What if I told you that you have as your birthright the ability as a mover and athlete to feel weightless, springy, even buoyant? What if I also told you that the same way you access this birthright allows you to need less or no warm-up time before activities, helps you recover faster and rarely get sore? And, what if I told you that this same system, when optimized, could dramatically increase your efficiency and power potential as an athlete (meaning, if you’re a competitive athlete you may just decrease times and increase speed/agility/ability)?
All of the above is absolutely available to you.
Healthy fascia grants us this birthright.
If you want to access all of the above, listen up:
We have 10 times as many proprioceptors in our fascia than we do muscle fiber.Proprioception is the brain’s ability to detect our physical body in space, and then conduct our movements within that space.
If you’re an athlete it’s critical to know your way around whatever space you perform in right? If you’re a gymnast that means you need to know your way around the balance beam, uneven bars or how to throw yourself across the floor. If you’re a trail runner you need to have keen awareness of your terrain, ideally without that awareness interrupting your ability to run quickly. If you’re an MMA fighter you need to not only be able to control your body in physical space, but be able to predict and control someone else’s too!
All of these things require healthy proprioception.
Have you ever tried to perform a movement only to feel like you have a “dumb” arm or leg? Maybe it’s easier on one side than the other. This has a lot do with proprioception!
Let’s get nerdy for a moment:
Proprioceptors are highly specialized sensory receptors on nerve endings found in muscles, tendons and joints. They’re responsible for communicating information about motion and position between our brain and body to make us aware of our own body position and movement in space. Proprioceptors detect subtle changes in movement, position, tension and force within the body.
I’ll say it again because it’s so crazy important:
We have 10 times as many proprioceptors in our fascia than we do muscle fiber!
I’m not going to get super sciency on you, because this whole process is quite complicated when we start talking nerves, brain, muscle spindles, golgi tendons etc. The important thing is, because of the distribution of proprioceptors in our fascial system, then…On a very physical/visceral level, our fascial system is an organ of perception!
Fascia is the main system by which we perceive ourselves – body and psyche – in the physical world.
If you have fascia that is dehydrated, brittle and/or stuck to itself in giant adhesions that aren’t allowing muscle fibers to glide quickly and efficiently or nerves to communicate effectively, then your proprioception is going to SUCK.
Think of the fascia like a superhighway for our nerves to travel between the body and brain. If that superhighway crumbles in places or gets squished to only one lane, then those nerves are going to have a much harder time traveling and communicating freely. And our sensory receptors – proprioceptors – won’t be able to communicate efficiently.
Most of us walk around every day not realizing how GOOD we can feel! We enter adulthood and get used to feeling a little creaky, achy, heavy…and since no one told us we could feel any different, that becomes our normal; slowly getting worse and worse as we age.
Well I’m here to tell you that’s NOT how we have to feel!
I do NOT believe we have to age like this. I believe, based on experience, that we can feel light, springy, bouyant and powerful as movers for as long as we want – if we take care of our fascia.
I was certainly one of those people that always felt heavy and achy, like I was carrying around a bunch of led weights…until I stumbled onto this amazing birthright we’ve been granted as human beings.
I accidentally optimized my body for peak performance as an athlete:
This happened in the summer of 2011 right after I moved to Boulder, CO. I came here with my best friend and we had just moved into a mountain house that had an awesome trail right outside our door. I came here determined to run again so I could enjoy the abundant and beautiful trail systems of Colorado.
Jess was up for the challenge. She wanted to run too, and we wanted to run together. So I taught her to work on me. I taught her how to step on me. We spent a week or two stepping on each other before attempting a short trail run.
I had not been able to run for 8 YEARS due to knee pain.
I had been using compression + movement based fascial release (by stepping on people, then having them move) for almost 2 years. I was getting other people out of pain, and I knew in my bones I could heal my knees and run again. I just needed someone to experiment with me…
My knees hurt the entire time. But I was not deterred.
We had an idea: what if she worked on me ON the trail every time my knees hurt? We figured out a way for her to do this, and committed ourselves to a longer trail run – about 6 miles, with lots of up and downhill.
That first time she had to work on me about 10 times. My knees hurt almost the whole time – except every time after she worked on me I would get a minute or so of relief.
That was enough to convince me we were on to something!
We did this same route again a few days later. This time she only had to work on me about five times! The third time we did this route, she only had to work on me 1-2 times and those 6 miles were mostly pain free.
I’ve been able to run pain-free ever since!
But…the real gem of discovery, and the purpose of this post, is that in doing this experiment she and I got to experience what I mentioned at the start of this post: we discovered our birthright as movers! Accidentally, or incidentally, due to all this work we were doing on each other so she could learn this technique in order to help me heal my knees – we primed our bodies for peak performance.
We would work on each other 3-4 times a week, releasing all the fascia in our calves, quads, hamstrings, adductors and IT Bands. When those all felt totally healthy (which took less than a month!) we moved on to smaller areas like our shins and TFL, and then everything in the upper body.
I had no idea, scientifically speaking, what we had done on at the time. Now I know exactly what happened and do it on purpose – for myself and my clients.
What we discovered was that we no longer needed to warm up before running.
We stopped getting sore.
We recovered faster; and we felt like we were FLOATING over the trails.
I had never felt that GOOD in my body!
Before moving to Colorado my clients all came for a few sessions, got out of pain and went on with their lives. None stayed with me long enough to have this experience or show me that this was possible.
Jess and I had set out to simply help me run again by finding the cause of my knee pain and eliminating it; we had NO idea we would feel THAT amazing!
I also believe that utilizing proprioception in this way is at least half the reason I can run again. People had stepped on me before, including two of my mentors, and it didn’t help me run again. It wasn’t until I engaged my fascial system AND proprioceptors DURING the activity that my body and brain had associated with pain for 8 years prior that I was able to run pain free again.
