When Should You Foam Roll?

The purpose of this blog is to review the current body of research around the best times to implement foam rolling, analyzing and appraising the evidence for before, during, and after training.

After we released our first piece of content on foam rolling – our youtube video on how does foam rolling work – we got a lot of questions on getting the best results possible with foam rolling. A central question was, when should you foam roll?

Is foam rolling a part of the warm up? Is foam rolling what you should do during your rest break between sets? Is foam rolling your cooldown and recovery? These are all questions we’ve been asked in regards to foam rolling. People regularly use it before training, but aren’t sure if that’s best. Recently people have been using it more during training in hopes of better results.

Foam rolling has become such a mainstream modality in the last few years. You walk into most gyms and you’ll find people foam rolling somewhere. As it’s grown in popularity, there has been a growth in the recommendations on what the best time to foam roll is, and what the benefits are from doing it at different times.

Now in standard E3 Rehab fashion, we don’t want to go off just opinion, but utilize the best evidence we can possible on the subject. Fortunately, there is actually quite a lot on this subject, so we went through and appraised it to help condense it down and highlight the major practical details for you. So, let’s get into it.

There are a lot of different kinds of benefits claimed about foam rolling:

  • Increased range of motion
  • Reduced stiffness
  • Improved neurological drive

And more.

It’s common to see people use foam rolling before working out, as a part of their warm up or as its own separate activity before warming up. MacDonald 2013 looked to examine this where they had individuals do two bouts of 60 seconds of foam rolling on their quads before testing knee range of motion and knee extension strength.

They found that there was no real benefit for strength, but there was an effect for range of motion. Murray 2016 did a similar study, except this time only had individuals foam roll one leg and then compare range of motion. They found foam rolling did result in a slight benefit for range of motion, but it wasn’t what we would call practically meaningful. Murray 2016 also found that there was no benefit for muscle contractility or temperature change with foam rolling.

So we have to ask ourselves, is this beneficial though? When deciding when to use foam roll, what we really care about is does foam rolling have a meaningful impact on performance, not just some arbitrary changes.

Wiewelhove et al 2019 completed a meta-analysis where they grouped results of studies looking at foam rolling before and after training.

When results were grouped, they saw a small improvement with foam rolling before sprinting. However, the authors stated that when you dig deeper into studies looking at sprinting, this small benefit was possibly due to placebo and not necessarily a meaningful amount of benefit for most people.

In contrast to sprinting, foam rolling right before jumping actually showed a small negative effect on performance. Foam rolling before strength testing showed a minor benefit. The effect size was very small, but it was there. Wiewelhove et al stated that overall, foam rolling before training appears to provide a benefit of about 1.5%.

Now when we start to look at utilizing foam rolling during training, things change. For instance, Jo 2018 looked to examine how having individuals do fatiguing work, then foam roll or just rest, would impact recovery for performance on various tests, such as vertical jump. This would be similar to what we’d expect if someone was trying to utilize foam rolling during a break in a sporting game, such as at half time in game.

They found that foam rolling wasn’t superior to just resting for jump height or dynamic reaction time. It wasn’t detrimental, but it wasn’t better than just static rest. Now in their study, they completed a 10 minute rest between activities, which gives insight into using it like we mentioned during a half time, but not necessarily during a workout.

Monteiro 2017 looked to address this and investigate a practical workout situation. In their study they had individuals perform 3 sets of leg extensions to failure and rest 4 minutes between sets. During the rest, individuals either passively rested, or foam rolled their hamstrings for a set time of 60 or 120 seconds and rest the remaining time. The hamstrings are the antagonists of the working muscles for leg extensions, so it was theorized to foam roll them between sets to allow them to lengthen better.

However, they actually found that passive rest was superior for repeating performance across sets. When individuals foam rolled, they had worse performance as sets went on – not being able to maintain performance as well as the people who just rested.

Now some people see this study and argue that these people should have been foam rolling their quads instead since they’re the working muscles. Well the same group of researchers did a second study looking at that.

They set up a similar study in which individuals performed 4 sets of leg extensions to failure and rested for 3 minutes between sets. Just like before, individuals either rested passively, or foam rolled. This time they foam rolled their quads though and it was for either 60 seconds, 90 seconds, or 120 seconds. Again, the researchers found that foam rolling led to poorer ability to maintain performance as sets went on. There wasn’t much of a difference between sets 1 and 2 for the groups, but there was for set 4.

Currently we don’t have a lot of studies examining foam rolling between sets, but given the current studies, we don’t see that it provides a net benefit.

As we come to foam rolling after training, things change again and we see possibly better outcomes. Macdonald 2014 had individuals do a 10 by 10 back squat workout and then either do nothing, or foam rolling for 20 minutes a day for 3 days after the workout. They looked at range of motion, thigh girth, soreness, vertical jump and various contraction properties. The results were mixed across days, flip flopping back and forth, for some of these variables.

However, foam rolling did consistently show benefit for reduced soreness and generally allowing someone to move more dynamically following the insane workout. These results are supported by Wiewlhove et al 2019 study we discussed earlier. They found that across the foam rolling research as a whole, utilizing foam rolling post training resulted in a net 2.0% improvement in outcomes – particularly reduced soreness.

To Summarize:

Foam rolling before training doesn’t have a consistent benefit, though it doesn’t seem to have much of a negative effect either, so if you like to, go for it, but don’t worry if you don’t do it either.

Foam rolling between sets does not show a benefit and could have negative effects. So you’re better off not foam rolling between sets.

Foam rolling after training might be beneficial, and we don’t see negative effects from it. If you enjoy foam rolling, this is the best time to probably use it.

YouTube Video of Article:

“How Does Foam Rolling Work?” YouTube Video:

References:

Murray AM, Jones TW, Horobeanu C, Turner AP, Sproule J. Sixty seconds of foam rolling does not affect functional flexibility or change muscle temperature in adolescent athletes. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2016;11(5):765-776.

Behm D. 2018. The science and physiology of flexibility and stretching: implications and applications in sport performance and health.

Macdonald GZ, Button DC, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Foam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. 2014;46(1):131-142.

Jo E, Juache GA, Saralegui DE, Weng D, Falatoonzadeh S. The acute effects of foam rolling on fatigue-related impairments of muscular performance. Sports. 2018;6(4):112.

Monteiro ER, Skarabot J, Vigotsky AD, Brown AF, Gomes TM, da Silva Novaes J. Maximum repetition performance after different antagonist foam rolling volumes in the inter-set rest period. IJSPT. 2017;12(1):76-84

Monteiro ER, Vigotsky A, Skarabot J, Brown AF, de Melo Fiuza AGF, Gomes TM, Halperin I, da Silva Novaes J. Acute effects of different foam rolling volumes in the interset rest period on maximum repetition performance. Hong Kong Physiotherapy Journal. 2017;36:57-62.

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