It’s been a hot topic for many years: does foam rolling improve sporting performance? Foam rolling has been a staple component of training programmes and warm-up and cool-down down routines for some time now. Each person who has ever used a foam roller will be able to say whether it worked for them. Anecdotally, we all know someone who swears by foam rolling to get through a work out. And equally, another person who hates foam rolling – they just don’t see the point… or perhaps they feel it diminishes their performance when training or competing.
Despite this, we still know very little about the impact of foam rolling on performance. There is very little research evidence to shine a light. However, a recent systematic review published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies by Hendricks et al. (2019) examined the small number of studies existing that report the effects of foam rolling.
The key purpose of this review was to work out whether there was sufficient and reliable evidence to support the use of foam rolling (FM) to improve sporting performance, flexibility and pain.
Here are the three main findings on foam rolling from the paper:
- 90 to 120 seconds is optimal to improve your flexibility
- It may negatively impact your short-term ability to produce force (i.e.: reduce your strength performance)
- It has been shown to reduce post-training muscle soreness (i.e.: DOMS)
- It could increase your pain threshold for up to five minutes
- It is most effective when combined with activation exercises and dynamic stretching (rather than static stretching)
So, if you are currently using foam rolling in your training (or would like to), the main practical advice offered was that:
A slow undulating 30s to 60s bout of FR, 3 to 5 times (sets) with 10s-30s rest periods between each set may be optimal for both performance and recovery.
In summary, there is very little evidence to make a conclusive statement about the effectiveness of foam rolling. It is worth noting that different sports require different movement qualities. If your chosen sport or activity requires a specific degree of joint flexibility to perform well, then foam rolling may be a helpful tool. However, in sports and activities where flexibility may hinder performance, or where force output (strength) is the highest indicator of performance then foam rolling may not be so helpful. If you really love foam rolling for pain and DOMS management purposes, then combine it with dynamic stretches and activation exercises and avoid static stretching to minimise any unwanted effects on force production.
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