The Science of Foam Rolling for Recovery and injury prevention
One of my favorites routines after running its foam rolling, not stretching, yeah I am kind of a sadism, jajaja.
Why? Because Foam Rolling has a significant impact on
- it reduced muscle soreness one, two, and three days after the running routine.
- Foam rolling also resulted in a small but statistically significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
Foam rolling can give your recovery a potent boost, and allow you to run better in subsequent workouts.
And improvements in range of motion could open new possibilities for treating and preventing injuries, which often are associated with a poor range of motion in a particular muscle group.
Foam rolling and range of motion
The range of motion issue was investigated more directly in a study published last year by Graham MacDonald and other researchers at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.
This study looked at the “acute” effects of foam rolling—the immediate benefits you get within a few minutes of finishing a foam rolling routine. To do so, they evaluated the range of motion and maximum strength of the quadriceps muscle in eleven men before and after two sets of one minute of a foam rolling exercise which targeted the quads.
- Like the previous study, foam rolling had a small but noticeable impact on the range of motion.
- After only two minutes of foam rolling, quadriceps range of motion increased by ten degrees, but less than one degree after a controlled trial of two minutes’ rest.
- Moreover, the increase in a range of motion persisted for at least ten minutes after the foam rolling; the study participants still had nearly nine degrees more motion at their knee joint after foam rolling, versus only one and a half degrees after rest.
Still, there’s a lack of scientific evidence on foam rolling for runners specifically. Undoubtedly, lifting weights is very different than doing a hard 10k on a hilly course.
Can foam rolling help in these kinds of situations too?
That’s the topic of research currently underway at the University of Minnesota. A study led by Emma Lee, a graduate student in kinesiology, is examining whether foam rolling can boost recovery after a session of downhill running.
Downhill running is a form of eccentric exercise, which is where muscle fibers lengthen and contract at the same time, and has been shown to cause soreness and impair running economy,” she says.
Lee’s study aims to uncover whether a one-time session of intense foam rolling after a downhill run will have a detectable effect on running economy and performance in a 3k time trial. If it does, this study will further cement foam rolling as an invaluable recovery tool after a hard workout, long run, or a race.
The underlying biology of foam rolling is not yet clear—what’s the mechanism by which foam rolling decreases soreness, boosts recovery, and increases a range of motion?
According to Lee, manipulating connective tissue may be the key to foam rolling’s success.
Eccentric exercise damages connective tissue, which stimulates pain receptors and inhibits muscle activation,” she explains. Using a foam roller might help repair damage to your connective tissue, thereby decreasing soreness and preventing a drop in performance after a hard workout—a hypothesis also forwarded by MacDonald et al.
Our knowledge on foam rolling is still in its infancy, but there are still some useful tips to be gained from the research done so far.
- Foam rolling is a fairly effective way to increase a muscle’s range of motion in the short term and decrease soreness when done daily. Current research supports rolling for two one-minute segments per muscle group every day following a tough workout or a hard race.
- There also appear to be some benefit to using a dense foam roller: MacDonald et al. cite research which proposes that a hard foam roller, made by wrapping a thin layer of foam over a solid PVC pipe, is more effective at manipulating connective tissue than a softer all-foam roller, but it’s unclear what firmness is ideal, and whether a roller can be too hard.
There’s sure to be more research published in the next few years, but so far, foam rolling looks like a cheap, easy, and very promising recovery method.
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