The connective tissue surrounds your muscles–and can make or break your rides.
Bicycling | April 2022
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So what causes that tense feeling beneath your skin? It’s likely your fascia, a thin layer of connective tissue that lies beneath the skin and encases the muscles, organs, bones, nerve fibers, and blood vessels.
What is fascia?
This tissue, which looks similar to marble print, is present all over body: There’s superficial fascia, deep or muscular fascia which affects biomechanics, and visceral or organ fascia, explains Antonio Stecco, M.D., Ph.D., a research assistant professor at New York University specializing in the study of human fascia. “Fascia is a white membrane around the muscle that’s made up of collagen fiber disposed in multiple layers,” he explains. “It connects the muscles so they work in synergy.”
“All fascia in the body connects to other fascia, like streams connecting to a river. Fascia is thicker and thinner in places, which we think helps transmit forces across structures. You can think of it like layers of KT tape—a single layer will give less support than thicker layers. Fascia also contains nerve endings, which helps with proprioception,” says Ziva Petrin, M.D., a sports medicine physician and assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Proprioception is your body’s ability to sense where it is in space, which can help with better movements and stronger biking.
Dr. Petrin adds that “in terms of research, there is not that much known about fascia, and we’re constantly learning more about it.”
Due to the lean nature of fascia, it’s no wonder the role of this vast tissue went overlooked until the past 15 years and has been relatively difficult to study: Imagine trying to dissect a sheet of greased-up plastic wrap from your kitchen—that’s basically what scientists have to do with fascia.
Still, research has made some advances in the past decade or so. Harvard Medical School hosted the inaugural international Fascia Research Congress in 2007, with research scientists from across medical and therapeutic fields. A couple years later, integrative therapist Tom Myers authored the second edition of Anatomy Trains, which was initially published in 2001, explaining how the myofascial web communicates in the body and affects stability, as well as physical compensation. (The book’s fourth edition was released in 2020.)
Researchers are also working on studies related to fascia. For example, Stecco has authored more than 40 research papers and co-authored five books on the topic.
What does fascia do while you cycle?
Fascia allows your muscles and internal parts to slide easily during movement including on a road ride or while mountain biking singletrack. Acting like a glove, the connective tissue holds and gives form to the muscle. The texture of muscle is spongy until it contracts and becomes firm, and the fascia serves as a container for when the muscle is soft, as well as when the muscle becomes rigid, explains Stecco.
For example, at the bottom of a pedal stroke, and especially when cyclists stand up while pedaling, that movement engages the gluteus maximus—the largest of the three muscles in each buttock—which is the largest muscle in the body, and 80 percent of that muscle fiber merges in the fascia lata, which is the deep fascia of the thigh, Stecco continues.
“The fascia lata is like a long sock that goes from the toes to the gluteus and hiparea, and when you are cycling there is myofascial expansion: an exertion of muscle into the fascia,” he says. Thanks to the presence of the fascia, localized muscle groups in different body segments become synchronized throughout movement. Also, this helps individual muscles move other body segments, like when the gluteus maximus helps to extend the knee or how the tibialis (or muscles and tendons of the calf) flexes the ankle and gives tension in the midfoot, Stecco explains.
Fascia is also loaded with sensory input, which helps riders stay agile and balancedon their bike. “Fascia has a lot of free-ending nerves—more than in a tendon or ligament—and fascia is the best element in your body to give you the perception of your body’s position and motion in space, such as how far you’ve extended your leg or the alignment of your body on the bike,” Stecco says. That perception is dialed in part because the “fascia is peripheral to the body and the furthest away from the fulcrum, or the bone.”
How pain and rigidity can relate to your fascia
The hyaluronic acid that sits between fascia layers can become super viscous, causing the layers not to glide so easily anymore. It’s like putting glue between two socks—they just stick together, Stecco says.
Many factors can lead to this stickiness and an overproduction of that hyaluronic acid, including low temperature (like when you wake up in the morning and your body isn’t warmed up, yet), limited physical activity, trauma via injury or surgery, as well as overuse.
In turn, stiff fascia leads to a lack of proper load transmission, decreased range of motion, and an irritation of free-ending nerves, Stecco explains. When the myofascial system, which includes both the muscle tissue and connective tissue, becomes inhibited, that prolonged rigidity can also lead to to acute or chronic paincalled myofascial pain syndrome, according to the Mayo Clinic.
It can be tough to pinpoint when pain stems from rigid fascia, like when it generates into the perception of a tight calf, says Stecco. However, because an MRI or ultrasound cannot detect fascia stiffness, those tools can rule out issues like a muscle tear.
How you can keep your fascia healthy
Keeping the fascia flexible can improve a cyclist’s range of motion and reduce overall physical pain, on and off the bike. “If the fascia, or the container for the muscle, becomes rigid then the content in the container—the muscle—becomes rigid as well,” says Stecco.
Here’s how to keep fascia pliable throughout your training routine:
Anytime: Cyclists are often in one fixed position. “To make sure the fascia is moving well, the best approach is to move the entire body through its full range of motion: Get out of that aero position, straighten up, put the arms overhead, and move the hips throughout their full range of motion,” says Petrin. “Whole-body range of motion is the best thing you can do for your fascia to make sure it glides well all over your body.”
Before a ride: “If you’re really tight from working a desk job from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and immediately go for a bike ride, you’ll be limited in your mobility and your performance can be hindered, particularly if you haven’t done any dynamic stretching before your bike ride,” says Ben Stewart, a physical therapist at Centura Health Hybl Sport Sport Performance Center.
Petrin agrees saying that research points out that doing a traditional warmup, like cycling at low intensity or practicing gentle plyometrics, can help warm up and loosen up the muscles and improve range of motion preride.
