Sports massages are widely used with both professional (paid) and self help options. If you are looking at sports massages the main... Read Article
Does foam rolling help recovery
If you get stiff and sore after a workout marketers promise that foam rolling will help, but do they really work and are they even safe? In this article we will look at what the scientific studies really say about foam rolling, then show you some alternatives that have proven to be a lot safer and more effective.
What the scientists say about foam rolling
If you do enough trials and chose what to measure you can usually end up with some results marketers can talk about. However, let's look at the big picture for foam rolling.
Results can be very short-lived
You may read that foam rolling gives an increase in flexibility, but you will not be told that this increase lasts for less than 10 minutes (1–4).
Any benefits are very small
A recent review of 21 studies of the effects of foam rolling on performance and recovery concluded any benefits were minor or negligible (see below) (5).
There are serious safety concerns
Another recent scientific journal review was concerned about the safety of foam rolling, stating “During Foam-rolling exercises, all the underlying tissue is mechanically stressed, potentially leading to damage, for example, in neuronal tissues, receptors, vessels, or bones” (6).
The real world results for foam rolling are even worse
In clinical trials patients are chosen for suitability and professionally supervised. In the real world people use foam rollers without instruction or supervision, often on conditions where rolling is inappropriate. This is why as a Chiropractor for over 27 years I saw a lot of people hurt and injure themselves doing self massage with balls or rollers for very little benefits.
Why foam rolling is not as effective as massage from professional therapists
Massage is generally very beneficial, so why are the results for foam rolling so poor? This infographic shares some of the reasons.
Your safer and more effective alternatives to help recovery
Rather than look for a particular therapy we recommend that you use a complete strategy to provide everything your muscles need to recover faster. This should include appropriate rest, nutrition and hydration, plus several other things that can help. For more information please see our article The practical, science based guide to post exercise recovery .
Massage therapies that help
While foam rolling has been shown to be only minimally effective (if at all) two types of massage have been shown to be very useful:
- conventional massage by a professional therapist
- vibration massage (not a massage gun)
We discuss these in our article The best massage for sports recovery , but will do a brief summary here.
Conventional massage by a professional therapist
Professional massage therapists can use a variety of techniques. The therapy you receive will depend on the skills and preferences of the therapist, and what he or she is trying to achieve (eg. relaxation, remedial, recovery). However, 2020 scientific review of 29 clinical trials found that massage gave a 13% reduction in post exercise soreness (DOMS or Delayed onset Muscle Soreness ) and a 7% increase in flexibility (7)
Vibration massage (not massage guns)
Vibration massage is where a therapeutic vibration massager sends vibrations deep into your muscles, and those vibrations do therapeutic things such as relax the muscle and increase blood flow. This has given the following excellent results in clinical trials (8-14).
- reduced post exercise soreness (DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
- reduced the amount of unwanted chemicals such as lactic acid,
- reduced the loss of strength and endurance, and speeding recovery.
In addition using a vibration massager has two advantages over using a professional therapist.
Vibration massage is much faster
I the one trial where vibration massage and conventional massage were directly compared 5 minutes of vibration gave similar (actually slightly better) results to 15 minutes of conventional massage (8).
You can do it yourself
You can easily use a vibration massager on yourself. The obvious advantages of this are convenience and no professional fees, but it also allows multiple applications during recovery. Within reason you will always get much better results from regular applications than a once off session. As an example, in one trial vibration massage was used after exercising, then each day during recovery.
For more information
For more on using vibration massage please see our guide The sports and exercise guide to vibration massage
Massage guns are not suitable
Massage guns vibrate and are widely marketed and recovery aids, but as discussed in our article Are massage guns effective- beyond the hype they deliver far less therapeutic vibration than a genuine vibration massager, while increasing the risk of causing injury. In fact there is a report in a scientific journal of someone nearly dying from internal bleeding after using a massage gun to help relax muscles after a bike ride (15). To choose an appropriate machine please see our article How to choose a massager .
- DeBruyne DM, Dewhurst MM, Fischer KM, Wojtanowski MS, Durall C. Self-mobilization using a foam roller versus a roller massager: Which is more effective for increasing hamstrings flexibility? J Sport Rehabil. 2017;26(1):94–100.
- Beardsley C, Skarabot J. Effects of self-myofascial release : A systematic review. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2015;
- Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is self myofascial release an effective preexercise and recovery strategy? A literature review. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2015;14(3):200–8.
- Smith JC, Pridgeon B, Hall MC. Acute effect of foam rolling and dynamic stretching on flexibility and jump height. J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(8):2209–15.
- Weiwlhove T. A Meta-Analysis of the effects of foam rolling on perforrmance and recovery. Front Physiol. 2019;10:376.
- Freiwald J, Baumgart C, Kühnemann M, Hoppe MW. Foam-Rolling in Sport und Therapy- Potential benefits and risks:267–75.
- Davis HL, Alabed S, Chico TJA. Effect of sports massage on performance and recovery: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2020;6(1):e000614.
- Imtiyaz S, Veqar Z, Shareef MY. To compare the effect of vibration therapy and massage in prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). J Clin Diagnostic Res. 2014
- Kamandani R, Ghazalian F, Ebrahim K, Ghassembaglou N, Shiri Piraghaj M, Khorram A. The Effect of Acute Vibration Training on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Young Non-Athlete Women. Heal Scope. 2015;
- Lau WY, Nosaka K. Effect of vibration treatment on symptoms associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2011
- Bakhtiary AH, Safavi-Farokhi Z, Aminian-Far A. Influence of vibration on delayed onset of muscle soreness following eccentric exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2007;
- Koeda T. A trial to evaluate experimentally induced delayed onset muscle soreness and its modulation by vibration. Environ Med. 2003;47:26–30.
- Rhea MR. Effect of iTonic Whole-Body Vibration on Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness Among Untrained Individuals. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(6):1677–82.
- Percival S et al. Local vibration therapy increases oxygen re-saturation rate and maintains muscle strength following exerciseinduced muscle damage. J Athl Train. 2021;Aug 17.
- Chen J, Zhang F, Chen H, Pan H. Rhabdomyolysis After the Use of Percussion Massage Gun : A Case Report. Phys Ther. 2021 Jan 4;101(1)
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About Dr Graeme
Several years ago Dr Graeme, a Chiropractor practicing in Victoria, Australia was looking for a serious hand held massager his patients could use at home to get the extra quality massage they needed. The ones he found in the shops and on-line for home use looked nice but were not serious, and... read more
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