Are there any studies to prove that foam rolling actually works?


Now you have all heard us health professionals talk about the benefits of using your foam roller to aid your recovery or improve your performance?  Is there actually any science to back this up?  Yes, there is.  Before I dive into this, I want to mention the mechanisms behind how massage is beneficial. 

There are both physical and psychological aspects to massage.  The physical benefits are as follows:

·      Increased muscle compliance

·      Increased joint range of motion

·      Decreased tissue adhesions

·      Decreased active and passive stiffness

·      Increased muscle blood flow and temperature

·      Increased parasympathetic activity

·      Increased relaxation hormones (dopamine and serotonin)

·      Increased skin blood flow

·      Reduced stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin)

·      Reduced muscle tension

·      Reduced pain


The psychological benefits of massage are as follows:

·      Reduced anxiety

·      Reduced tension

·      Reduced stress

·      Reduced occurrence of depression

·      Improved mood

·      Increased sense of wellbeing

·      Increased relaxation


When we exercise it is typical to experience various levels of fatigue, which can lead to discomfort and pain, especially if we had a hard training set.  Many are aware of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  There are a few theories as to why this occurs such as impairment to excitation-contraction coupling, damage to various muscle fibers, metabolic impairments and peripheral as well as central fatigue are linked to the experience of DOMS as an individual. 


In terms of athletic performance this can have a negative effect on being able to train again within 48hrs of a hard training session, or perform for an event if we were a little foolish and had a hard training session too close to an event.  So, can massage or more to the point foam rolling help improve certain physical and psychological performance measures?  Yes, it can.


In a study conducted by Pearcey et al, 2015, they showed that 20 minutes of foam rolling immediately after exercise, 24hrs hours later and 48 hrs later had a significant improvement compared to the control group in a variety of performance measures and experience of DOMS by the athlete.  Foam rolling was shown to aid in the recovery of muscle tenderness associated with DOMS.  Additionally, foam rolling positively affected both sprint speed (30m sprint) and power performances (Broad jump distance) at 24hrs and 72 hrs post exercise.  Additionally, the number of squat repetitions that the athlete could do at 60% 1RM (strength-endurance test) returned to preexercise values by 48hrs in the foam rolling group, while the control group had to wait until 72 hrs.  It would be interesting to run a similar study looking at performance in a time trail with endurance athletes, it is likely that similar benefits would be seen.  The drawback of this study is that it only contained 8 participants, reducing its power, however a few studies have produced similar results.


The proposed mechanisms behind this are related to the list of both physical and psychological aspects of massage listed above.  So, the take home message here is that foam rolling can substantially reduce the negative effects of DOMS on dynamic movements, reduce your recovery time between sessions and help you to return to training faster.  As many athlete’s train and compete on consecutive days it is essential that they consider adding effective and proven methods to aid their recovery such as foam rolling.


Blessings RK.


Reference: Pearcey, E, G. et al. Foam rolling for Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. Journal of Athletic Training. 50(1), 5-13, 2015.