Scientific Investigations into the Foam Roller

This article originally appeared in the Capital Bicycle Club Newsletter November 2013

Foam RollerIf you’ve followed my articles over the past few years, you’ll know that I frequently encourage cyclists to use foam rollers in their stretching and exercise recovery plans. In this article, I won’t go too in depth on “how” to use one as I will review “why” you might want to use it. Hopefully the information I’ll present here will encourage you to give one a try. You may be surprised what kind of impact it can have on your riding. Here goes:

Certain types of stretching have gained a bad reputation for temporarily decreasing muscular strength when done before exercise. Not so for the foam roller. In fact, researchers looked at the effect of just 1 minute of foam rolling on the quadriceps and found that range of motion of the knee increased up to 10 degrees without any significant loss of strength. This makes foam rolling a viable tool for mobility work prior to exercise. (Macdonald, et al., Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, March 2013.)

One of the observations that I have had with using the foam roller is that I seem to be able to ride a little bit harder for a little bit longer before I start feeling burning in my legs. This observation is reflected in another 2013 research study in which the subjects reported a delayed feeling of muscle fatigue. In training, this delayed fatigue might give an athlete the ability to have more training exposure and thus improve conditioning over time. There was no immediate strength gain seen from foam rolling, but, more importantly, there wasn’t any loss of strength. (Healey, et al., Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, April 2013.)

Perhaps the most interesting article that I found investigated the effect of foam rolling on the flexibility and function of blood vessels. The authors found that foam rolling reduced arterial stiffness and improved the physiological functioning of the lining of the blood vessels. I find this a really interesting article because it’s less about range of motion and more about the function of soft tissue other than muscles. I see this as strong evidence for the impact that the foam roller can have on post-exercise recovery. (Okamoto, et al., Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, April 2013.)

There will be more research to come in the future. I am awaiting more specific guidance on how often and how intense foam rolling should be, for example. For now, the best recommendations I have heard and offer are to use the roller at an intensity that can be done daily. Further, we should avoid using the foam roller over bony prominences where pressure could intensify. Also, those with bone loss in the spine (osteoporosis/osteopenia) should probably not be using the foam rollers over their spines/ribs. I have some technique videos that you can review ( and by all means, if you have any questions about whether or not using a foam roller is appropriate for you, please feel free to drop me an email or give me a call at my office. I hope this information helps you in your endeavors! See you on the road.

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