How to Jump Higher, Run Faster and Perform Better
Scientists explain how to strengthen the tissues around your muscles to maximise your power.
Kangaroos can leap six vertical feet and cover up to 25 feet in a single broad jump. You'd think they'd have some seriously massive calves. Instead, they have long, skinny legs—like some of the best distance runners out there (we're looking at you, Kipchoge).
That's because a kangaroo's power doesn't come from just its muscles, but also from the kinetic energy (or energy in motion, the kind you use to throw a ball, powerlift or do a box jump) in its fascia, a full-body web of connective tissue. And research shows that, just like kangaroo fascia, human fascia can store kinetic energy. In fact, human fascia can store more kinetic energy than any other type of tissue in the body. So if you keep your fascia strong and healthy, you have the potential to jump higher, run faster and perform better.
"The generation of kinetic energy comes from muscles", says Robert Schleip, PhD, the director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm in Germany. "But if you can temporarily store that energy in the tissue surrounding those muscles, that tissue can release a more rapid acceleration than the muscle fibres would be able to by themselves. In fact, the tissue can return the energy in a fraction of a second for amazing jumping and acceleration power".
Essentially, your muscles still have to create the power needed to move your body, but your fascia can help you amplify that power without sapping energy from the underlying muscles.
"The tissue can return the energy in a fraction of a second for amazing jumping and acceleration power".
Robert Schleip, PhD, Director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm in Germany
"Think of fascia like a dynamic, continuous roll of plastic wrap that partitions, compartmentalises, focuses movement and allows what could be considered a random assortment of muscles, nerves, blood vessels and organs to act as a collective whole", explains Rebecca Pratt, PhD, a professor of anatomy at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. Types of fascia also include tendons, joint capsules, ligaments and intramuscular connective tissues, says Schleip.
Tendons have a wave-like pattern called crimp, Schleip explains. "The more crimp in a tendon, the more storage capacity it has". Take running, for example. When your foot strikes the ground, you load the Achilles tendon, which causes the crimp in the tendon to temporarily straighten to store kinetic energy. When you push off the ground, the tendon pulls back into the previous crimp; that's the recoil that propels you forwards. The more storage capacity the tendon has, the more spring you can tap into.
"Animal studies have shown that after three months of regular running exercise, there's an increase in tendon crimp", says Schleip. This suggests that, in the same way strength training enhances muscle size over time, you can improve the amount of crimp in your tendons and thus your fascia's ability to power your body through movement.
And running isn't the only way to develop the kinetic storage capacity of your fascia. "People who do plyometrics [jumping exercises] train their muscles to contract less while storing energy more efficiently", says Schleip. That's because when you jump or hop, your fascia rapidly lengthens and shortens, building that crimp. Studies suggest that after three months of regular plyometrics training (which experts typically agree should be done every 48 hours, at most), tendons demonstrate more recoil and crimp. Even a few 10-second sets of pogo jumps a few times a week can benefit your tissue.
Here are three other ways to improve your crimp and keep your fascia healthy.
Myofascial chains are lines of connective tissue that run through the body. Schleip's research has shown that poses that engage the longest possible chains can help the fascia become more elastic. These include a standing side lean with your arms overhead, a long lunge with a torso rotation or anything that makes you feel a stretch from your shoulders to your legs.
Fascia is made of proteins and sugars that bind water like a sponge. The more dehydrated your fascia, the less dynamic it is, says Pratt. And the more dehydrated and static it is, the tighter and denser its components become, restricting the underlying muscles. "If the fascia is not in harmony with your muscles, how much movement and strength are you actually going to be able to deliver?", asks Pratt. "In a battle between muscle and chronically tight fascia, fascia's going to win every time". Staying hydrated, especially after a workout, can help ensure that your fascia won't inhibit your performance.
- Roll Out
Foam rolling also helps move water to regions with tighter collagen, a type of fibre in fascia, and loosen the fascia, says Pratt. Applying pressure via your bodyweight on the roller helps loosen sticky fascial components and flush them with water. Foam rolling different body parts for 90 to 120 seconds apiece can reduce muscle stiffness and increase range of motion, according to a review of several studies. It helps your fascia return to homeostasis rather than bunch up after a tough workout.
But it's not a spot treatment. "If you have pain in your IT bands [the long piece of connective tissue that runs along the outside of your leg from the hip to the knee], you would need to roll your quads, hamstrings and IT bands to relieve it", says Pratt. When fascia tightens, it can cause limitations and pain—but where that pain manifests isn't necessarily where the problem is. Foam rolling should be a holistic treatment plan, she says, because your fascia is all connected.