Foam Rolling- Evidence Based Results?


Although I am a big advocate of the release techniques, not all areas of the body respond well to this treament and rolling for the sake of rolling is simply a waste of time. July 21, 2003

The foam rolling saga continues as Mike Boyle shared his thought out beliefs on the use of foam rollers with athletes. Many of the Mikes are proponents of SMRT such as Mike Robertson, Dr. Mike Clark, and Mike Boyle. One Mike, specifically Mike T Nelson, doesn’t believe we should be foam rolling as much and believes it is masking symptoms. What to believe? Moneyball and Evidence Based Medicine and Coaching is the next big thing, but without research that is sound, how do we decide what to do? I don’t have the answers but have questions that I would answered by both research and coaches doing foam rolling. I will share my experiences and hopefully some ideas of what to do to get better results.

My first experience with foam rolling was at the 1997-1998 Building and Rebuilding the Complete Athlete with ironically Vern Gambetta, someone who is not in favor of using foam rolling as a warm-up replacement, but does do rolling for tissue work. Gambetta, similar to many, prefers doing it at the conclusion of training to get ready for the next day. This is called the Winckler Principal, that you leave a workout the way you want to start the workout. I like options so I do a little of it before and after, but in Track and Field we have far more time than professional team sports and NCAA restrictions for strength coaches. While in Tampa Mike Clark was assisting Vern and shared his stretches and foam rolling and I had to buy them from OTPT as they were not considered training tools until the early 2000s.

Now in 2012 times have changed. I blogged about foam rolling and had some poor suggestions (not based on good evidence) regarding the protocols in 2003, but 95% of the information is still useful. Two things I would edit out would be breaking down adhesions and removing the illustration. I would also change the timing for after practice and sometimes before as athletes are less responsible and more lazy now than 10 years ago. Ideal and utopian isn’t as good as witnessed! Now let’s get into what the argument is. The question is does foam rolling work, and what is the best way to use foam rolling? How do we know things are working? Not trying to create controversy, I will look at both sides of the argument as I am in the middle, thinking that foam rolling has benefits but I use it sparingly. It’s easy to push the popular vote for web traffic or take the other side for controversy but I am more a of a it helps but let’s see what it’s limitations are and how can we use it better person.

Like the barefoot training is it a case of causation by correlation or is a direct approach worth the investment? Mike Boyle in his blog post posted some good responses and thoughts, and I wish more people would respond openly about the differences and methods that they seem to find useful. Mike always does a good job writing and his blog does stimulate good thinking in the profession. Sometimes the science is ideal, but the real world makes us think about progress or improvement rather than ideal or utopian. Let’s take a look at the discussion to see if we can start finding out more about what foam rolling can and can’t do. Mike Boyle’s comments are blocked for viewing purposes.

What Mr. Nelson fails to acknowledge in his treatise on foam rolling is that in the end, the process is about chemistry, not electricity. All mechanical and neurological inputs become chemical inputs. It is clear scientific fact that the disturbance caused to tissue via mobilization (rolling, massage, Graston. ART) in effect irritates the tissue. This irritation is painful in the short term, but the response is often a healing one, not a negative one. In soft tissue mobilization, the tissue is deliberately disrupted in order to produce the exact substances that tissue needs to heal and to realign.

What are the exact substances that the tissue needs to heal and realign? Does ART and Graston increase healing, as photos of several people show bruising that looks like enhanced interrogation methods that Dick Chaney would find a bit extreme. With mitochondrial biogenesis talked about on blogs, does anyone think the marathon champions are giving up altitude tents for foam rolling to get local mitochondrial activation? Are we activating mitochondria with foam rolling? A lot to think about and I am not going to even try to address the chemistry here as I tend to see cut and paste jobs instead of concrete explanations. Can anyone share the chemistry and compare it to the differences in doing a dynamic warm-up?

So, back to why we foam roll. In the simplest sense, rolling is step one on the preparatory process. Our goal pre-exercise is to prepare the tissue for the stresses about to be applied. Proper tissue preparation allows an athlete to perform a workout without injury. I think or hope that we can accept the position that tissue changes in response to stress.

