These cylindrical pieces of hard foam can be seen in any gym. Their main purpose is to provide the user with a self-massage or self-myofascial release (SMR). For over a decade, scientists have attempted to discover what exactly is going on physiologically when an individual foam rolls. A common assumption is that it breaks down adhesions or knots that form when fascia (connective tissue) gets stuck to muscles, however there's no conclusive evidence of this. What most experts do agree on though is that there's an increase in blood flow to the area that's being rolled which leads to a temperature change and nutrients being transported to that area.
Although the mechanisms aren't crystal clear, there's a growing body of evidence that suggests foam rolling does enhance recovery and mediates soreness. Indeed in a recent study, D’Amico et al. (2017) found that foam rolling is useful for athletes who need to recover quickly from demanding bouts of exercise, which is obviously very important for individuals training regularly. Also research carried out by Rey et al. (2017) established that foam rolling had a positive affect on the recovery and perceived muscle soreness of athletes. They recommend a structured 15-20 minutes of foam rolling at the end of a training session to enhance recovery between training loads.
So when exactly should foam rolling be performed, and for how long?
This of course differs from person to person as each individual has specific requirements and perhaps time constraints, but a good and realistic routine to get into is as follows:
- Roll 5-10 minutes immediately before training as a warm-up. Spread the time between the relevant muscle groups that you're going to use during your workout. So if you're heading out for a run, roll the calves, outer hip muscles, quads (thighs) and adductors (inner thigh muscles).
- Roll 10-20 minutes straight after a workout. Again, spilt the time between the muscles groups you've worked.
- On your rest day, spend 20 minutes or so rolling the areas that feel fatigued and sore. This is a really good habit to get into as it can improve your recovery in preparation for a session the following day. 20 minutes may seem like a long time but pop yourself in front of the television and it'll fly by!
If you're yet to buy a foam roller, then I'd recommend the Maximo EVA roller as a good starting point. Or if you're looking for something that's a little more aggressive, then I'd definitely invest in a Grid. I've had one of these for years and am delighted with it.
D’Amico, A. P., & Gillis, J. (2017). The influence of foam rolling on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
Rey, E., Padrón-Cabo, A., Costa, P. B., & Barcala-Furelos, R. (2017). The Effects of Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool in Professional Soccer Players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.