Fascial Considerations in Elite Sports Performers
There was a time, just a decade or so ago, when fascia was considered relatively unimportant from a medical viewpoint. Today that has changed completely; while there are still some remaining sceptics who still prefer the old fashioned way of looking at human anatomy, medical science now recognises the vital importance of fascia, a huge three-dimensional structure that permeates the whole body. There is still much we don’t understand about it, but we do know that it is critically important and has huge implications to our general health and fitness.
Here we will look at some of fascia’s more important features, focusing specifically on their relevance to elite athletes. We will show that peak performance can only be achieved if your fascia is maintained in peak condition, and we will suggest some simple ways of achieving that ambition.
What is fascia?
Fascia is a continual viscoelastic tissue, mainly collagen, that forms a continuous three-dimensional matrix connecting and surrounding every organ and muscle in the body. Although continuous, facia is usually characterised as:
- Superficial fascia which is directly under the skin throughout most of the body. It also surrounds organs and nerve bundles and fills the spaces between organs. It provides a passageway for lymph, nerve and blood vessels, and provides a protective cushion,
- Visceral fascia keeps the organs in place in the organ cavities, and wraps them with a double layer of connective tissue. While it can stretch, it is stiffer than superficial fascia in order to keep the organs in place.
- Deep fascia is a layer of dense fibrous connective tissue that surrounds each muscles, and separates muscle groups into fascial compartments. It contains a large proportion of elastin fibre providing extensibility and resilience.
Fascia also contains many nerves most of which are proprioceptive and give us the perception of position and movement. It also plays a role in the autonomic nervous system as a sensory organ.
The viscoelastic properties of facia relate directly to its physical structure. The facial fluid system is maintained by microvacuoles which allow the body to maintain its volume of fluid while sustaining pressure and tension. Microvacuoles can be thought of as tiny, adaptable space-holders or sacs that keep the fluid constant throughout the body.
Guimberteau (2012) describes the multi-microvacuolar collagenous absorbing system (MVCAS) as being as the fundamental tissue architecture, with the microvacuoles with the dimension of the microvacuoles being as small as just a few microns. They can be thought of as functioning like shock absorbers and providing resistance that increases with the load. The collagen fibres align in the direction of the load, and the energy stored in them reduces with the distance from the stress, with the vacuoles transmitting the sustained forces to adjacent vacuoles.
The role of fascia in transmitting force
It is important to realise that muscles don’t usually transmit their total force directly to the skeleton via tendons. While this is the classical text book way of depicting how muscles work, it is a huge over-simplification. In reality, much of the muscular force is distributed to fascia sheets, and subsequently transmitted to other muscles, which may be muscles working in the same direction or in the opposite direction. The result is that muscular contraction stiffens not only the respective joint, but also stiffens other regions.
Fascial stiffness and elasticity play a major role in all forms of body movement – your ability to run, lift, jump or any other exercise depends not only on your muscles, but also on the elastic recoil of your facial network.
Fascia’s role in general health
Clearly, fascia plays an important role in joint stability, the coordination of movement, and many musculoskeletal ailments. Fascia has been shown to be implicated in a variety of painful conditions (Langevin et.al., 2011) including back pain, postural strain, and pelvic pain. It is also involved in certain breathing problems, stress injuries, wound healing, along with muscle recovery and repair.
Facia fitness for the elite athlete
Facia is involved in every movement we make. For anyone involved in training and competition, or just in daily exercise, facia plays a crucial role. Exercise is able change and adapt fascial integrity, as can excess muscle and fat. Most injuries sustained during training and competition are in fact facial injuries rather than muscle injuries. The slow deterioration of fascia as we age is responsible for many of the condition associated with ageing.
Progressively we are gaining an understanding of the role facia plays in athletic fitness, and how we can improve overall fitness by focussing on facial fitness. The challenge is to keep your facia in tip top condition.
Facial hydration and exercise
As facia is in essence a network of water containing microvacuoles, maintaining adequate levels of hydration is clearly important. No doubt you are already aware of the amount of hydration you need during training and recovery, but keeping your fascia properly hydrated involves far more than just drinking water.
The problem is that the microvascular structure can be compromised, for instance by injury and even repetitive exercise of the wrong kind. Once it is compromised, fascia will lose elasticity and fail to transmit and distribute the sustained forces as it should. The result is fatigue, muscular weakness and possibly pain and additional injury.
Proper exercise plays can help keep your facia hydrated and properly elastic. Variation is key. Physical exercise designed to maintain facial fitness involves considerable variation in both exercise type and tempo. The best approach to achieving facial fitness is through the help of a personal trainer who understands the vital role that fascia plays in athleticism and who can guide you towards achieving your goal.
Fascia is a highly complex topic on which medical and sports science is still gaining understanding. While we have highlighted some of its key properties and the role they play in athleticism, we have barely scratched the surface. We do know, however, that achieving and maintaining facial fitness is a crucial factor in maximising overall fitness and strength, and we have a good understanding of how this can be achieved. Your next step should be to talk to your personal trainer about it.
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Guimberteau J.C., (2012), The subcutaneous and epitendinous tissue behaviour of the multimicrovacuolar sliding system, Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body, Elsevier Health Sciences, 26 Feb 2013
Langevin H.M., et.al., (2011), Reduced thoracolumbar fascia shear strain in human chronic low back pain, BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2011