What athlete, professional or amateur, hasn’t experienced delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS? Simply put, DOMS is the discomfort you feel in your muscles after a workout when you’ve trained harder than you’re accustomed to. As the name implies, DOMS doesn’t come on immediately. You usually feel the effects 24 to 48 hours after a tough workout and the effects can linger for as long as 5 to 7 days.
Fortunately, delayed onset muscle soreness doesn’t happen every time you work out, thanks to your body’s incredible ability to adapt to the stress you place on it. Only when you push yourself harder than usual do you feel the discomfort of DOMS. Thank goodness you don’t experience it every time you train, right?
Although DOMS isn’t life-threatening, it’s inconvenient. Your muscles scream and ache every time you move and training can be a challenge for a few days. For years, scientists have tried to find a remedy for delayed onset muscle soreness but have yet to find a solution that will vanquish the discomfort. Some treatments that show promise include massage, heat, ice, and drinking tart cherry juice. Some people also believe that foam rolling helps ease the stiffness and discomfort of DOMS. Is there any evidence to support this idea?
Foam Rolling and DOMS
Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. Muscles are surrounded by a tough layer of connective tissue called fascia. The function of fascia is to protect muscles without hindering their ability to move. When you strength train or otherwise work your muscles, especially against heavy resistance, scar tissue can develop on the fascia and cause your muscles to feel overly tight. Foam rolling presumably breaks up scar tissue and helps lengthen the muscle so that the muscle moves more freely. However, there’s no strong evidence that it actually disrupts scar tissue. Still, some, but not all, studies, show that foam rolling enhances flexibility. Unfortunately, the increase in muscle length and flexibility may be short-lived, meaning you have to foam roll regularly to enjoy sustained benefits. How foam rolling actually works is that the pressure placed on the tight fascia by the roller communicates with your nervous system in such a way that the tissues relax. Foam rolling regularly may help loosen your muscles temporarily.
How do you foam roll? Place your body on a firm, foam roller and use your body weight and the firmness of the rollers to apply pressure. Then, roll your body along the roller for 30 to 60 seconds and rest for a bit before repeating a few more times. What’s happening when you do this? The movements and the firmness of the roller deeply massage the tissue. Depending on the foam roller you choose, it may feel painful at first.
Back to the bigger question. Does foam rolling impact delayed onset muscle soreness? First, we don’t really know exactly what causes DOMS. Some possibilities are that unaccustomed exercise damages structures within the muscle fibers, including the sarcolemma. Metabolic impairments in response to strenuous exercise may also be a factor. One problem with DOMS is that the soreness and stiffness alter how muscles and joints function, leading to suboptimal performance and a higher risk of injury. Therefore, anything that can help DOMS is beneficial. However, it’s not clear exactly how foam rolling benefits DOMS.
What does science say about foam rolling and DOMs? A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training showed that foam rolling reduced the symptoms of DOMs and offset the decrements in performance you typically see when you have sore, stiff muscles. So, in this study, foam rolling did substantially alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness.
What about other studies? A meta-analysis of fourteen studies published in the International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy also found that foam rolling eased the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness and reduced the loss of muscle function you see with DOMs. Unfortunately, research is rather limited. Still, from the limited data available, it seems that foam rolling may be of benefit for easing post-workout soreness.
Other Benefits of Foam Rolling
As mentioned, foam rolling may temporarily relax tight tissue and improve flexibility, although the effect lasts for only 10 or 15 minutes after a session it has benefits over static stretching. We know that static stretching temporarily reduces a muscles ability to generate force and power. Fortunately, there’s no evidence that foam rolling negatively impacts performance, so you can safely do it before a workout. In fact, one small study showed that foam rolling improved power, speed, and strength when used in conjunction with a warm-up.
Best Practices for Foam Rolling
To get benefits from foam rolling, whether it be for DOMS or for enhancing flexibility, you’ll need to do it frequently, at least 4 or 5 times a week. Also, foam rollers come in various sizes and degrees of firmness. The firmer the texture you choose, the “intense” and even painful the experience will be. Remember, you don’t have to feel pain to get the benefits. It should feel like a deep massage, not deeply uncomfortable. If you’re just starting out, a softer roller may work best until your body is accustomed to the movement. You can always graduate to a firmer, more textured roller later to maximize the benefits.
You can use a foam roller pre-workout to get your muscles firing. Keep Your pre-workout sessions brief. After your workout, do a second foam roller session where you slow down the pace and keep the pressure on the muscles you’ve just worked longer.
The Bottom Line
Based on the studies that are out there, foam rolling may help you prevent post-workout soreness or DOMS. It will also loosen tight muscles but not, as many people think, break up scar tissue. It simply doesn’t apply enough pressure to do that. Yet, there are few downsides to foam rolling before and after a workout. It doesn’t interfere with performance and it may actually reduce the achy muscles you experience when you train too hard.
J Athl Train. 2015 Jan; 50(1): 5–13. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-50.1.01.
Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015 Nov;10(6):827-38.
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