Does Foam Rolling Really Work, or Is It Just a Waste of Time?

Runners swear by it to reduce muscles soreness and boost flexibility and performance. But does research back that up?

Go to any CrossFit gym or hang out in a host house with a bunch of runners and you’re guaranteed to see plenty of folks on the floor, wincing and grimacing as they methodically mash their muscles atop a foam roller.

These cylindrical self massagers burst onto the fitness scene about two decades ago and have only grown in popularity to the point where you can now buy whole body rollers, mini rollers, ridged rollers, Rumble Rollers, and even vibrating rollers.

The premise is that they break up adhesions in the muscles, facilitate stretching, help you warm up, and promote recovery. But to date, there have only been a smattering of studies to show whether or not they really work.

Until now. A research team from Germany gathered all those studies into one big meta-analysis to see what effect rolling—either with a foam roller or with a hand-held rolling stick—actually had on performance in terms of improving sprinting, jumping, and flexibility and on recovery in terms of muscle soreness. All in all, they included 21 studies, 14 of which used prerolling for exercise warmup and seven that used rolling after the workout for exercise recovery.

The study, which was published in Frontiers in Physiology, concluded that as part of a warmup, rolling had an overall positive impact on sprint performance and flexibility, and also appeared to help maintain sprint and strength performance and ease muscle soreness when done after exercising.

Specifically, rolling beforehand improved sprint performance by 0.7 percent and flexibility by 4 percent. Rolling afterward helped limit reductions in subsequent sprint and strength performance by about 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively. And it helped reduce perceived muscle soreness by 6 percent.

Those numbers aren’t huge, of course. But they’re positive. The researchers conclude, “the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery are rather minor and partly negligible, but can be relevant in some cases (e.g., to increase sprint performance and flexibility or to reduce muscle pain sensation.)”

That final point seems pretty important, since most people foam roll to feel better. This study seems to support that, so even though rolling out your muscles may feel uncomfortable or even a little painful at the time, you may end up reaping the benefits a little later on.

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