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To foam roll, or not to foam roll: that is the question!

I often get asked about foam rolling: when to use it, how to do it and why? So, I thought why not cover these points and delve deeper into this topic. If you don’t know, a foam roller is a cylindrical tube of compressed foam or plastic. They come in different sizes with either flat or raised surfaces that can differ in intensity. After shooting to popularity in recent years, lots of people have turned to using foam rollers to help relieve muscle tension and loosen tight, achy muscles. But can science support these claims? Are we just rolling for no reason? This article aims to give you some supporting evidence behind your choice to roll or not to roll!


So, how does it actually work?


By using a foam roller, you are essentially replicating massage, in more of a primitive fashion. Massage is the application of mechanical energy directed into the body’s tissues. When having a massage different techniques and strokes are used to create a desired effect, which could for example be...to increase blood flow, reduce muscle tension or help to decrease adhesions. Foam rolling is pretty similar. When using one you roll various muscles over the foam roller using your own body weight for pressure. Although it can be argued you cannot have as much finite control or delicate direction as you would with massage, foam rolling applies mechanical energy and allows the user to be in control of pressure and area of use.


Can science support claims that foam rolling can reduce muscle tension?


A study conducted in 2014 investigated this (Mohr et al., 2014). The study examined passive hip-flexion in 40 participants to see whether there was any improvement after a course of foam rolling. Participants took part in six foam rolling sessions, once per day over the period of six days. They found that after the six days of foam rolling there was a significant increase in hip flexion, meaning that tension has been reduced in the hamstrings (muscles that resist hip-flexion). This is supported by a more recent study that used foam rolling for a longer period of 4-weeks (Junker and Stöggl, 2015). The paper also found that using a foam roller was as effective as the ‘contract relax’ stretching method and they concluded that you only need to foam roll three times per week for it to be effective. This demonstrates how effective foam rolling can be at reducing muscle tension when it’s only used a few times per week, which is great when it is considered that lots of people fit foam rolling in around their busy life-styles.



Foam rolling and delayed onset muscle soreness


You’ve probably seen people getting a foam roller out to use at the gym. Well…because of the simplicity and ease of use of some rollers like the collapsible Brazyn roller, many people are taking foam rollers out of the house to use after heavy periods of exercise where they may not be able to get a sports massage therapist on hand. However, although you will find many individuals raving about it’s ability at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that occurs after heavy exercise, I wanted to research to see if these claims could actually be supported.

Pearcey et al., (2014) conducted a research trial examining exactly that. A total of eight participants took part in the repeated measures study where they initially performed a high intensity exercise session. After the exercise the participants either didn’t foam roll, foam rolled 20 minutes after the exercise session or over a day later. The study found that foam rolling substantially reduced muscular tenderness that is associated with DOMS (Pearcey et al., 2014). This demonstrates that using foam rolling post-exercise can reduce that terrible muscle soreness that may put you off your training regime. Interestingly this has in fact been supported by a handful of other studies (Macdonald et al., 2014; Cheatham et al., 2015). However, it should be pointed out that if you are working with what is presented in this research and you are wanting to foam roll to help reduce muscle soreness post-exercise, foam rolling should be done immediately after exercise for 20 minutes and then once every day for the next 2 days.


Can foam rolling have any effect on fascia?


Another often spoken about benefit of foam rolling is the supposed effect that it may have on fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue that covers and surrounds everything within our body. Often forgotten about fascia can be subject to injury and dehydration like any other tissue. Foam rolling is said to help act as a form of myofascial release, re-hydrating damaged fascia allowing it to re-balance helping to prevent further soft-tissue problems occurring. A relatively recent paper focused on foam rolling’s potential positive effect on fascia and found that it significantly improved the mobility of the thoracolumbar fascia in a healthy young population of adults (Griefahn et al., 2017). In addition to this the paper also found that level of pain in the area also decreased. However, it is evident that more research needs to carried out in this area as supporting papers are minimal.


How to use a foam roller and when not to use it?


Although foam rolling clearly has its advantages there are some things to be aware of if you are planning on using one. They should not be used directly over joints and caution should be taken if you know that you have a pre-existing musculoskeletal condition. The nature of foam rolling means that you use your own body weight against the foam roller, and this means large amounts of pressure can be placed on the body which in some cases can be detrimental. For example, a foam roller should never be used on your lower back (below your last rib). The reason being that your spine cannot support itself adequately when that amount of pressure is placed on it over a small surface area. Lastly it is advised that foam rolling should not be used when you are experiencing acute pain or discomfort. In this case it is advised that you should seek assessment and advice from a trained medical professional. Ultimately you cannot do as much detailed, delicate manual therapy with a foam roller as you would get if you were receiving a treatment from a professional therapist and it should in no way completely replace proper treatment. However, it really is a fantastic, cost-effective method of maintaining your body in the period of time in-between your sports massage therapy or physiotherapy sessions. As seen above, these claims really can be supported by current research making foam rolling an evidence based practice that truly can reduce muscular pain and tension!


The images used in this article were kindly provided by Brazyn Life, the company that created the Collapsible Brazyn Morph Roller seen in Vogue, Men’s health, Shark Tank and used throughout the world by many Olympians, professional athletes and everyone in-between. Brazyn have kindly offered Driscoll Therapy users 10% discount on their products should anyone want to purchase a collapsible roller to use in-between their sports massage therapy sessions. Just use code Driscoll10 at the check-out.


For any more information and advice on foam rolling or to gain access to the reference used to create this article, please don’t hesitate to get in contact. This blog is not sponsored, all views expressed are my own and no information provided is intended to be advertisement.

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