Foam Rolling: Is the pain worth it?

Foam roller

Foam rolling many see it as a necessary evil not the most pleasant experience ever but beneficial neither the less. I have to say I don’t mind foam roller the pain can be intense but I have had people inflict much more with their thumbs. I find it particularly useful especially for the ITB band which is on the outside of your thigh and is something I recommend to patients all the time. Therefore here is a guide to foam rolling and how to get the most out of it.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a type of myofasical release where you use a solid plastic cylinder with hard foam round the outside to apply pressure over different muscle groups using your body weight. Fascia is sheets of connective tissue that sits underneath the skin and works as like a cling film wrapper around your muscles and organs. The rollers and massage bars can come in lots of different shapes and sizes, some will be flat and others will have grids or nodules. The rollers are normally either in a standard size (15cm X 91cm) or a half size  (15cm X 45cm). You can also get foam-rolling bars. Cheatham et al 2015 .

I have a pro tone foam roller  I got mine from amazon, I would throughly recommend it I’ve had mine over a year and it works just as well as the day I got it. I find that the foam is hard enough to really get into the muscles and connective tissues but not too painful so for me its a good balance. I also like the size of it, it’s the half size I find it portable and prefect size for what I use it for which is mainly for my lower body in particular the outside of my thigh, quads and hamstrings. Also it is not as expensive as some of the other alternatives that are on the market so for me it s the perfect mix. Just to mention these are my own opinions on a product I have not been sponsored or have any affiliation with the brand in anyway.

foam roller
My trusty foam roller

Why use a foam roller?

It certainly won’t be for the comfort of using a foam roller as they aren’t normally the most pleasant of experiences. As I have said I don’t mind them and often see it as good pain rather than torture but there will many of you that will think I am crazy. Either way many athletes and sporting individuals use them to enhance their recovery as well as their performance.

While there is still limited research and the exact theory to why foam rolling can work is still being debated the idea is by causing changes to the connective tissue by breaking them down it can influence the damaged connective tissue. This is why it has been linked to DOMS as this phenomenon is generally associated with connective tissue. (Macdonald et al 2013) It is said to alter the elastic properties by remobilising the fascia to a gel like structure as well as mechanically breaking down the scar tissues (Bradbury-squires et al 2015). It is also another reason why I always encourage my patients to use their foam roller particularly for the ITB band, as it is more connective tissue than muscle.

Another hypothesized benefit of foam rolling is that it increases the blood flow, temperature and oxygen to the area due to the friction created by rolling over the muscle. This theory would be similar to any soft tissue or massage treatments or therapies and therefore will reduce the amount of lactic acid, inflammation that has built up.(Pearcey et al 2015).

What’s the research say about foam rolling?

Similar to stretching as part of a warm up considering how many people rely on their foam rollers the physiological effects of how it works are still being unravelled (Grieve et al 2014). Generally speaking foam rolling will provide short-term effects in both increase range of movement as well as decreasing muscle pain.

Range of movement and foam rolling:

The main reason to foam roll is to increase the range of movement at particular joints without affecting the performance of the muscle. As for muscle performance while foam rolling does not have an detrimental effects on the muscle it also doesn’t help increase the performance of the actually muscle either. Though I did manage to find one study by Pearcey et al 2015 that stated foam rolling did improve sprint speeds, board jumps.


The ability to increase the range of movement available at the joints due to foam rolling is much more established and there is much more research into this area.Mauntel et al 2014 looked at myofascial techniques in general not just the use of a foam roller and found that it did significantly improve the range of movement for that particular muscle. However no evidence was actually found to show any changes and the actually muscle function as a result. Schroder et al (2015) did do a review specifically on the use of foam rollers with regards to pre exercise and recovery from exercise, which did show positive effects in terms on increase range of movement as well as pain or fatigue systems after exercise. The positive effects of foam rolling on hip extension could be seen up to a week after the intervention. Furthermore Mohr et al 2009 found that foam rolling with static stretching had increase the range of movement again significantly in hip flexion after 3 one minute sessions and using a combination of foam rolling and static stretching was more beneficial than doing either on its own.

