There’s no doubt about it. I’m getting older, and while not wiser, definitely stiffer and achier, especially after running. I’ve gotten many suggestions on how to reduce these new and undesirable aches and pains, ranging from practicing daily yoga to drinking pomegranate juice to (gasp!) running less. The most popular and mainstream advice, found in running magazines, online coaching websites, and through personal trainers, is to use the foam roller after each run. So, as I dutifully flail about on my living room floor each morning on a giant red cylinder, I decided it’s worthwhile to take a look at the evidence behind this recommendation.
For those of you not familiar with foam rollers, here’s a quick video that demonstrates the use of a foam roller (and believe me, there are hundreds of how-to videos out there with complete whole-body workouts or shorter segments that target specific muscle groups). Briefly, the premise behind using a foam roller is that it mimics the myofascial release techniques used by massage therapists, physical therapists and athletic trainers. The fascia is connective tissue that surrounds muscle, nerves and blood vessels, and can be restricted due to injury, disease and aging. This restriction reduces range of motion, alters muscle contractility, and increases muscle pain, inflammation and stiffness. Rolling one’s body weight over a dense foam cylinder, therefore, is thought to be a form of self-massage that stretches the fascia and makes it more fluid, breaking apart fibrous adhesions in the process.
So, this all sounds convincing, but what does the research say? Well, a 2014 study published in MSSE (the American College of Sports Medicine’s journal), found that 20 minutes of foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness and increased muscle range of motion (i.e., flexibility) after a bout of intense activity. Study findings are in agreement with older data showing that using the foam roller increased range of motion without negatively impacting muscle activiation or force. In other words, the foam roller appears to beneficially alter muscle extensibility without impairing muscle performance. One additional study found that foam rolling reduced arterial stiffness, providing preliminary evidence of a positive effect on arterial function. Even the more portable roller-massager (which looks like a baker’s rolling pin; one uses upper body strength rather than body weight to apply pressure on various muscle groups) also elicits similar benefits in improving hamstring flexibility without impairing muscle strength.
Now, the makers of various foam rollers are much more dramatic in extolling the virtues of their product. For example, a quick search on Amazon.com shows manufacturers listing benefits of foam rollers that range from “improving circulation” to “relieving stress.” While these claims are not supported by rigorous evidence, it does appear that there is sufficient evidence to support using a foam roller to improve muscle range of motion and reduce post-exercise soreness. So, keep calm and roll on!
And for those of you who know the reference behind the title, here’s a link to the Dead playing Franklin’s Tower in 1977 at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. “If you get confused, listen to the music play…”