Foam rolling is a popular and convenient method of self-myofascial release, used to increase myofascial mobility. It is an intervention used in physical therapy, rarely in isolation, but usually as an integral part of a comprehensive program aimed to help people move and function better. With the proper education, it is fairly easy for a patient to perform at home or at the gym. The cylindrical foam roller is placed over the targeted soft tissue. For instance, if you want to foam roll your quadriceps muscles you would lay facedown with the foam roller under the front of your thigh. You would then use your arms and opposite leg to propel your body up and down over the foam roller. You can also use your arms and opposite leg to adjust the amount of pressure applied by offsetting some of your body weight.
Foam rolling is used for a variety of different reasons including alleviation of muscle stiffness and soreness, desensitizing painful trigger points, improving flexibility, preventing overuse injuries, enhancing recovery following exercise and improving athletic performance. MacDonald et al. (1) found that an acute bout of foam rolling led to an increase in knee joint range of motion. Pearcy et al. (2) found that foam rolling following aggressive exercise reduced subjects’ pain levels and improved future athletic performance.
While the indications for foam rolling are well-known, the underlying physiological mechanisms at work are not as well understood. Due to the current lack of scientific research on the mechanisms of foam rolling, we are left to hypothesize. There is the ‘biomechanical’ school of thought which suggests that an elongation of the myofascial tissue occurs which leads to increased extensibility of the soft tissue. Then there is the ‘neuromodulation’ view that suggests that the applied pressure from the foam roller stimulate nerve receptors in the soft tissues leading to perceived changes.
A common question that is asked in regards to foam rolling is “how long should I perform it and how often should I do it?” Unfortunately, there is no consensus among clinicians on duration or frequency. I often have patients foam roll for 2-3 repetitions of 60 second bouts. However, the parameters are often modified due to variables such as patient pain tolerance and fitness. In general, I recommend foam rolling until the patient feels a release in the target tissue. The frequency of foam rolling depends on what the patient is trying to accomplish. I also take into consideration things such as bruising, which is not uncommon, and how long the patient has soreness following treatment. I would encourage an athlete to foam roll tight muscles following exercise or competition. For an individual attempting to alleviate trigger points, I would suggest foam rolling 2-3 times per day.
Michael Donnelly, PT, DPT,OCS
- Macdonald, G., Penney, M., Mullaley, M., Cuconato, A., Drake, C., Behm, D.G., & Button, D.C. An acute bout of self myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (Epub ahead of print) May 10, 2012.
- Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl