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FASCIA - What's it all about?

Running figure

You may be noticing the word “fascia” (aka connective tissue) is a hot topic right now in all body related fields. But before we get to why fascia matters to athletes, here is a brief primer about why it’s getting so much attention these days.

 

First, many think of fascia as a glorified body stocking - a seamless piece of tissue that wraps you up like cling film, just underneath the skin. While this is true of the superficial fascia, it’s important to understand it is a richly multi-dimensional tissue that forms your internal soft tissue architecture.

From the superficial (“body stocking”) fascia, it dives deep into the body and forms the pods (called fascicles) that support and frame your musculature.  Imagine what it looks like when you bite into a wedge of orange and then look at those individually wrapped pods of juice. We’re like that too. Fascia also connects muscle to bone (tendons are considered a part of the fascial system) and bone to bone (ligaments too). It cocoons your organ structures, cushions your vertebrae (yes, intervertebral discs are part of this system, too) and wraps your bones in perimyseum.

So imagine that you could remove every part of you that is not fascia. Take out all the organse, the bones and the muscles and you would still be left with a perfect 3D model of exactly what you look like. Not just in recognizable ways like your posture or facial features, but also the position of your liver, the shape of that bone you broke as a child and how your intestines curl through your abdomen. To say it’s everywhere is an understatement.

In fact, fascia’s ubiquity is one of the reasons it was overlooked for so long. Until recently it was regarded as simple packaging. In dissections for study and for research, most of it was scraped away so the cadavers could be tidily made to resemble the anatomical texts from which people were studying. 

Fortunately research is catching up to what turns out to be a remarkably communicative, sensory and proprioceptive tissue. What fascia researchers are discovering is pretty amazing for anyone who wants to put their body to good, healthy use. So here is some information about fascia and how you can help your clients not just to maximize athletic performance, but also simply to feel good in their body.

 

1. Fascia is a tensional fluid system 

Like the fluid with in a sponge, the fluid within fascia is part of what keeps the fascia strong.  When a sponge dries out it becomes brittle and hard. It can easily be broken with little force. However, when a sponge is wet and well hydrated it gets springy and resilient. You can crush it into a little ball and it bounces back. You can wring it and twist it, but it is difficult to break.

Keeping our fascia hydrated therfore takes on more importance. Our mobility, integrity, and resilience are determined in large part by how well hydrated our fascia is. In fact, when a “stretching a muscle”, it is often in fact the fibres of the connective tissue (collagen) gliding along one another on the mucous-y proteins called glycosaminoglycans (GAGs for short). GAGs, depending on their chemistry, can glue layers together when water is absent, or allow them to skate and slide on one another when hydrated.  This is one of the reasons why so many injuries are fascial. If we get “dried out” then, like the sponge we are more brittle and are at much greater risk of a tear or a rupture.

So drink more water, right? Well, yes and no. Staying hydrated via drinking continues to be important, but if you have dehydrated fascia, it's more likely that the tension within the fascia is in fact cutting off the fluid supply.  It's a viscious circle.  It's a bit like when you have a sponge that so dried out, that even when you dunk it in a bucket, it doesn't absorb water.  You have to work at it gently and gradually to make it absorbe.  Similarly with fascia, you have to get work on your soft tissue to loosen things up.

A body worker who specializes in myofascial work will do the trick, but you can also get your clients to do a little self-help too.

 

2. Variation matters

Movement also gets the hydration out to the tissue as well, but that movement needs to be varied. This means variation not just of the movements themselves, but also variation of tempo. Not only does moving constantly in the same ways and in the same planes put you at further risk for joint erosion (a là osteoarthritis), but you are also dehydrating the fascia in a particular pattern, thus setting you up for that brittle tissue that injuries love so much.

As Tom Myers, fascial educator and autor of Anatomy Trains, says:

“Rest is how the tissues rehydrate. When you do heavy exercise you are driving the water out of the tissue in the same way that if you step on a wet beach you push the water out of the sand, and when you pick up your foot the water seeps back into that sand. You’re doing the same thing with tissues, when you’re really working out you are driving the water out of the tissue while you are working…The rhythm [of your fitness regimen] should include some rest… When you take the strain off of the tissues, like a sponge they will suck up that water and be ready for more exercise.

 

3. It’s all connected

In anatomy-speak we describe all muscles as having an origin and an insertion. So for example, the gastrocnemius muscle (our most superficial calf muscle) originates on the lateral and medial condyles of the femur (thigh) bone, and inserts on the calcaneus (heel bones), via the Achilles tendon. It makes it sound like it is taped or stapled to be “attached” at its origin and insertion points.  A clearer description would be that the gastrocnemius becomes the Achilles tendon (by weaving more densely until layers of peri- and epi-myseum become tendon) and that then becomes the calcaneus bone (by weaving more densely into the periosteum which integrates with the bone underneath).

This is important because you can’t have something happen to one “part” of your body and not have it affect every other part, albeit to varying degrees.  If you tug on one end of a tightly knit sweater sweater, you see the tug travel long distance to other ends of the sweater. The body works in much the same way.

This can cause a domino effect of injuries.  First, your neck gets injured in a minor whiplash in that teeny tiny no big deal car accident that you had when you were sixteen years old.  You ignore it and it gets better.  But once you enter college, suddenly you have this nagging shoulder pain with all the extra typing and sitting you’re doing.  As the years go by you start to think of yourself as the “tight-shouldered” person and sometimes you have a pinching pain when you lift your arm.  More years go by and you are now not only a “tight-shouldered person,” but you also suffer from occasional low back spasms and have developed plantar fasciitis, which you assume must be because you’re a runner and everyone says running is bad for you. It doesn't have to happen like this, but you get the idea.

The thing this person is experiencing is actually the long, slow drain of an unaddressed compensatory pattern on a body and we often think of it as “just getting old.”  The best way to avoid the domino effect is to keep your fascia healthy so that nothing gets jumbled up in the knit of the “sweater” and you are therefore at much lower risk for developing a compensatory pattern.

 

4. Its springiness wants to help you out

Add good hydration to connectedness and you get springiness.  When your tissue retains (or regains) its natural spring, the rebound effect of the fascia allows you to use less muscle power and therefore fatigue less rapidly.  if yu want to jump higher, run faster and throw further or just feel more comfortable in everyday movement, you need to pay attention to nourishing the elastic quality of your fascia.

For example, when you run with healthy fascia the force you transmit into the ground gets returned to you through the whole tensional network of the fascia. It’s like you have a built-in trampoline action going on. So once you’ve done the work to rehydrate your tissue, you’ll want to embrace bouncy movements. Some good examples of how you can best play with this are running, jumping rope, box jumps, and kettlebells. All martial arts forms also rely on the inner spring. 

 

5. It is the largest and richest sensory organ of the body.

This might surprise you.   It turns out fascia is one of our richest sensory organs with between six to ten times the quantity of sensory nerve receptors more than muscles.   This makes your fascia a system of proprioception - i.e. of knowing where your body is in space - but also of graceful full body orchestration of movement. Therefore, well-hydrated and supple fascia is crucial to maintaining your natural settings for alignment and function. Maintaining those natural settings will keep small problems from snowballing into larger ones, keep injuries from becoming chronic and keep you mobile and functional for longer through life - possibly helping to avoid joint replacements or other surgery.

 

 

 

 

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