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Fascia Flexibility and Performance

By Todd Durkin
Todd is the founder of Fitness Quest 10 & Todd Durkin Enterprises in San Diego, CA. He leads a staff of 26 employees, trains over 25 NFL athletes, and motivates companies, teams, and conferences throughout the country.


Are you looking to get your client or athlete to the next level of performance? There are many components to achieving optimal physical or athletic performance. These components include the Physical, Nutritional, Mental/Emotional, and Mechanical aspects. This article is going to specifically address how one can physically prepare and repair their body to optimize regeneration and rid the body of chronic holding patterns. Even more powerfully, this article can help provide you some answers on how to deal with people with chronic pain or injuries that seem to get nowhere through conventional therapies. We are going to deal with how fascia of the body affects performance and what we can do to positively influence one of the largest systems of the body that is rarely addressed when it comes to the rehabilitation or prehabilitation of injury.

Fascia is a critical missing element to unleashing one’s potential. Fascia is a specialized system of the body (connective tissue) which plays an important role in the support of our bodies. Fascia is a very dense connective tissue which envelops every muscle, bone, nerve, artery, and vein as well as all of our internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain, and spinal cord. It is an intricate, 3-D web that supports your organs and joints from head to toe and acts as a shock absorber to the body. The fascial system is actually one structure that exists from head to toe without interruption.

There are 3 layers to fascia. The first layer contains fat, nerve endings, and blood vessels. The second layer is a potential space which can become enlarged with swelling, suggesting the fascia is disrupted by injury or overuse.  The third layer is deep and wraps around the organs of the body. The fibers of fascia run in various directions which allow accommodation to changes in muscle bulk and stretching. Fascia is said to have a tensile strength of up to 2000 pounds per square inch.  In its natural state, fascia is elastic, pliable, and relaxed. However, fascia often becomes constricted due to traumas, accidents, repetitive motion syndromes, neuromuscular weakness, or poor postural habits. Fascia shrinks when it is inflamed and is slow to heal because of poor blood supply. It also is a focus of pain because of its rich nerve supply. When fascia becomes constricted, it becomes tight, it creates great pressure on its structures, it lacks pliability, and becomes a great source of tension to the body. Scar tissue in the muscle forms and range of motion and flexibility are negatively compromised. Pain and injury are often the end result.

Mental/emotional traumas and fatigue also influence the fascial system as emotions and moods alter our energy systems and in turn affect posture. If the emotional states continue, poor posture begins to form a habit and so stress is placed on the system, thus causing constriction. This is an important component because it basically means that our emotional and mental states have a powerful affect on our body’s structure. Fascia is really is an edifice of our emotional, as well as physical, well-being. The body truly is an amazing machine. The physical and mental/emotional components are so tightly interwoven that their affect on performance is even greater than what traditional wisdom recognizes.

Therefore, the next generation of personal trainer, massage therapist, bodyworker, and allied health care professional, recognizes the importance of working with one’s fascia.  From a personal training standpoint, this can be accomplished several ways. First, a proper dynamic warm-up is essential. This should include movement preparation for the activities that are going to occur in the workout or activity. To specifically elevate core temperature, warm-up the connective tissue, and adequately prepare the body for movement, 10-15 minutes should be dedicated to this component of the workout. Examples of the dynamic warm-up and integrated flexibility include jumping jacks, flings, pogo hops, gate swings, scorpion kicks, 1 legged windshield wipers, rolling hamstring stretches, and Frankenstein walks (see pictures for more details).

Following the workout, there are two ways an athlete or client can specifically increase fascial length: stretching and Optimal Performance Bodywork techniques.

The latest studies show that static stretching should be performed post workout as it has a detrimental affect on preparing the nervous system for competition for activity. Performed following an activity or workout, static stretching is a marvelous way to lengthen the fascia of the body. When stretching fascia, you should actually hold a stretch anywhere from 30 seconds on up to 2-3 minutes. Common areas to address for chronic tightness include the hip flexors, hip rotators, hamstrings, Achilles tendons, lower back, and the pectoralis/shoulder region. Specific stretches include the kneeling hip flexor stretch, pigeon pose, rope static hamstring stretch, downward facing dog, cats & dogs, spinal twist against a wall, standing pectoralis stretch, and wall hamstring and groin stretch.

Like anything, to get more flexible you must invest time in stretching. You can not get stronger from lifting weights 5 minutes a day, 3 times per week. Stretching cannot be an after-thought after a long, hard workout or grueling 1 or 2 hour match or game. Stretching and your flexibility program should be a well designed, thought out program to correct your weaknesses and imbalances. Remember that the fascial system all works together so it is best to address the entire body when stretching:  feet to fingertips, left and right, front and back.

Optimal Performance Bodywork is a system of education and soft tissue work that is designed to restore the body’s alignment by specifically addressing the fascial system. This is best accomplished through an eclectic mix of specific hands-on techniques to address the fascia while often simultaneously focusing on neuromuscular reeducation techniques. This work is a combination of myofascial release techniques, Rolfing, Soft Tissue Release, Active Release, Feldenkrais, and a myriad of other disciplines to specifically deal with ridding the body of fascial restrictions. Optimal Performance Bodywork works on a broader swath of muscles and connective tissue to help soften, lengthen, and realign the body. Because of the continuity of the fascial system and how all fascia works together, releases in one area of the body often positively affect other parts of the body as well.  The fascia of the body all works together and is the reason why the body often compensates for joint weakness and joint pain.

Optimal Performance Bodywork is based on the idea that poor posture, physical injury, illness, and emotional stress can throw the body out of alignment and cause its intricate web of fascia to become hypertonic and constricted. Because fascia links every organ and tissue in the body with every other part, the skillful techniques of a practitioner helps release the constrictions. Pressure on the bones, muscles, joints, and nerves is relieved in the process and balance is restored. Optimal Performance Bodywork leads to postural and alignment changes. The ultimate goal is optimal body alignment which allows for the most efficient use of energy for daily tasks or sport performance. When the body is properly aligned and lengthened, this allows for the body’s innate healing and restorative power to work efficiently by improving circulation and nervous system transmission.

Physical and/or emotional stress causes the fascia to lose its flexibility. The stiffened fascia gradually limits the free movement of the related muscles and joints. People respond to this process by adapting to these limitations. They change their breathing patterns, posture, and body movements to adjust to these changes. Breathing becomes shallower, posture becomes slumped, and movements become limited.  Eventually, these changes stress the nerves, blood vessels, and the digestive organs and limit their optimal functioning. The continuing pull of gravity, stress of daily activities, and physical injuries can pull the body out of alignment. The fascia gradually shortens, tightens, and adjusts to accommodate the misalignment. When the body is out of alignment, it creates inefficiency and imbalance resulting in stiffness, discomfort, loss of energy, and pain. This equals poor performance!

Fascial work is critical in one reaching his/her potential. I have seen hundreds of clients, both athletes and non-athletes that have unfortunately been through multiple surgeries for conditions that are “mysterious” and still aren’t figured out. After designing and implementing a specific flexibility program for the entire body of a client and that client working with a trainer or therapist skilled in these specific myofascial release techniques, major signs of improvement occur after just a few sessions. This work has helped these people out of pain and wishing they had discovered fascial work much earlier.

The implications for sport are great. The violent nature of a pitching arm, a swing of a bat, a swing of a club, the brutality of football, etc., leaves an athlete’s body a wreck. Just “resting” the body doesn’t heal the body. If there are scar tissue adhesions formed, imbalances in the fascial system, or flexibility has been compromised, fascia needs to be addressed.  All the electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and ice in the world won’t directly address the fascial system. And this is the key to allowing the body to endure throughout time as it again helps create our structure. Recognize that fascia plays a critical role in the healing process as well as performance paradigm. By implementing some basic techniques in the last 10 minutes of a session or by creating a 30-60 separate session, you can begin powerfully communicating through touch just how an important role fascia plays in the big picture of health and happiness.
 
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