The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool from Intense Physical Activity and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Written by
Karyn Hughes, MEd
Posted in
Move more

Thursday, Feb 27, 2014

In a recent posted blog in September, 2013 on Whole-Body Cryotherapy we examined whether cold therapy speeds up recovery from muscle soreness.  This topic is of great importance to athletes and coaches alike who want to plan an athlete’s workout to maximize performance as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) often reduces force production and range of motion (ROM) at joints.  Even if you don’t classify yourself as an athlete, if you exercise you have likely experienced DOMS.  Now the use of foam rollers is commonly advocated to alleviate muscles soreness and stiff joints along with improving neuromuscular efficiency and improving ROM.  Personal trainers and club members are often seen using a technique called Self-Myofascial Release where body weight is applied to the foam roller at the point of soreness or stiffness. The position is held until the exerciser feels a 75% reduction in pain.

Muscle soreness is due to microscopic tears in the muscle and is experienced after an intense bout of exercise.  It is also produced by performing a high volume of eccentric exercises; a slow tempo or high number of repetitions of the lowering phase during an exercise like the downward movement in the lowering phase of a squat. This exercise induced muscle damage (EIMD) can affect neuromuscular performance by reducing shock attenuation and altering muscle sequencing and muscle fiber recruitment patterns, potentially placing unaccustomed stress on muscle tendons and ligaments.  It commonly triggers an acute inflammatory response within the cells further inhibiting maximal force production.

In a recent study, (Macdonald, 2014)1 researchers wanted to examine in more detail the possible benefits of foam rolling because there were only three published studies to date.  He investigated foam rolling as a recovery tool from EIMD and DOMS by analyzing muscle soreness, ROM, muscle activation, vertical jump, pain levels while foam rolling, and the actual force the subjects placed on the foam roller. Twenty male subjects were recruited who had at least 3 years of strength training and were randomly placed into the control (CON) or foam roller (FM) group.

To induce the exercise muscle soreness, subjects performed 10 sets of 10 reps of back loaded squats (100 reps) with 60% of their 1RM. Two minutes of rest were given between each set and the tempo of the squat was 4 seconds of eccentric movement, a 1 second pause at the bottom (thighs parallel to floor), 1 second concentric, and 1 second pause at the top of the lift. The FM group also performed two different sets of foam rolling exercises over the thighs and gluteal muscles, each for 60 seconds. The scientist measured the amount of pain while subjects used the foam roller with “0” being described as “absolutely no pain” and a “10” described as “the worst pain you have ever felt”. The FM subjects did the foam rolling over a force plate so FR-Force was measured. Several types of muscle activation, ROM, and vertical jump performance were also measured.

Results: In the FM group, muscle soreness peaked at POST-24 hours (desirable), whereas the CON peaked at POST-48 hours.  Also, substantially higher muscle soreness readings were recorded at all times for the CON group showing the effectiveness of the foam roller in reducing muscle soreness.

Vertical jump height was especially different between the CON and FM groups with the differences at POST-24 hours being no change with the FM group and a -6% (declined performance) with the CON group;  POST-48 hours -1% for FM group and in the CON group,  -5%. There were no substantial differences at POST-72 hours.

Foam rolling was beneficial in improving dynamic movement, and percent muscle activation and both passive and dynamic ROM in comparison with the CON group while attenuating muscle soreness, but no benefits were seen at the muscular level when ROM was isolated.

The results also showed evidence that foam rolling has a greater effect on connective tissue rather than muscle as studied by the decrement in evoked contractile properties with FM versus CON. So it suggests that foam rolling may be beneficial in treating connective tissue damage, however minor damage to muscle tissue may occur due to the Myofascial Release protocol itself from the pressure points.

Conclusions:  Foam rolling substantially reduced muscle soreness while substantially improving ROM.  Foam rolling was also particularly beneficial in attenuating muscle soreness while improving vertical jump height, muscle activation for voluntary muscular contractions, and passive and dynamic ROM compared to control group.

Action steps: Learn foam rolling techniques in courses at The Cooper Institute - Balls, Bands, and More and Flexibility and Myofascial Release. Consider making an appointment with a personal trainer or exercise specialist soon to learn foam rolling as a way to reduce exercise induced muscle soreness and as a great way to increase range of motion and improve movement for everyday activities and sports.

1Macdonald, G. (2014). Roam rolling as a recovery tool after an intense bout of physical activity. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 46( 1), 131-142.