Many athletes claim that foam rollers help them to release the built-up tension in their muscles, giving them a greater range of motion (ROM). What actually is it and how does it work?

The origins of foam rolling can be traced back to 1960s, when it was a practice conducted by therapists on patients (without foam rollers). It used to be called Myofascial Release (MFR) and its focus was on muscle relaxation and improving blood and lymph fluid circulation.

Then, Self Myofascial Release (SMR) came along. It works under the same principles as MFR, but instead of therapists doing the work – patients use their own body mass to apply pressure to sore areas using a foam roller!

What is it?

In a short and quick answer foam rolling (SMR) is a form of self massage.

When we exercise, we develop micro trauma in the muscles. Over a long period of time, this can lead to structural imbalances leading to decreased performance and pain. For centuries, massage has been used to alleviate these conditions. For many athletes it is an effective tool that can be used to reduce muscle tension and soreness, leading to an improved performance.

SMR works in the same way, however you have to use your own bodyweight on a foam roller to apply pressure on the areas with most tension. Foam rolling increases blood flow in the area where high-tension is present and ‘releases’ inflamed or scarred tissue.

In combination with stretching before a workout, foam rolling has shown to help restore muscle length-tension relationship (a claim that muscle fibre length is partially responsible for improved peak torque in pushing movements) leading to performance improvements.

It is also worth mentioning an often overlooked benefit of foam rolling: the psychological effect. The feeling of relaxation after foam rolling is possible to benefit some athletes!


How do you do it?

We have added two informational graphics for some of the ways you can use a foam roller in combination with stretching to roll out and reduce the tension in your muscles:

Upper Body foam roller techniques

Upper Body foam roller techniques (by Tri2Compete)

Lower Body foam roller techniques

Lower Body foam roller techniques (by Tri2Compete)


Rolling out the cellulite

There are claims that foam rollers may prove to be the secret weapon in getting rid of or preventing cellulite entirely.

A study at Dermatology Research and Practice concluded that the average reductions were between 4 – 5.7cm, with some patients showing reductions of more than 10cm in perimeter.

Although the findings were positive the problem is that patients were submitted to daily treatment of 4-hours per day over 2 weeks! So unless you plan to spend that much time rolling out, you should look at other methods to get rid of cellulite.

Who would benefit?

Foam rolling has shown to better performance through improving range of motion around a joint, aiding recovery and relieving pain:

  • Swimmers
  • Runners
  • Weightlifters
  • Athletics disciplines
  • Footballers
  • Martial Artists

Basically, any sport or activity that involves strength, power, endurance or balance (so most things!) would benefit from using a foam roller!



Sources: Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, Strength and Conditioning Research, NCIB.