Does foam rolling help runners?

Does foam rolling help runners?

If you listen to the proponents of foam rolling they will tell you that foam rolling decreases muscle soreness and fatigue, while also improving flexibility and muscle performance. And on the other side, you’ll hear the anti-foam rolling crowd assert that foam rolling doesn’t help at all and is just a waste of time.

So when in doubt, look at the research instead of listening to everyone else.

What does research on foam rolling for runners show? 

A 2019 German study published in the journal, Frontiers of Physiology 1 looked into the questions of foam rolling benefits for athletes. The study is a meta-analysis, which means the researchers look at previously published studies, read and reviewed all the studies in combined and summarized previous research results.

The goal of this meta-analysis was to come up with a consensus answer to the following questions:

  1. What’s the impact of foam rolling before exercise on sprint, jumping strength performance?
  2. What’s the impact the phone right after exercise on sprint, jumping, and strength performance?
  3. What’s the impact of foam rolling on flexibility and muscle pain?

This meta-analysis found 21 studies the fit the researches’ criteria for review and inclusion into their study. That seems like a small number of studies, the researchers actually start off with over 900 studies on their initial search and then narrowed that group of studies down to a total of 87 studies that they then read and reviewed. The researchers ended up dropping 66 of the 87 studies because these studies didn’t include either a control group (a group that didn’t foam roll) or the study didn’t measure performance results on the test subjects.

Out of the 21 studies, 14 of the studies looked at foam rolling before exercise and seven of the studies looked at from rolling after exercise. Also 14 of the studies used foam rollers, while seven of the studies used massage sticks instead of foam rollers.

The study found by combining and analyzing the results of the previous 21 studies there was a slight increase in spring performance and flexibility with pre-rolling with the foam roller and/or massage stick. However, there was no real benefit improvement noted in jump performance or strength with pre-rolling. The researchers also found that post-exercise foam rolling decreased the perception of muscle pain in athletes.

Conclusion – Foam rolling can help runners

So there may be some benefit to runners to foam rolling either before or after workouts depending on your goal. For a slight benefit or improvement in sprint performance or flexibility, foam roller before your run. If you’re trying to decrease muscle soreness and pain, then foam roll after your run.

What about foam rolling and running performance?

Another study published in 2020 2 looked at the effects of a single episode of foam rolling or myofascial release on running performance. This study took 14 men and after testing their running VO2 Max had them do two 40 minute sub-maximal treadmill runs (at 75% of their VO2 Max). In the study, the runners performed a 20-minute session of myofascial release using a combination of massage balls and rollers focusing on six muscle groups including the soleus (calf), quadriceps, iliotibial band, piriformis, iliopsoas, and the pectoralis muscles. 

Before the other treadmill run, the runners sat in a chair for 20 minutes instead of doing any myofascial release.

Conclusion – Foam rolling won’t make you run slower (or faster)

This study found that myofascial release before a run did not have a negative impact on running performance when compared to not doing any type of myofascial release.

Foam rolling and DOMS

But what about foam rolling after a hard workout such as a high-intensity interval training or a hard weight training workout? Will foam rolling after a hard workout decrease the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) where you can’t get out of bed or climb up or down stairs because of the pain?

 Since the first study suggests that there is some effect of foam rolling on the perception of muscle soreness after a workout, can we use foam rolling to help decrease our soreness a day or two after that hard workout?

A group of French and Canadian researchers looked at the delayed onset muscle soreness and foam rolling question in two separate studies.

A French study 3 had 20 men perform bodyweight squats under a Tabata protocol of 20 seconds of squats followed by 10 seconds of rest for a total of 8 sets. The test subjects then did foam rolling on just one leg and then return back for testing at 24 and 48 hours after the Tabata workout. French researchers found that foam rolling did decrease the sensation of pain in the foam-rolled leg compared to the leg that was not foam rolled.

effect of foam rolling on muscle pain after high-intensity interval training
Different in leg pain between foam rolling and not foam rolling
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6805773/

The Canadian study 4 looked at the effect of foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after having their test subjects do 10 sets of 10 barbell squats. To ensure that the test subjects actually did have muscle soreness the next several days, the researchers’ protocol was to have the test subjects do a slow squat over four seconds in the eccentric phase. The reason for doing this is that typically eccentric muscle contraction causes delayed onset muscle soreness more than concentric muscle contractions. My legs were sore just reading the study protocol. 

The Canadian researchers did find that foam rolling did improve the test subjects perception of pain from delayed onset muscle soreness compared to not foam rolling. The Canadian researchers also found that there was some performance benefit with foam rolling as well over the next 72 hours. They measured the test subjects 30 m sprint, broad jump in dynamic strength and actually found that there was an improvement in all three areas between 24 to 72 hours after the squats if the test subjects had done foam rolling.

effect of foam rolling on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after squats
Magnitude-based inferences demonstrating the effect of foam rolling on A, muscle tenderness, B, sprint speed (30-m sprint time), C, power (broad-jump distance), and D, dynamic strength-endurance (maximal squat repetitions with a 70% of 1-repetition maximum load) after the delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) protocol. Points represent the effect size (Cohen d) describing the interaction effect of foam rolling to control between each time point and pre-DOMS protocol. Error bars represent 95% confidence limits for the mean effect. A point in the shaded region represents a clinically trivial effect.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415413/

Conclusion – Foam Rolling helps with DOMS

So these studies show that foam rolling before a workout doesn’t hurt running performance. More importantly, foam rolling after a hard run or strength training workout may actually decrease your perception of pain after hard workouts over the next one to three days and help with the pain from delayed onset muscle soreness.

REFERENCES

  1. Wiewelhove T, et al,  A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery, Front Physiol 2019; 10: 376. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6465761/
  1. Stroiney DA, et al, The Effects of an Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release on the Physiological Parameters of Running, Int J Exerc Sci. 2020: 13(3):113-122 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039479/
  1. Laffaye G, Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6805773/
  1. Pearcey GE, etal, Foam Rolling for Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures, J Athl Training, 2015 Jan; 5-(1):5-13 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415413/
Research
  1. Wiewelhove T, et al,  A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Foam Rolling on Performance and Recovery, Front Physiol 2019; 10: 376. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6465761/[]
  2. Stroiney DA, et al, The Effects of an Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release on the Physiological Parameters of Running, Int J Exerc Sci. 2020: 13(3):113-122 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7039479/[]
  3. Laffaye G, Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6805773[]
  4. Pearcey GE, etal, Foam Rolling for Delayed-onset Muscle Soreness and Recovery of Dynamic Performance Measures, J Athl Training, 2015 Jan; 5-(1):5-13 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415413[]

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