience and what I have read in the research literature. My opinion and current thoughts are that foam rolling works through a combination of neuromodulation, increased blood flow, and enhanced fascial layer sliding.

Allow me to unpack that statement. Neuromodulation refers to the effect that deep, slow-paced pressure has on the muscle from the foam roller. An appropriate analogy is how muscles become more relaxed and mobile following a deep tissue massage. Some studies have shown that foam rolling has a crossover effect in that foam rolling the muscles of one limb can induce temporary range of motion increases in the other. This would suggest that foam rolling, at least to some degree, works by acting on corticospinal excitability (motor pathways) and the nervous system.

Increased blood flow occurs secondary to the release of nitric oxide, which is a powerful vasodilator (artery opener). Nitric oxide is released, again, due to this mechanical stimulus of the deep pressure of the foam roller.

Fascial layer sliding is the ability for different layers of tissue within your body to slide and glide past one another without restriction and at differing speeds, such as necessary for normal movement. This is likely enhanced by foam rolling due in part to the friction created, which results in intramuscular heat. Increased heat has previously been shown to further increase local blood flow and result in a greater lubrication (activation of hyaluronic acid) of both tissues and joints.

Believe it or not, that was me trying not to get too technical and stay more general versus trying to explain cellular level biology and chemistry. Admittedly, those concepts are not my field or expertise. Therefore, I leave that to those smarter than myself and simply integrate their findings as they are presented to me.

A quick note on vibrating foam rollers and products

I wanted to at least touch on how vibrating foam rollers and related products and how they fit into our current understanding. There is some promising research that adding vibration to foam rolling may increase range of motion gains as well as further decrease pain-pressure threshold (sensitivity) associated with muscle soreness. However, there are also studies that show no added benefit compared to traditional foam rolling. Since the addition of vibration to these products is relatively new, we simply do not have enough research or experience to have a definitive answer yet. However, I’m of the opinion that if adding vibration feels better for the patient, then I’m all for it. It’s not going to hurt anything.

Does foam rolling improve performance?

It depends. This is often a large sticking point with those on social media and the internet. An argument against foam rolling is that it decreases performance, and therefore you should never foam roll before a major competition or high-effort task. One of the theories from earlier on how foam rolling works is via neuromodulation and decreasing the tone (resting tension) of the muscle, therefore improving the range of motion associated with that muscle. Overall, this is decreasing corticospinal excitability. This may not be beneficial in the context of increased physical performance, where you want maximal activation of a muscle for maximum power and speed. Some studies show that the longer you foam roll, the greater the decrease in performance you may observe. This is, of course, looking at foam rolling directly before whatever task is being measured. Research in this area is typically conducted in such fashion by having subjects foam roll prior to immediately undergoing a maximal athletic task (vertical jump, maximal barbell squat, etc.). In such studies, it is noted that the foam roll group typically underperforms compared to controls. However, experts believe this effect to be only temporary (initial estimates around ~ 3 minutes), after which performance returns to baseline.

The other side of the argument is that if you can reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after an intense training session/workout more quickly or efficiently, does this improve performance on a subsequent task compared to those who did not foam roll? The first part of this equation is that research at this time does suggest that foam rolling attenuates or reduces subjective post-training soreness. One study (Pearcey et. al 2015) has shown that a 20-minute foam rolling session every 24 hours after a training session [that induced muscle soreness] led to increased performance in sprint speed, power, and dynamic strength-endurance (all good things for most high-level and athletic tasks). The foam roll group recovered to baseline strength and performance an average of 24 hours quicker than the control group. Granted, this is only one study and further research is likely needed to provide further clarity. However, the initial trend is positive.

Hopefully by now you can see how this can cause quite a controversy on social media. It certainly varies based on where you get your information. This is where it is vital that you keep an open mind and not be afraid to be wrong. As was previously mentioned, we still don’t completely understand the scientific basis of foam rolling. We just know that it works for certain objectives. We have to operate under our current scientific understanding until it is challenged by newer research.

How long should I foam roll?

This is always a popular question and again, highly debated. There is a good body of research to pull from that looks at just this. In terms of increasing range of motion and warming up prior to a training session or competition, this can be achieved in as little as 15-20 seconds of foam rolling. It is important to note that this is 15-20 seconds PER muscle or muscle group. Foam rolling the calf muscle does not necessarily translate to increased hip range of motion, for example. The ideal duration appears to be around 90 seconds of foam rolling per muscle group. Less than this and you don’t achieve the same range of motion gains, mitigated soreness, and increased blood flow. More than this and you potentially begin to run into issues of decreasing performance (power, strength, etc.) as discussed previously. Some studies cite that you do not achieve more benefit to rolling longer than the initial 15-20 seconds, but others do. This is likely a case that the ideal foam rolling duration is individualized, with some individuals benefiting from a longer duration and others where it may not be necessary. It may be beneficial to experiment with varying durations for your specific purposes and find what works best with this range (15-90 seconds) in mind.

For the case of decreasing DOMS and post-exercise soreness, a longer duration may be more beneficial. For example, in the study mentioned above, a 20 minute foam rolling session every 24 hours improved a later performance. In this study, the subjects performed 3 of these sessions for a total of 60 minutes of foam rolling over 72 hours. Even in this case, however, the foam roll duration for any given muscle group at a time was 45 seconds, despite there being multiple “sets” per muscle group within the 20 minutes. It is important to understand that this added benefit is not necessarily linear. The greatest benefit is seen following the first 1-2 minutes, and although a longer duration provides more benefit, it is not as great of a jump as the first 1-2 minutes. This may be another situation where if you are utilizing foam rolling for this purpose, you may experiment with different durations to find the minimal dose that YOU need to see a worthwhile effect. It may be that after a certain amount of time, you do not see any significant advantage to a longer duration. This is why the “ideal” or “correct” foam roll implementation, timing, and duration is different depending on your specific goal and situation.

To Summarize…

  • Foam rolling can help to decrease post-training muscle soreness (DOMS), with a longer duration providing a greater decrease in soreness. However, this decrease is not linear and demonstrates diminishing returns with prolonged foam rolling.

    • This may or may not improve future performance compared to those who did not foam roll

  • The optimal duration to foam roll prior to training (for warm up, increasing range of motion purposes) appears to be around 90 seconds, however benefits may be observed in as little 15-20 seconds.

About the Author

Dr. Ryan Queen is a doctor of physical therapy, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and level 1 certified precision nutrition coach, in addition to holding certifications in other adjunct treatment modalities and paradigms.

He created Revolution Performance as a gym-based physical therapy practice and wellness coaching service after becoming frustrated by the conflict of interest that health insurance company restrictions bring. His vision with the company has always been to provide high quality, holistic care while forming life-long relationships.

His mission is to help busy, hard-working adults get out of pain and dysfunction, whether from a current injury, a past one, or just daily aches and pains. In addition, Ryan has a passion for creating a proactive environment where issues are addressed before they become debilitating, or even before they exist.

After working 40 hours a week at a full time job while going to physical therapy school, Ryan knows how it feels to think you do not have enough time in the day to take care of yourself in all facets of health. It has been a goal of his to share the information and strategies he has learned to help others improve their overall health and become more productive.

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