Your body needs love. It’s screaming for it, but all you can say is, “I stretch…sometimes.” News flash: even stretching every day isn’t enough. If you’re demanding a certain level of performance from your muscles, you better be able to invest in their wellbeing. However, to get to the bottom of your aches and pains, you’ll actually need to focus on the top – the top layer, that is.
Just under your skin is what’s known as fascia. Fascia is the connective tissue between all your muscles, bones and organs. It’s essentially the cushioning between your skin and every integral piece of your being. For that reason alone, fascia should be at the top of your TLC to-do list. Here’s a closer look at why that is and the best ways to take care of it:
The function of fascia
You can’t ignore fascia, because it’s everywhere! Fascia is the soft, fibrous tissue that “connects muscle to bone, and bone to bone, slings your organ structures, cushions your vertebrae, and wraps your bones,” as described by Brooke Thomas, founder of liberatedbody.com and Rolfing practitioner for over 14 years. You may be wondering, “Don’t tendons and ligaments have a role, here?” Why yes, they do. Tendons and ligaments are considered part of the fascial system, so that’s even more reason to keep this system healthy.
Furthermore, Thomas iterates, “your fascia is a system of proprioception.” In other words it helps you understand your body’s position in space. “Therefore, well-hydrated and supple fascia is crucial to maintaining your natural settings for alignment and function. And maintaining those natural settings will keep small problems from snowballing into larger ones,” Thomas says (Thomas).
Remember the bones song from your Kindergarten days? “The knee bone connected to the thigh bone; the thigh bone connected to the hip bone.” Everything’s connected (via fascia, as we know now), which means localized injuries simply don’t exist. All parts must be in sync and healthy all at once. This can only be done with a regular bodywork routine, which may include the following.
Mashing? Oh my!
You are not a potato, but you should be mashed. It sounds much worse than what it really is. Mashing is a form of bodywork that involves compressing muscles by essentially walking barefoot on top of the body. The idea is to increase blood flow and help release myofascial tissue.
Elle Weberg was introduced to a practice known as Ki-Hara, a combination of mashing and resistance stretching, while competing on the U.S. National Swim Team. Weberg says, “It [Ki-Hara] was a life saver in my recovery process. I was training harder than I ever had at 26 years old and became dependent on my weekly mashing session to relieve muscle and fascia tension, so I could continue training at my maximum potential.”
Anyone with an overuse injury, muscle tension or poor posture can benefit from mashing or Ki-Hara. In combination with a nutrient-rich diet and balanced training program, athletes may see performance gains, because the focus is on promoting recovery and reducing stress in the body.
Rolfing for recovery
Speaking of recovery, Rolfing is another technique that releases tension in the fascia, but it does so through manual manipulation of the connective tissues. The Rolf Institute® of Structural Integration says Rolfing works “to release, realign and balance the whole body, potentially resolving discomfort, reducing compensations and alleviating pain.” Rolfing practitioners use their hands and elbows, much like massage therapists. However, don’t be fooled. Rolfing is not meant to be a relaxing, spa-like experience. The pressure is hard, deep and focused.
In my own experience, Rolfing was preceded by 15 to 20 minutes of heat, acupuncture and electrical stimulation (E-stim) applied to the affected area (and its surroundings). The E-stim was actually connected to the acupuncture needles, creating a more targeted muscle massage – it was deep in there! As my practitioner used to say, “It’ll make your muscles turn to buttah.” With the muscles and tissues relaxed and blood flow at an all-time high, the intense, squirm-inducing pressure ensued. But, it was worth it in the end, when I somehow felt much lighter and more energized.
Rolfing is not for everyone. It can be extremely uncomfortable at times, as the professional deeply manipulates the muscle, tendons and surrounding fascia. The goal of Rolfing is often to change body structure to ultimately create more efficiency. Need to improve your running economy? Rolfing may be able to help re-balance your body to conserve energy and function properly (The Rolf Institute).
Scraping is more than just scraping by
Sometimes referred to as spooning or coining, scraping was originally called gua sha in traditional Chinese medicine. It involves repeatedly stroking the skin with a spoon or smooth-edged tool, usually along the path of an acupuncture meridian and away from the heart. Gua sha creates a “sha” rash (petechiae) or bruising of the skin (ecchymosis). This rather unsightly redness is actually a good sign, though. After the first round of treatment, the sha rash “lets you know changes are happening in the underlying muscle tissue and fascia,” says Traver H. Boehm, a licensed acupuncturist. After a few sessions, the reaction will significantly lessen as blood flow returns to the soft tissue and the body’s natural pain-relievers kick in (Boehm).
Using a handheld tool, scraping can be done with little effort – and little investment! Depending on the problem area, you could perform this technique on yourself, provided you’ve sought out professional guidance to get you started. I was briefly introduced to scraping by my massage therapist, Selina Weller of Go Athletics. Scraping produces a unique crunch-like feeling just underneath the skin. The best way I can describe the sensation is to compare it to popping bubble wrap, which makes sense when you realize – hello! – that’s your fibrous fascia you’re scraping there.
There’s certainly a time and place for scraping – like not the night before a little-black-dress occasion. Otherwise, anyone can benefit from a scraping session, particularly anyone suffering with specific points of pain. Traditionally speaking, gua sha was performed on the neck when someone was feeling under the weather. This body treatment may support the immune system as much as it does soft tissue.
Massage therapy isn’t going anywhere
A relaxing 60 minutes on the massage table may be the most common (and preferred) form of bodywork. Lucky for you, nothing’s changed. Massage therapy is still, and probably always will be, a highly regarded treatment for sore and achy muscles.
Massage therapy is another form of myofascial release, though it can be done in a variety of ways. Different massage modalities include – but are not limited to – acupressure, deep tissue, reflexology, sports massage, trigger point therapy and Lomi-Lomi, a Hawaiian technique. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, most people get a massage for health reasons and agree that it can be effective in reducing pain (AMTA).
Massage is typically most effective when used in combination with other bodywork practices, such as scraping. That being said, regular rub downs offer not only a physical perk, but a mental release as well. I highly recommend getting a massage at least once a month to combat everyday stressors, which can leave your entire body feeling weighed down if ignored for too long. Athletes seeking performance gains will definitely benefit from specific forms of massage therapy, including sports massage and deep tissue.
From Rolfing to mashing to the beloved massage table, there’s a bodywork program that can help you. Weberg recommends scheduling one to two sessions of focused bodywork each week for best results. Every other day, find time for a little self-care, whether it be foam rolling, dynamic stretching or even a soothing yoga session.