Macdonald et al 2013 proved that after two sessions of 1 minute of foam rolling of the quadriceps it increase the knee flexion (how far you can bend your knee) by 10 degrees 2 minutes after but it reduced to 8 degrees 10 minutes after. However there were deemed no effects on the force of which the muscles work neither to the neuromuscular workings of the muscle.

Pain reduction, DOMS and foam rolling:

You will be pleased to know that research does back up the use of foam rolling in terms of reducing pain after exercise for up to 20 minutes and if you do it 20 mins per day for 3 days it can reduce pain up to 30 mins. It may not be loads but it is still something and when your that desperate every little does help. (Jay et al 2014) Further research also again for short-term reduction of pain after exercise but by an hour after the intervention of deadlifts the reported pain level or range of movement was the same for both the control and if you foam rolled. Unfortunately foam rolling won’t be your miracle cure to your hard workouts.

What type of foam roller should I get and how long should I use it for?

In terms of research there doesn’t really seem to be any set guidelines or protocols on how what is the optimal method, time or pressure to use when you foam roll. However the rough consensus is that you should foam roll for at least 30 seconds to a minute in 2 to 5 sessions and if you are using a roller massager it will be between 5 seconds to two minutes. Bushell et al 2015 In total you want to spend at least 5 minutes foam rolling every day with around 2/3 minutes on each particular area. It can be painful and I often warn my patients about this before they start but you never want it to be more than a 6/10. If it is more than that then support some of your body weight rather than putting the pressure on the roller. It is also proved to be more beneficial when used in conjunction with static stretching after exercise.

Generally the harder or denser the foam roller is the more benefit you will get due to the increased pressure on rolling. Curran et al As I have said earlier I have a pro tone tone which is pretty firm and does have the nodules on it to get deeper into the muscle. You can get ones that are flat which would not be so painful. As mentioned above the firmer ones tend to be more beneficial but at the end of the day its up to your comfort levels if its too much and you battling with a firm one then use a flat softer one.

Everyone is different what works best for you is what you should do. Also if you really hate it because its too painful you just won’t use it and then it really would be a waste and its not worth investing it one. Hope this has been useful and happy rolling. 🙂


MacDonald GZ, Penney MD, Mullaley ME, et al. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(3):812-821. 

Bradbury-Squires DJ, Noftall JC, Sullivan KM, et al. Roller-massager application to the quadriceps and knee-joint range of motion and neuromuscular efficiency during a lunge. J Athl Train. 2015;50(2):133-140.

Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015;50(1):5-13. 

Grieve R, Goodwin F, Alfaki M, et al. The immediate effect of bilateral self myofascial release on the plantar surface of the feet on hamstring and lumbar spine flexibility: A pilot randomised controlled trial. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2014 

Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is Self Myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(3):200-208.

Mauntel T CM, Padua D. Effectiveness of myofascial release therapies on physical performance measurements: A systematic review. Athl Train Sports Health Care. 2014;6:189-196.

Mohr AR, Long BC, Goad CL. Effect of foam rolling and static stretching on passive hip-flexion range of motion. J Sport Rehabil. 2014 

Jay K, Sundstrup E, Sondergaard SD, et al. Specific and cross over effects of massage for muscle soreness: randomized controlled trial. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2014;9(1):82-91.

Bushell JE, Dawson SM, Webster MM. Clinical Relevance of Foam Rolling on Hip Extension Angle in a Functional Lunge Position. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 

Curran PF, Fiore RD, Crisco JJ. A comparison of the pressure exerted on soft tissue by 2 myofascial rollers. J Sport Rehabil. 2008;17(4):432-442. 

Cheatham SW, Kolber MJ, Cain M, Lee M. (2015) The effects of self-myofascial release using a foam roll or roller massagers on joint range of motion, muscle recovery and performance. A systematic review. International journal of sports physical therapy.



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3 Comment

  1. Hi Zoe, I saw this post through a retweet from Running Blogs. I have never used a foam roller. Never been sure what type to buy and how to use them. Your post was very informative and answered a lot of questions!
    Thank you so very much! 🙂

    1. Zoe McParlin M.Ost says: Reply

      Hi Carl, No problem, I am glad you found it informative. If you have any more questions then feel free to give me a message 🙂

  2. […] Its normal to feel stiff or sore after a workout that is completely normal. Make sure you stretch, foam roll, warm up and warm down in order to help stay injury […]

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