I use every aspect of that experience to challenge my Colorado clients to do the same: if someone thinks they can’t do an activity, I challenge them to do it – little by little, working with me in between or during those activities, to reinforce the new neural pathways and ideal prioprioception. Then I invite them to stay with me longer than getting pain-free, so they can feel better than they ever imagined possible.
Now, I want to challenge you to the same:
This is your birthright! Will you CLAIM it?
I’ve always promised to never bullshit you. So I feel compelled to tell you that this is going to be more of a challenge to do on your own, without someone like me working with you. AND – I believe it’s totally possible! It’ll just take longer.
Jess and I optimized our entire fascial systems (upper and lower body) by stepping on each other very frequently, and it only took a month. We lived together so it was easy to work on each other 3-4 times a week. My clients don’t even see me that frequently! And sadly, this scenario isn’t happening for me anymore. I get stepped on maybe once a week right now (by one of my 4 now-graduated apprentices), and it’s not enough time to get my entire body. I feel pretty great overall, but admittedly I haven’t felt as good as I did when I was trying to heal my knees!
Using foam rollers and lacrosse balls can get you a similar experience, it’s just going to take longer. The good news is: once you reach optimal (fascia at its healthiest) maintaining it is VERY EASY! You can’t ignore it and expect it to stay the same, but maintaining it will require a lot less upkeep than taking unhealthy fascia to healthy.
How to optimize your fascia and proprioception:
- Think BEYOND pain relief. Obviously, if you’re working on an issue that’s stopping you from being as active as you want, then this is priority #1. After that – start thinking about your entire body as ONE UNIT. You can’t isolate one area for optimization while ignoring others, and expect the entire unit to function as a giant (healthy) spring.
- TARGET YOUR ENTIRE BODY – but start with your problem areas. We all have “those spots” that are brutal to release because our body type, habits and sports create the most tension in those areas. For me it’s always calves and quads, traps and scalenes.
- One your problem areas are taken care of, move on to the next spots that get tightest. Typically, the bigger the muscle the bigger the problem can be (this isn’t always true, but it’s a good general rule). So if you typically have issues in your calves and quads like me, target those first and then move on to your IT Band and adductors. Or vice versa. Then move on to hamstrings and TFL etc.
- Don’t forget about your upper body! Most of us (myself included) get overly focused on the lower body because that’s often where the real issues arise. But the upper body assists us in EVERYTHING we do – from trail running to CrossFit to tennis, dance, etc. If I had to pick only ONE thing for you to do here it would be your brachialis and/or biceps. After that: chest, traps and scalenes. Then Lats and forearms. You can search this site for those words and find the techniques.
- Find someone to help: I wish I could tell you to find someone who does what I do in your part of the world, but that’s not possible yet. I’ve trained 4 people so far, all in Colorado. I’ll be enrolling for the 2017 program soon, but it’ll likely be a while before this work goes national or global. If you can find a really skilled myofascial massage therapist, ART practitioner, Rolfer etc, these may be good options to help you target your entire body while you keep working on those trouble areas yourself at home. Click here if you want help choosing a bodywork practitioner.
- MOVE YOUR BODY! If you don’t use it you lose it, right? That’s just as true of proprioception (and muscle memory) as anything else. There’s a reason I felt so unbelievably awesome getting worked on 3-4 times a week before trail running: I was priming my fascial system for peak performance and then REINFORCING those neural pathways through the very movement I wanted to optimize: running! So, do what you love, what you want to get smarter or better at. If you do a self fascial release routine right before your activity you’ll reap the most rewards here.
- For the best possible result: schedule your fascial release work for BEFORE your activities or sport, whether that’s daily walking, running, CrossFit, dance, gymnastics…etc
How do you know when your fascia is at optimal?It won’t hurt when compression or weight is applied! I could stand with my full body weight on your IT Bands and it wouldn’t hurt at all if your fascia were healthy. This is because your fascia has its SPRING back, meaning it can absorb impact incredibly well. When it’s unhealthy, the weight or impact goes through all the layers of fascia and muscle to our bones, and that hurts!
So if you’re going to a therapist, their work should get less and less intense until one day it feels like NOTHING. If you’re working on yourself, it means when you put your weight on the foam roller or lacrosse ball it will get less and less intense until one day it feels like NOTHING.
This is how you know you’re at optimal. You CANNOT take fascia past optimal. It simply won’t respond.
Parting thoughts: (wanna get metaphysical with me?!)
I can’t help wanting to add that I believe the state of our nervous system in any given moment will drastically impact our proprioception (and fascia).
This means that how we perceive our internal environment (interoception) and how we perceive the external world (exteroception) will create the conditions in which we experience and move our body (proprioception) in that world.
If you perceive the world (or a specific place/space) to be a hostile one, you will probably move through it slowly, with fear, apprehension and resistance.
If you perceive the world (or a specific place/space) to be a playground for expressing joy, learning and experiencing pleasure (even if you mess up), then you will likely move through it with quickness, curiosity, ease and confidence, unafraid of messing up or getting hurt.
And, how we perceive ourselves in any given moment will inform both of the above.
EXAMPLE: for 8 years I associated running (and thus, trails and even running shoes) with horrific knee pain, fear of that knee pain ruining my ability to hike (which it did, for 6 YEARS!) and extreme doubt that it would ever be possible for me run again.
In order to run again I had to reverse this: I adopted the conviction and beliefs that I could absolutely run again, that knee pain would never impact my ability to hike and climb mountains again, and that running could be a joyful, fun and pain-free experience.
I will be talking more about this in future episodes!