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Healthy Fascia – an Athlete’s Best Friend

By Lynn Guilhaus BAppSc Human Movement, CrossFit Level 1 Coach, DipRMT, Fascial Fitness Trainer I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about fascia at the gym – maybe once or twice! Fascia is fascinating and without it we simply wouldn’t be able to move. But as we age fascia dehydrates and gets damaged through poor repetitive […]

By Lynn Guilhaus

BAppSc Human Movement, CrossFit Level 1 Coach, DipRMT, Fascial Fitness Trainer

I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about fascia at the gym – maybe once or twice! Fascia is fascinating and without it we simply wouldn’t be able to move. But as we age fascia dehydrates and gets damaged through poor repetitive movements, sitting at a desk, injuries and surgery. So what is ‘fascia’?

Fascia is a 3-dimensional web of fibrous connective tissue that weaves its way throughout the entire human body. It separates and binds together muscles, organs, nerves, blood vessels and cells and is very much alive and active.

For the majority of medical history it was assumed that fascia was just packaging, to hold together bones, muscles and organs. In fact, fascia was removed and discarded in medical school dissections to see the ‘important stuff’ underneath.

Fascia is ‘one’ single structure from head to toe

The most interesting aspect of the fascial system is that it is not just a system of separate coverings. It is actually one structure that exists from head to foot without interruption! In this way you can begin to see that each part of the body is connected to every other part by the fascia.

It wraps around each of your individual internal parts, keeping them separate and allowing them to slide easily with your movements. It’s strong, slippery and wet. Check out this video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzy8-wQzQMY

When the fascial network is traumatised by injury, overuse or emotional stress, it is pulled out of alignment like a pull in a sweater. This affects the way we move and makes us compensate by misaligning our body. In a normal healthy state, the fascia is relaxed and wavy. It has the ability to stretch and move without restriction.

Muscles aren’t just muscles

In anatomy school we are taught that a muscle connects to a tendon which in turn attaches to a bone; three perfect structures independent of each other. However, in reality, the body’s structure is more like a continuum, everything flows gracefully from one structure to the next and the thing that ties it all together is fascia.

According to Thomas Myers, the creator of the Anatomy Trains concept (www.anatomytrains.com/), “Magically extracted as a whole, the fascial web would show us all the shapes of the body, inside and out. It would be just one big net with muscles squirming in it like swimming fish. Organs would hang in it like jellyfish. Every system, every organ and every living cell lives embedded within the sea of a unitary fascial net.”

Leon Chaitow eloquently describes fascia in this blog (http://chaitowschat-leon.blogspot.com/2011/02/explosion-of-fascia-research.html) as an “elastic-plastic, gluey component that invests, supports and separates, connects and divides, wraps and gives cohesion to, the rest of the body”.

With research currently exploding in this area, we’re learning that fascia has more functions than we ever thought possible. It is like a 3D living, intelligent, cobweb!

Stuck fascia creates pain

Fascia, when healthy, allows muscles and other internal structures to move freely within the body. When we experience physical trauma, scarring, or inflammation, the fascia loses its pliability. It becomes tight, restricted and a source of physical tension. Fascia is also rich in sensory neurons, which contributes to the sensations of pain. Trauma, such as a fall, whiplash, or surgery, or repetitive stress from habitual poor posture or overuse injuries has a cumulative effect.

Poor postural habits thus result in poor mobility and this affects form and performance when exercising.

This cycle of repetitive stress creates a positive feedback loop and can result in ischemia (reduced oxygen) and dysfunction even in the absence of the original offending agent.

How to care for your fascia

Move it in different ways

Fascia becomes dehydrated and ‘glues’ together when it isn’t moved regularly and in different directions. Experiment with your stretching – move, wiggle and twist. Over time, adhesions get strong enough to inhibit range of motion.

Rest

As Tom Myers, fascial educator and creator of Anatomy Trains (www.anatomytrains.com), says in this video:

“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.”

Stay lubricated

Imagine a spider web with water droplets on it – that’s what healthy fascia looks like. Drinking plenty of water is important but the best way to hydrate your fascia is to move it. Our mobility, integrity, and resilience are determined in large part by how well hydrated our fascia is.

Stretch gently

When your muscles are chronically tight the surrounding fascia tightens along with them. Over time the fascia becomes rigid, compressing the muscles and the nerves.

Fascia responds best to slow, gentle stretching.

Relax

Fifteen to 20 minutes in a warm bath can coax tight fascia to loosen up, releasing your muscles from their stranglehold.

Use a foam roller

One of the theories behind foam rolling is that the gentle, slow movement presses fluid from the fascia which then rehydrates with fresh, nutritive fluid when the pressure is released. Be gentle and slow in your movements. When you get to a sore spot, pause for 15 to 20 seconds. The discomfort should melt away as the fascia softens and the muscles release.

Self massage with a tennis ball

At home, you can give yourself a massage with a tennis ball. You can use it on any part of the body. A ball is particularly useful around the ankle in those little pockets on either side of the Achilles tendon. It’s also a great tool for rolling tissue under the foot, say for example, plantar fasciitis. Stay away from the sore part just under the heel though and use it on surrounding tissue, even while you’re having a meal at the table or at your desk.

Have a myofascial release massage

When you get a massage, particularly a myofascial release massage, it improves circulation, warms the fascia and helps to stretch deep and superficial (under the skin) fascia.

Stretch your fascia after injury

If you push through an injury, or are recovering from one, beware: your movement patterns will change to compensate and after your injury is gone, you may maintain that same movement pattern. That’s a recipe for an injury cycle. It’s better to do some gentle fascial stretching for the injured area (check with your therapist/practitioner first) as well as other body areas that are working overtime to compensate.

So next time you stretch, mobilise and exercise, give a thought to what’s happening in your body. Stiffness and weakness isn’t coming from your muscles, it’s coming from your fascia! The better hydrated and unglued it is the better you will move and perform and the better you will feel.

References

  1. Fascial Fitness: Training in the Neuromyofascial Web, IDEA Fitness Journal, April 2001. ideafit.com/fitness-library/fascial-fitness
  2. Anatomy Trains: http://www.anatomytrains.com
  3. Fascial Fitness: http://www.fascialfitnesstoday.com
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