Go Further with Less Energy? Train the Fascial System

As a student of endurance training, I’ve always believed that what you put in, is what you get out. Put in the training work – experience the benefits. That is because traditionally we have believed that all movement is powered by muscles, and therefore all movement has a metabolic cost. But my eyes are opening to another dimension of the human system that propels us forward, like an elastic band recoiling after it has been tensioned.

The Catapult Effect

This is what researchers call “The Catapult Effect.” This phenomenon has been observed in Red Kangaroos, who have been shown to be able to hop fast at the same metabolic cost, as when they hop slow. 

“As red kangaroos hop faster over level ground, their rate of oxygen consumption (indicating metabolic energy consumption) remains nearly the same. This phenomenon has been attributed to exceptional elastic energy storage and recovery via long compliant tendons in the legs.”

Energetics and biomechanics of locomotion by red kangaroos (Macropus rufus)

How is this possible? A car cannot go 80mph at the same fuel efficiency as it goes 50mph, and a human cannot run fast, at the same energy expense as running slow. 

How Does It Work?

Kangaroos take advantage of their lower leg architecture and the elastic property of their tendons to use free rebound energy. This propels them to jumping distances exceeding 40feet, without using their front legs – an incredible leap. 

Whether they hop slow (fewer and shorter bounds) or fast (more frequent bounds) they seem to use the same amount of energy (1). This is because their Achilles tendon is capable of both storing, and releasing energy that contributes to their jumping prowess.

Who Cares about Kangaroos?

If a tendon can store and release energy that powers the Kangaroos movement, it means that not all the propulsion is muscular, and therefore not all the work has a direct metabolic cost. Only 2 other species on planet earth are known to possess this Catapult Effect: Gazelles, and Humans.

“Gazelles have this feature too… {but} we are the only two-legged species that also has this type of elastic kinetic storage system.”

Fascia Training – A Whole System Approach

Koalas Bears, like Kangaroos, are Marsupials with similar muscle structure, but Koalas are not capable of the amazing bound. Why is this? Koalas and most other species don’t possess the foot architecture that allows them to take advantage of a long tensioned achilles tendon.

Traditionally in the west we have trained according to the laws of muscles, metabolism and aerobic endurance. Certainly that makes sense, but what if there are other forces at work? What if there was a way to get more out of each stride, without an associated energy cost? 

If humans train in a way that enhances the elastic property of their fascial system – they can take advantage of this same ‘free energy’ that allows Kangaroos to jump fast at the same work rate, as when jumping slowly.

Human Movement and Elasticity

Humans are born to bounce, we are inherently springy. When someone tells you to jump, instead of shooting straight up, you first drop down – then you leap. You automatically know that to get the most out of your spring, you have to coil it first, (counter movement) and then release the stored elastic energy.

Western researchers have coined this phenomenon the ‘Stretch Shortening Cycle’ (SSC) and have believed that the reason for it is to enhance the potentiation of the muscle. Recent research and ancient martial arts (TaiChi in particular) have attributed this to the elastic recoil of our fascial system, not our muscles.

“With counter movement, tendinous tissues, not muscle fibres, behave as elastic structures capable of energy storage and release, thereby enhancing the joint performance compared with the task without counter movement.”

In vivo muscle fibre behaviour during counter-movement exercise in humans reveals a significant role for tendon elasticity

We can find the clues to our springy nature by looking inside and studying our own biology”

“The force exerted by skeletal muscle fibres is transmitted to the tendinous tissues (tendon and aponeurosis) before producing torque around a joint. The tendinous tissues – sheet-like structures such as aponeuroses in particular – possess elastic characteristics”

In vivo muscle fibre behaviour during counter-movement exercise in humans reveals a significant role for tendon elasticity

The human foot, the plantar muscles, and the long achilles tendon display unique joint architecture that is unlike other joints in the human body. The most notable part of the ankle is the length and thickness of the achilles. This special tendon has elastic properties that can be enhanced through training. Enhanced rebound properties allow us to move further with less energy – because it’s not just the muscle work that’s propelling us forward – but also the rebound of our tendons and the entire fascial matrix.

In Conclusion

High level athletic performance is powered by multiple systems. Traditional training approaches in the west are driven by a very mechanical, and muscular view of human performance. When we step outside of this narrow framework we can begin to see human performance through a broader Neurological (brain) and a Fascial (collagen) framework.

The elasticity of our fascial system gives us an important clue into the ways that we can enhance the elastic characteristics of our system, allowing us to go further with less energy demand. 

In the next post I will talk about how we can implement these discoveries into the way we train.