No it’s not a word we made up, and we all have one, but have you given your fascia a second thought?
The word ‘fascia’ reminds me of that Friends episode (‘The Last One’- sob) in which Rachel is convinced that there’s something wrong with the plane (the left phalange!). She got off the plane, and the phalange was not a thing. Fascia, on the other hand, very much exists, and is actually crucial to supporting your body as it goes about its business. But just what is your fascia, and how can you best support it? Keeping it in order can improve everything from your workout performance to your workplace productivity, so it’s worth getting to grips with. I consulted Structural Integration Specialist Anna Collins on the importance of fascia, and how we can make sure ours is fighting fit, and barrecore founder Niki Rein on how foam rolling can be helpful when it comes to melting away post-exercise muscle pain.
GTG: What exactly is a ‘fascia’, and why might it need treating from time to time?
Anna Collins: Fascia is a network of connective tissue that supports the body at many levels - you can think of it like a ‘soft skeleton’. As it has elastic and plastic properties (i.e. can stretch and move), it will change position to support your body. If you hurt yourself, for example by breaking a leg, the soft tissue adapts to protect the body from further injury, i.e. you tend to favour the other leg, and it’s the fascia that holds everything in place. If the body isn’t allowed to return to its original position, it will simply get used to the new position and stay put. If you’ve spent several weeks limping on one leg, after a time you tend to not notice and get used to the ‘new’ adaptive style of walking and therefore may not notice the fact that you are favouring one leg over the other. A temporary imbalance becomes a permanent one and there will be knock-on effects around the whole body. Everything is connected; nothing exists in isolation. Whilst breaking a limb is an extreme example, it happens daily with bad posture, carrying heavy bags, or poor workout regimes. By keeping the fascia healthy, you keep yourself healthy.
Niki Rein: When we stop moving for long periods of time, such as when we sleep at night or when we get injured, the fascia starts to create a fuzz that gets sticky and creates stiffness. This 'fuzz' is the reason we feel stiff in the morning. Foam rolling is a fantastic way of working through 'the fuzz', especially when built-up, and melting away the restrictions around muscle groups. The hips are one of the most common areas for this facial build-up and tightness, so that's why it's a popular area to roll out daily.
GTG: Anna, you’re a ‘Rolfer’; how does your specialism address fascia? What are the effects and benefits of a Rolfing session?
AC: The Rolf Method of Structural Integration aims to realign your body by working with the fascia. In order to get a ‘well-ordered’ structure, you have to address it as a whole. So rather than doing ‘spot work’, i.e. simply working on where the pain is, practitioners will work over the whole body to help untwist and unwind it, ironing out the kinks and creases of day-to-day life.
By working over a series of organised sessions, the body has the time, space and freedom to help sort itself out, with the result being that the changes are longer-lasting. As you feel better, move better and breathe easier, you wish to maintain this sense of ease and fluidity, therefore become more conscious of your daily movement habits to keep it that way.
Unlike other forms of physical therapy, you don’t need to be injured to sign up, in fact, a lot of the top athletes, dancers, models and even classical musicians (in the US) use the ten series as part of their training regime to keep themselves in tip-top condition for peak performance. You can think of it as you might an annual service for your car - if you look after it, tune it up, it will work more efficiently.
Benefits are too numerous to mention individually, but I’ve seen all sorts happen: better posture, better breathing, all kinds of chronic pain cleared up, skin, digestive and fertility issues improved, improved energy levels, improved self-confidence, improved flexibility, better coordination, speed and strength (as noted by participants in their sport or exercise of choice), increased body awareness, clothes fitting better. I don’t make any promises, but there will always be a change for the better (if you have time, there are plenty of stories on my website to read !).
GTG: We’ve heard a lot about foam rolling after exercise. How might this improve how the fascia functions?
AC: Foam rolling is definitely something to explore, but has its limitations. It has the same premise, but the rollers can be quite firm and therefore can feel fairly painful if you have tightness anywhere. Also it is much harder to control the pressure; it’s much easier to have a person to do it to you, as they can feel the depth. Too deep, too quickly or too fast and it will hurt - go slowly!
NR: Most people think that the harder the foam roller the better, but the fascia release is better with a softer pressure, so begin with a slow and soft approach. It might still feel tender as you roll through the tissue but it should not be agonising. With each pass through the muscle group, you can then work deeper into the tissue for more release. More and more studies are coming out showing myofascial release benefits performance, maximising strength and improving overall flexibility. The more supple and mobile the body, the less injury prone. I love foam rolling because you just need a foam roller (or golf, tennis and lacrosse balls work well too!), but massage is an even better way of releasing the fascia. Massage is my preferred option because the recipient can fully relax into it and release the tension.
In terms of my favourite foam roller, I love ‘The Grid’ . It has softer and more firm areas on the roller. I also love rolling my spine on the ‘Mini Grid’. Foam rolling classes do exist, and most of them are a combination of myofascial release and resistance training. We actually include foam rolling in our barreSTRETCH class .