Fascia is an interconnected system of membranes running through your entire body, covering muscles and connecting them to other parts of the body. It often gets damaged or stuck, and this can lead to it becoming too tight and limiting your movement. Luckily, you can help loosen it up which will not just increase your range of motion but will improve your recovery too.
What is fascia?
Fascia (myofascia) is a connective tissue that looks a bit like white tights covering separate muscle fibers, bundles, whole muscles, groups of muscles, organs and running over the surface of your entire body, just under the skin. It connects all body parts to the rest of your body and is the reason why when you stretch your neck, you might get a stretching sensation in your leg.
Fascia consists mainly of parallel collagen fibers forming a thin layer that is separated from the next fascia layer (which has fibers running in a different direction) by a thin layer of fat. These superthin and elastic layers therefore enable easy movement of muscles by allowing them to glide and not cause friction with surrounding tissues. However, it can happen that these layers ‘stick’ together which reduces your range of motion and may cause pain (1, 2).
Fascia is elastic yet strong but when it gets damaged, suffers a trauma (such as a fall) or becomes inflamed, it loses its pliability. And because fascia has ample nerve endings, you feel it when you stretch and get the sensation of a larger area stretching and the feeling is more superficial – as opposed to muscle where a stretch is usually felt in a smaller, more distinctive area.
Fascia may also be less elastic than it should be if you’ve been training within a relatively small range of motion and many repetitions of the same move – which could easily happen when you’re weight-lifting, cycling or running! By branching out, including multidirectional moves and Yoga, you can train your fascia, release it and make it more elastic. And of course, there are also many fascia release techniques you can do at home – for example foam rolling.
Why fascia release is important
In addition to the above, fascia also gets tighter by everyday actions, such as sitting at a desk for long hours, poor posture, repetitive movements, and even stress. Tight fascia can cause or contribute to many troubling issues – muscle pain, chronic back and neck pain, injuries, sensations such as numbness and pins and needles, bad posture and reduced flexibility.
Fascia release is a term for a number of techniques. To help to loosen the ‘stuck’ portions of fascia, one of the techniques is applying sustained pressure and releasing it in a number of places. This can be done using a tool such as foam roller or massage ball – or a therapist can perform it for you. Other types of fascia release can be done through specific stretching of fascia using either foam roller or Yoga poses held for an extended period of time.
When you work with fascia, you’re increasing the blood flow to it, decreasing and then increasing its water level (by compressing it and releasing), and stimulating the surrounding tissues (1). It may be somewhat painful at first but you will experience relief shortly afterwards, and reap long-term benefits.
Working with your fascia has a number of benefits (1, 2):
- Increased short- and long-term flexibility and joint range of motion
- Reduced muscle soreness after training
- Improved recovery
- Enhanced well-being – because fascia release stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system which makes you more relaxed and lowers your stress hormone levels
- Injury prevention
Research shows that fascia release techniques together with exercise are more effective at relieving lower back pain than exercise alone (3).
And in athletic training, studies revealed that stretching is important but when complemented by fascia release techniques, it improves the Athletes’ range of motion even more and can enhance their performance (4, 5).
Tools for fascia release
The most common tools are a foam roller and tennis ball. Now you might be thinking that foam rolling is for muscle massage – it is but it also works with both superficial and deep fascia. It helps to loosen the stuck bits and stretches large portions of fascia.
Foam rollers are great for working large areas – your quads, hamstrings, calves, back and chest. If you want to get deeper into a troubled spot in your back, around the hips or neck, a tennis ball is your guy.
The basic technique is the same – place the foam roller or ball on the floor and gradually lower your body onto it. Slowly roll over it and when you find a tighter spot, stay there. According to a recent study, the minimum time you should apply pressure to the area you want to release is 90 seconds (6).