Mike clearly believes that foam rolling should be in the beginning of a workout, but let’s be honest here. With a limit of training time how much should be placed into static stretching and foam rolling? Warming up takes time, and taking time away from warming up is likely to cause problems that foam rolling is attempting to deal with. I am not against foam rolling and stretching before intense exercise, I just find that athletes are far more fit doing on their feet activities for 20 minutes instead of lying down or sitting down. What chemicals are we getting from warming up? What combinations and sequences are more likely to get changes that reduce exercises. I agree with Mike Boyle that some light therapy options are good as a final tweak of the body but I am a minimalist and prefer more work in the conclusion. So far this year I have had no injuries when this is supervised. I think Coach Boyle understands that a hard workout leaves an athlete tired and the efforts foam rolling at the end of the workout is not going to be as good as the efforts before. If this works for him, something is better than nothing. I have reduced post training therapy to a minimal as well as people want a protein drink and a shower and go home, so sneaking warm-down is harder and harder each year.

If the tissue is overstressed by inappropriate volume (too many reps) , speed of lengthening (too fast) , or inappropriate overload (to much weight) the tissue response can shift from positive to negative. Although tissue soreness is deemed normal, we must acknowledge that there is an ideal amount of that normal response, and the response should be limited to the muscle tissue and not be present in the connective tissue. In other words, sore quads would be OK, but sore knees not be OK.

Mike T Nelson asks why do we foam roll if the program is working? If the programs or rehab is working well, does one need to foam roll then? I agree but I am in the same boat as most coaches and deal with athlete that are not race horses and must deal with life’s obstacles. I try to manage volumes, modalities, progressions, and intensities- but I usually get the old and walking wounded coming in wanting to find a way to get to the big dance. Often we put inhuman loads on athletes, like the NBA is requesting with the compressed schedule this year. Triage trumps therapy at this point.

The combination of static stretching, foam rolling, and dynamic activities such as being on two feet moving is a good option. I like my desert at the end of the meal, but would not push away sorbet to cleanse the tissue pallet if necessary. Make sure you get all of the items to physiologically prepare the body to train, and make sure you include the following.

Heat and Chemistry- I am working one a checklist of physiological responses to exercise to tissues, but certain chemicals and physiological reposes require specific times and modalities. Make sure you can defend your position of what you do down to the degree or molecular level. It’s ok to say I like something because the athletes look good and we are not getting injuries this year, but when things are not going well what is the defense? I try to have at least a few studies to see if I am just doing what others do versus trying to do what is right for the athletes. It’s hard asking for the less popular path if it’s the right one.

Movement- Research shows that moving sub-maximally prepares the body to move near maximally or supra maximally. One example is the study on relaxation rates on muscle with running. I am excited to see some of the studies with TMG and HRV with regards to keeping athlete healthy with contractile characteristics of muscles and the coordination of the body.

Stretching- It’s ok to static stretch, provided enough time or something is done before maximal power and speed. Usually people build up before a maximal attempt anyway.

Mobility- Get joints moving, but do it effectively because of time constraints.

Arousal Activities- Raise volume on music and do something explosive. Running a few laps is not going to get a basketball player to dunk in traffic

Motor Skills- Brains are receptive to learning better when fatigue is absent. Teach early and go complex to simple as fatigue increases.

Addressing Tone- Even perfect programs have tonus issues. Don’t sprint without feeling even in tissue texture. I don’t care if you have a full time massage therapist name Wolfgang on the track or a black foam roller. Try to make sure training smart reduces problems but reality is going to make it likely one is going to have to address issues. Training load is a major cause of trigger points and lack of chemical readiness is as well.

I don’t care how you get it done so long as it gets done. I have my recipe and some coaches have their recipes. We all need to cook the same dish though, so if the menu says tropical fruit salad and you don’t have pineapple and melon, you may be in trouble! What works is what can be measured both physiologically and historically provided that the context is appropriate. So in summary I like the fact coaches address things and if people do it differently that is fine, as each person’s perspective is going to be different. Foam rolling does help and I suggest including it as a dash or spice instead of the main dish. Mike Boyle sharing his blog post allows for many of us to question why we do things and hopefully be more investigative with training. What I have learned is that warming up for strength and conditioning may be different with older players than a college sprinter with 3 hours of time. My context may not be the same so maybe what I do would be a risk to another program.
Discuss entry

Carl Valle

Carl Valle

Track & Field Coach
Carl is an expert coach who has produced champions in swimming, track and numerous other sports. He is one of the foremost experts in the fields of nutrition and restoration.
Carl Valle

Latest posts by Carl Valle (see all)