Foam Rolling I
When I returned to Canada in 2005 after 6 years of studying and working in Australia a few things had changed. Vancouver had massive buildings, not everyone was wearing Mountain Equipment Co-op Gore-Tex jackets every waking second (they were wearing something called lulu lemon instead) and a lot of physios and trainers were having their clients/patients use a foam roller to “release” their tight muscles. As I have dealt with my own tight leg muscles and injuries for years from a lifetime of competitive running and triathlon, I gave it a try. The tightness I had felt in the outer thigh and ilio-tibial band was much better within 6 weeks of rolling. One of the notable things was that on the first try I could hardly stand the sensitivity I felt when the outer thigh was compressed against the roller. Within 6 weeks that sensation was far less, and that improvement has lasted to this day.
Anecdotally, many of our patients have experienced help with foam rolling and the newer versions of it such as ball rolling and stick rolling. Ball rolling is, you guessed it, using a small ball ( e.g. lacrosse or tennis ball) to work out the tight tissues. With stick rolling, a person uses a sort of flexible rolling pin to roll up and down their muscles. What does it feel like if you have never done it? In therapy we sometimes use the term “good pain”. This is the pain or soreness that happens when you feel like a treatment is getting into the tight tissue that had been causing you problems. I think it feels good, but you may disagree.
But does it work? Strengthandconditioning.com put a summary of all the research that has been done on this topic. It is pretty extensive but I will summarize some of the findings in this post and the next one. They summarize the findings into 4 main areas: short term flexibility, long-term flexibility, post-exercise soreness (DOMS), and athletic effects. Because I know you would rather be foam rolling right now, instead of reading this, I will summarize some of their findings here:
Short term effects on flexibility: Ten studies were analysed, and 6 found some positive effects on flexibility. However, the effects seem to only last 10 minutes. These short term improvements occurred regardless of the length of time of each rolling session. So if you need flexibility for your sport, foam rolling could be a good option.
Long term effects on flexibility: Three low-quality studies looked into this issue. One small study looking at 3 days per week of rolling on hamstring flexibility and showed no changes after 8 weeks. In another study of 24 people with hamstring injuries, there were long-term positive effects on hamstring flexibility. In the 3rd study, 40 subjects were able to increase their hamstring flexibility for at least 6 days after rolling. The results were best for the subjects that combined passive static hamstring stretching with rolling.
Short term effects on post-exercise muscle soreness: Three of four studies showed that foam rolling can reduce the perceived soreness that subjects experienced within 48 hours after a bout of hard exercise.
Effects on athletic performance: It is now known that static (held) stretches can reduce athletic performance (i.e. the ability to jump or sprint). It seems that rolling can give short term gains in flexibility (10 minutes). The 6 studies looking into the effects of rolling on athletic performance found no hindrance to athletic performance by using a foam roller.
It appears that foam rolling can increase your flexibility for 10 minutes or so after you roll. It seems unlikely that it would reduce your sport performance. Also, rolling can help with the soreness you feel after a workout or event. In the long term, rolling MAY help your flexibility, but this is not yet definitive.