Do Foam Rollers Help Runners?

It might not seem like it, but the warmer days of spring are quickly approaching and – with them – the start of training season. We’ve talked a lot in past posts about managing and reducing the amount of pain that athletes deal with during training and now we’re going to cover a technique that has been rapidly gaining popularity over the last few years: foam rolling.

Proponents of foam rolling – more clinically called self-myofascial release – claim that it can reduce soreness after a workout as well as improve athletic performance. So, do foam rollers really help runners and other athletes?


What Exactly Is It?

First, though, let’s make sure that we’re clear about what foam rolling is. Fortunately, it’s pretty straightforward; Foam rolling involves rolling a foam cylinder over various parts of your body. The idea is to use the pressure of your body weight against the roller to work out any knots in the muscles or connective tissue that surrounds them (fascia). In theory, this could increase flexibility and help to prepare your muscles for activity.

But, doesn’t static stretching do that? To an extent, yes. The issue with static stretching before a workout, when your muscles are cold, is that it can actually reduce your strength and power once the activity begins. Exercise physiologist Mike Ross from the Gottlieb Center for Fitness compares the muscles to shoe laces with a knot in them. If you pull on the laces – stretching – the knot will only get tighter. Foam rolling, however, allows you to kneed the knots out of your muscles.


Does It Work?

On paper, this makes sense. But how does it hold up in practice?

First, we’ll focus on the claims of reduced pain and soreness. It seems, at least in early studies, that there’s some promise here. A 2014 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that foam rolling did successfully relieve pain and soreness when performed at the end of a workout. Interestingly, this study also reported that the subjects performed better on subsequent workouts.

Does this mean, then, that foam rolling can help improve athletic performance? Probably not. Another study published around the same time in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research switched things up and had participants foam roll before their workouts. There was no effect – positive or negative – on their workout performance. However, this study did find that the subjects experienced less fatigue after foam rolling.

Taking the two studies together, it seems like foam rolling can increase recovery rates and help you make more significant improvements during workouts. While it might be disappointing that foam rolling has no immediate performance-enhancing benefits, remember that static stretching decreases performance. Through that lens, foam rolling has a clear advantage.

A third study confirmed that foam rolling does not decrease performance while also showing that the practice can increase range-of-motion.


The Bottom Line

Foam rolling, then, has some pretty sturdy science behind it. A few minutes before and after your workouts can help to speed up recovery times while simultaneously decreasing pain and fatigue. In a future post, we’ll cover specific foam rolling exercises that you can incorporate into your routine.