The tales of forgotten subsystems, part I: The Fasciae

People typically think that becoming a stronger runner is all about training muscles, tendons and bones. It’s not.

It’s mainly about developing the connective tissue that holds them together.

Runners don’t dread getting injured by twisting their foot, or by becoming concussed, (even though those things do happen). Most “runner-specific” injuries are blown knees, torn ACLs, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis. All these injuries have one thing in common: they occur because the body was subjected to excess repetitive shock.

What do we typically say to this?

We say: let’s strengthen the muscles, tendons and bones (besides the usual “what did you expect? You went running”). But that advice is inaccurate, and largely useless.

That advice doesn’t take into account the existence of what is cumulatively one of the largest organs, whose main structural function besides connecting other tissues happens to be absorbing the mechanical stresses applied to the body.

Those muscles, tendons and bones that become injured so often and so easily in runners are connected together by dense, fibrous tissue called fasciae. (These tissues will get their own category here on this blog). The stronger we make the fasciae (plural of fascia, pronounced “FA-sha”), the more percentage of the impact energy they can absorb, and the less it has to be absorbed by the tendons, muscles, and bone.

This reminds me of a little story:

Not long ago, myself and two friends went camping in the canyons in northeastern Utah. (Little Wild Horse Canyon—spectacular views). We climbed up to the top of a canyon wall that overlooked our campsite, and dropped two water bottles off the edge: one of which was wrapped in duct-tape, and one that wasn’t. Sure enough, when we came back to the bottom and retrieved the water bottles, the unprotected one had buckled along the middle, while the one we had wrapped in duct tape was a bit dinged, but otherwise intact.

For your body, strengthening the fasciae is exactly like adding more duct-tape is to those water bottles.

One of the most common injuries for runners, shin splints, occurs when the fasciae and other connective tissues that join the tibia to the frontal calf muscles are torn away from the bone. Those tissues were too weak to resist those stresses, and they failed. What happens should the athlete continue to run like this? The same thing that happens to the water bottle that doesn’t have duct-tape on it any more: it’ll crack. That’s called a stress fracture.

What this means for you, as a beginner athlete, is that you should think of running as an activity that is all about the connective resilency of the body.

But keep this in mind: fasciae aren’t supplied by nearly as many blood vessels as muscles are (because fasciae don’t need to be fueled during activity)—which means that they can’t heal or develop as fast during recovery. In order for them to grow continually stronger, they need to be developed slowly. And the shocks need to be repetitive, but small enough that the fasciae don’t become damaged. They should be subjected only to the stresses they are capable of withstanding.

A great way to do this is by jumping rope correctly (I keep coming back to this exercise—and will continue to do so; it really is perfect for running). A training technique, the slow progression,” also helps to safely develop the fasciae.

To train the fasciae, your focus should be on making your jumps faster (and smaller as a consequence), to reduce the shock and increase the repetitiveness. In the book Overcoming Gravity, author and gymnast Steven Low discusses how tendons and fasciae are developed at very high repetitions per minute (180+ RPM).

Strengthening the fasciae is a solid investment in infrastructure—which is something many of us are not accustomed to doing, be it for our bodies or for any number of the systems our livelihoods depend on.

The fact that most runners and exercise enthusiasts aren’t aware of the fasciae as they train is symptomatic of a much larger problem: a social problem that boils down to an obsession with the obvious and the grandiose. In this social frame of mind, there is only space for the big shots: muscle and bone, and maybe the brain. The overworked, underpaid fascia never did warrant our attention.

(Just look at how short the wikipedia page is).

To be strong runners, we must recognize that muscles are only the tip of the spear—as are the lungs, brain, liver, etc. Their correct functioning is predicated on the correct functioning of the body’s infrastructure, including (but not limited to) the endocrine system, the digestive system, and of course, the fasciae.

Let’s keep these forgotten subsystems in mind when we train. Furthermore, let’s turn the prospect of remembering more into a part of our training. Insofar as we remember (and understand) the systems upon which the functioning of our body is actually predicated, we’ll become quite the indestructible runners.

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