After a ride: When you come off the bike, you might feel leg stiffness, especially after a long ride (long is relative to your training plan) or when you’ve just started a training cycle for the season. That’s because the body produces lactic acid—even more so when the muscles are not yet well trained, explains Stecco—which decreases pH levels to 6.6 (pH measures acidity and alkalinity on a scale of 0-14 and normally rests at approximately 7.3, reports a study on muscle activity in the Journal of Physiology).
“There’s a direct relationship between the pH and the viscosity of hyaluronic acid, which can increase 20 percent at the end of a long ride,” says Stecco. Approximately 15 to 60 minutes after a ride, the body metabolizes the lactic acid, restores the pH, and the legs return to a normal range of motion. Though in some cases “the day after a long ride, there could be a few spots that remain stiff, due to poor gliding of the fascia and muscle, which could perpetuate poor biomechanics and generate over-stress to the joint,” he adds. Treat the fascia well by stretching at the end of your ride in order to squeeze out the hyaluronic acid and restore the tissue’s elasticity.
The day after a ride: Fascia discomfort typically feels better with movement and heat therapy, both of which help to restore the fascia’s elasticity, reports John Hopkins Medicine. “When a cyclist wakes up the day after a long ride, the legs might be stiff at first, and that’s typical aggregation of the hyaluronic acid after overload activity and the alteration of the lubrication within the fascia layer,” says Dr. Stecco.
When you roll out of bed, do a morning warmup, like a 10-minute walk or 10 minutes of stretching or dynamic movements such as vinyasa yoga, to dissipate the pain and stiffness, he suggests. “Increasing the temperature and adding a little bit of stress to the tissue decreases the viscosity and increases the gliding of the fascia, restoring a normal, smooth movement,” says Stecco.
On non-training days, especially if you work a desk job, move throughout the day in addition to your typical training routine, recommends John Hopkins Medicine.
Many days after a ride: Untreated or severe symptoms can persist or potentially lead to joint problems. For longterm pain, “Athletes should consider being checked by specialists such as a physical therapist to make sure there’s not a lack of gliding in the fascia, or they could develop myofascial pain syndrome,” which is a chronic pain disorder with referred pain, meaning trigger points can ignite discomfort in other parts of the body, Stecco says.
The best tools and treatments for taking care of your fascia
Stretching, manual therapy, and total-body strength exercises can all help with relieving inflammation and preventing fascial tissue injury and fibrosis, or the hardening of tissues, according to research published by British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Try these other tactics if you’re feeling tight, or if you just want to keep your fascia healthy:
Tune up your bike fit
Ultimately, Petrin advises to prioritize the fundamentals, like getting a proper bike fit.
It’s possible to train the mobility of the fascia by working in far-reaching positions of your sport, says Stewart, as well as through exercises that increase your range of motion. For cyclists, that could include simulation of taking a turn on your bike, when you’re leaning to the right as you’re going into a left turn, and to mimic this, you can do exercises focused on core stability and muscle and joint stability in a similar position, he says. Or practicing the downward-facing dog yoga pose to help train for downhill segments on a mountain bike, when the arms and shoulders are extended overhead and the butt is back, he notes.
Stretch it out
“Maintaining flexibility is probably the most important thing for fascia. Tightness could potentially lead to injury because your muscles will work harder to achieve positions they need to get to if they don’t have certain length or the postures that are needed for cycling,” says Steward, who’s also been a mountain biker for 25 years. For example, if the hamstrings are tight, a rider won’t be able to get as bent over in a forward-leaning position (with shoulders down and hips back) while going downhill.
To address flexibility, it’s best to do dynamic stretching before a ride and/or a strength training routine that lets the muscles work through full ranges of motion. “Muscle and joint receptors in the tissue loose sensitivity if we focus on static stretching before an activity, which could lead to an increased risk of injury during that activity,” says Steward, adding that tight fascia may limit your range of motion in a traditional static stretch—a practice that’s best saved for postworkout.
Use massage tools
In addition to helping warm up the tissue layers and muscles before passive stretching, “massage guns help to wake up neuromuscular system, preparing it for activity,” says Steward. He notes that massage guns and muscle scraping tools generally apply less pressure and are more superficial (focusing more on the surface of the skin but still addressing fascia tightness) compared to foam rolling. Each tool can be effective and the amount of pressure is personal preference, he adds.
Foam rolling is a form of self-massaging the myofascial tissues, according to research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which adds that the tool can enhance fascial layer sliding, improve short-term flexibility, increase recovery from muscle soreness, and decrease trigger points.
“In physical therapy, we like to use instruments that help you loosen the layers of fascia and separate them from themselves, like using a foam roller, so you can achieve better and easier range of motion and your stretches go easier,” says Steward. Foam rolling is a complimentary tool to help to warm up and loosen the body prior to stretching or exercise and also helps cyclists manage their overall physical tightness day to day.
Dr. Stecco warns against sole reliance on self-treatment without input from a fascia expert. “If you don’t apply the foam roller in the proper area, you won’t get the result you want. For instance, the iliotibial tract (IT band) is under tension due to the glutes and fascia [in that area] and the tightness is a manifestation of the tension above and below versus where the IT band is along the side of the leg,” he says. In other words, it’s always best to consult with a pro if you’re feeling super stiff.
See an expert
Cyclists can work one-on-one with a physical therapist to develop a personal regime that treats imbalances and improves their overall range of motion. Dr. Stecco adds that chiropractors and athletic trainers can be versed in fascia as well.
To loosen up at home, using a heating pad or taking a warm bath are helpful aids, according to Johns Hopkins.
Try alternative therapies
Acupuncture can help to relieve pain and dry needling can help to release trigger points, allowing the connective tissue to relax.