So you’ve completed a brutal leg workout.
You’ve consumed an enormous amount of protein oats for your muscle recovery and it’s been raining recovery shakes. You’ve (hopefully) stretched and tried to do all the right things to make sure those DOMS don’t make an unwanted appearance. Despite all this, you’re still finding yourself super-tempted to foam roll.
Like a lot of aspects of the lifting world, foam rolling is a heavily debated topic. The science behind the foam roller is quite contradicting and inconclusive. Some people swear by foam rolling at every moment (and posting a video of it on Instagram to prove it), others think that it doesn’t do a whole lot, or that it actually hinders performance. Some claim that it’s all in your head.
Not sure about you, but all this conflicting information really has us contemplating our fitness life choices, so we found an expert to help us out! We spoke to Exercise Scientist and Strength and Conditioning Coach Bradley Drake, to help us sift through the myths and facts of foam rolling!
Like anything, we want to make it clear that different things work for different people, and that while foam rolling might work for someone else, it may not be as beneficial for you. Remember to keep that in mind when reading the information below!
We’re hit with a wave of conflicting data and experimental results when it comes to the potential detrimental effects foam rolling can have on performance pre-training. Some studies have shown that foam rolling before training can take you to beast mode on power, agility, strength and speed when compared to a basic dynamic warm up. On the other hand, multiple studies suggest foam rolling directly before your workouts can negatively affect power and strength output.
So who’s right and who’s wrong?
While the research isn’t entirely clear, Bradley believes that foam rolling directly before lifting weights will most likely impair performance, particularly power output. That’s any lifter's worst nightmare (#noexcuses). In saying that, if you’re feeling sluggish, sore and tight from your belter of a gym sesh, you could add some foam rolling into your warm up if you find it benefits you. If you do choose to foam roll before your session, do it right at the start of your warm up or at least half an hour before lifting heavy to savour those sweet gains of yours.
Bradley suggests including plenty of warm up sets to ensure that any performance loss from foam rolling is minimised, or even regained through your thorough dynamic warm up process (big yes). This way you may still get the perceived benefits of foam rolling (such as reducing muscle soreness and increasing range of motion) without having to worry about it negatively affecting your desired gains.
Inter-set foam rolling
Apparently this is a thing people do? Don’t worry, we’re just as confused as you. The evidence is pretty clear that foam rolling between working sets can have a detrimental effect on your performance, affecting the load you’re able to lift and speed you’re able to lift it at. This one we’re sure about. Don’t foam roll between working sets. Please.
There's plenty of common themes throughout this debate, with the most common being that there are lots of studies suggesting lots of things. Studies on post-training foam rolling are no exception, so prepare for some science. Some studies have shown that using a foam roller 24-48 hours post session has a positive impact on muscle tenderness and a reduced loss in performance between sessions. The exact mechanisms behind this are unclear at this stage, however it is hypothesised that decreased edema (swelling and inflammation), enhanced blood lactate removal and enhanced tissue healing may be the cause of enhanced recovery.
Bradley however suggests that there’s a case to make for placebo effects associated with foam rolling for recovery. At this stage there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest foam rolling between workouts during your recovery period will take away your ticket for the gains train. If it makes you feel better between sessions, helps you get up physically and mentally for your next session and it doesn’t hinder your performance, then it’s a bit of no brainer isn't it?
In summary, the take away points are:
- Foam rolling may alleviate muscle soreness and improve range of motion, but this may vary depending on other methods being used for recovery.
- Foam rolling directly before and during training MAY cause negative impacts on physiological qualities such strength, power and speed.
- Avoid foam rolling directly before training if possible unless completing a comprehensive dynamic warm up post-roll to avoid the chance of reductions in performance.
- You may use foam rolling in between workouts, in your recovery, to help alleviate muscle soreness and perhaps minimise performance loss due to fatigue.
Bradley’s final and easily most important point, is to find what works for you. Everyone is different and responds differently to recovery, some people eat protein pancakes, others foam roll. You do you. If you feel you recover quicker and performance loss is reduced by foam rolling between sessions during your recovery period then don’t hold back!
If you’re looking at other ways to enhance your recovery, try methods that have more scientific evidence to scare your DOMS away. Your main pillars for recovery should always include nutrition, sleep and hydration. If you’re wanting a few more pointers on what to do for recovery, we’ve got a blog post here to help you out. Nail these, and you’ll be well on your way to more gains.