The positions of the foam roller or ball are usually the following:
- Under the upper back while lying down
- Under the lower back while sitting, reclining back over the roller
- Under the upper thighs while lying on your front
- Under the hamstrings while sitting, leaning on your hands behind you
- Under the calves while sitting, leaning on your hands behind you
- Under the side of your thigh while lying on your side, supporting your upper body leaning on the lower elbow, the upper leg can be bent, foot resting on the floor for support
- Under your side ribs while lying on the side
- Under your chest while lying on your front (this is mainly for men)
Yoga and fascia release
When you practice Yoga, you’re training your fascia automatically. It’s not just about stretching – your fascia is constantly remodelling itself based on the loads and demands applied to it (7).
According to research, the more dynamic elements of Yoga practice stimulate fascia adaptations while the longer holds help release it (7). In simple stretching, most of the lengthening happens in the muscle as muscle fibers are softer than fascia and tendons so stretch more readily. However, when you remain in a Yoga position for longer, your muscles gradually relax and there’s room for fascia to lengthen as well. To achieve this, you’ll need some patience. Just like with applying pressure for fascia release, in Yoga you need to hold a certain pose for at least one or two minutes to achieve results.
That’s not to say you should hold every pose for that long – not at all! But if you have a problem area, such as a stiff back, it’s worth staying in poses that help to release it for longer – in this case forward folds and gentle backbends. These long holds are usually reserved for poses in which you sit or lie down so your body can properly relax and release.
When you’re doing your Yoga practice and feel stuck in a certain pose or have the sensation of a broad area stretching, perhaps with the ‘ants under your skin’ feeling, pause the instruction video and remain there for at least 10 deep breaths. Try to breathe into the area that feels tight – it helps to focus your attention and consciously relax the muscles. Your body will release more than you may expect.
The IT band joys
The IT or iliotibial band is a thicker kind of fascia running along the outside of the thigh, from just above the hip to just below the knee. It connects muscles from all those areas, helps to stabilize the hip and the knee, and helps to move your thigh. It’s the largest piece of fascia in the human body. When it works well, you don’t know it even exists but when there’s a problem, it can hinder not just your training but everyday life, too.
The IT band syndrome is a term for a number of issues caused by an overuse of the IT band resulting in pain, inflammation, tightness and even difficulty walking (8). The most common causes are excessive running, jumping, cycling, or other training requiring repetitive motion of the IT band, but it can also be caused by overstretching, sitting for long periods of time or uneven leg length.
If you suffer from the IT band syndrome or have other issues with the IT band, you’ll have to ease off your training immediately so you can recover (8). Some people advocate foam rolling but it can be too non-specific for this purpose and omit the surrounding muscles. Many therapists actually recommend massage balls – or you can use a tennis ball or a baseball. Place it between your body and the wall for lower pressure, or between you and the floor for stronger pressure. Put the ball in various places around the hip, buttocks and thigh and gradually ease your weight onto it. When you feel a spot that’s more painful than other places, remain there pressing against the ball for about two minutes while breathing deeply. It will hurt but gradually, you should feel some relief. You can do this one or twice a day but not more often to not overdo it.
Unless your IT band is actually severely injured, it’s best to complement the ball rolling by some gentle yoga poses that help to release it. Essentially any pose where you twist your upper body against the lower body or open the hips will be helpful but your practice needs to be regular to be effective.
Fascia is inherently a part of your muscles but also connects whole muscle groups and integrates the entire body. It’s elastic but helps to hold your body together, and prevent injuries. Many life events and situations can make it less elastic, tight or there can be adhesions – where fascia layers are stuck together instead of moving freely. By combining fascia release techniques using a ball or foam roller, and Yoga practice with long holds in seated and reclined positions, you can restore your fascia health, reduce muscle soreness after training, and improve your recovery as well.
Scientific data show that with the right training and release, your fascia can not only be and remain healthy, it can retain its supple and elastic structure into old age – whereas without training it loses some of its functionality and becomes thin and tight (7). There’s no need to spend hours on your fascia, just a few minutes daily will bring noticeable results and you’ll feel great in your body too!