To Roll Or Not To Roll
If you are a runner, I’m sure you will no doubt have a foam roller (or some type of massage device) tucked away gathering dust somewhere. You may well be in the group who religiously use it after every run to sooth sore muscles. So, do you know what it actually does?
Rollers allow the user to perform ‘self-myofascial release’(SMFR). Fascia is the tissue that surrounds muscles and can become tethered, sore or inflamed through overload. Research does suggest that using a foam roller to move this fascia around can make it more flexible and help break down areas of adhesion.
In 2015 a systematic review (Cheatham et al) looked at the effects of SMFR on joint range of motion (ROM), muscle recovery and Performance. Their research only found 14 small low-quality studies and from those they could only suggest that foam rollering may enhance joint ROM and pre/post muscle performance. They did support the growing (if not small body) of evidence that using a foam roller can help ease muscle soreness after exercise.
A further systematic review in 2019 (Wiewelhoveet al) concluded that foam rollering seems to be an effective strategy for short term improvements in flexibility. Overall, it was determined that the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are rather minor and partly negligible, but can be relevant in some cases (e.g., to increase sprint performance and flexibility or to reduce muscle pain sensation). Evidence seems to justify the widespread use of foam rolling as a warm-up activity rather than a recovery tool.
So, what does this mean for us? Well firstly the effects of self-myofascial release are poorly understood so there is much debate about what the foam roller is achieving. The current research is of poor quality and has been mainly on small numbers of higher-level athletes. The research that has been done seems to very slightly suggest that using a foam roller may be useful to help you warm up prior to activity. However, there are much better ways to warm up that are much more evidence based, that take your joints and soft tissue through full range of movement. There is no evidence at all that backs using a foam roller for injuries and one study describes the potential risks associated with using too much force on the fascial tissue that covers our body (Friewald et al) . As a physiotherapist and a runner, I see many runners committed to battering their already overwhelmed tissue after a run and hear words such as ‘torture’ and ‘agony’ to describe a session on the foam roller.
Tissue becomes sore through overload and exertion. Most runners don’t train well and often don’t run using the correct running muscles. This can lead to discomfort in areas such as the calves and glutes. Using a foam roller wont change the overload and you may even be damaging the fascia underneath the skin. For some people in some instances I do suggest the use of a foam roller but it is usually applied gently or to achieve a specific goal.
In the next series of videos I demonstrate how to use different massage tools effectively. You shouldn’t be in agony and its important that you understand that you aren’t breaking down knots or scar tissue but you are helping to move the fascia around which may in some instance be hindering normal movement.
There’s still no getting away from good quality training, the inclusion of S&C training, regular range of movement exercise and activity and the knowledge that if you train hard then DOMS is a normal part of the adaptation of healthy tissue and really you should embrace this with the knowledge you are making positive changes to your soft tissue.
TOP TIPS FOR FOAM ROLLERING
1- don’t use it on sore areas or if you do then keep the pressure soft
2- spend 1-5 minutes on each muscle group – ideally 1 min x2
3- ideally 2-3 times a week is your goal
4- use it along side a dynamic warm up programme and a good quality training programme
5- select the correct massage tool- I recommend a hand roller , a massage ball and a foam roller