By Mara Abbott
Olympian and CTS Contributing Editor
I almost never got bodywork as a professional cyclist. Part of that decision was probably financial, but a part of it also came from a sense of pride that I didn’t need the help, that I could keep any impending physical ailments in check with my devoted yoga practice. For the most part, this worked. Yet as I left the bike behind and began experimenting with running and weight-lifting, I finally had to admit I might need a bit of help to keep everything functioning smoothly.
A Need For Help
The turning point came as I tried to figure out a bizarre and mysterious injury in which a single run left me with quads that burned for two weeks without abating. Ultimately, the culprit turned out to be a compressed obterator nerve. As I searched for the answer I worked with both a physical therapist, whose poorly disguised confusion/surprise at my limited range of hip flexor movement meant leaving each appointment more terrified than when I entered, and a massage therapist whose skilled work nonetheless left me less-than-relaxed after he spontaneously started talking politics midway through our session.
Finally, one day at my local gym I ran into Tracy Byarlay, an in-house bodyworker who specializes in something called the “Fascial Distortion Model”. I explained my situation to him, and he offered to help. I accepted partially because he seemed so confident he could fix me up and partially because I knew my former roommate (also a picky elite athlete and national champion open water swimmer) trusted him, but perhaps primarily because I was scared and desperate.
I didn’t know much about the work Tracy did. I mostly remembered what it was called because of a longstanding typo on our gym’s website that claimed he specialized in the somewhat less-appealing method of “facial distortion.” I looked into it, and learned that fascial distortion work is based on a model in which most musculoskeletal injuries can be linked to alterations in our bodies’ fascia.
Simply put, fascia is connective tissue, primarily made of collagen, which encases and protects all of our bones, muscles, and nerves. It allows muscles to move without friction and it is the stuff that holds our bodies together. Yet, like our muscles and bones, fascia is a living tissue, and that means it, too, adapts to stresses exerted upon it. After an injury, fascia adjusts rapidly to prevent further injury of impacted muscles, but its form can also be altered by long-standing movement patterns.
FDM (fascial distortion model) corrects a variety of such fascial alterations, which it classifies into groups such as triggerbands, triggerpoints, continuum distortions and folding distortions. Practitioners say it can be used for everything from lower back pain to ankle sprains to tendonitis. It’s supposed to work fast – most people see big results in just a few sessions, though – as Tracy explained to me – things won’t stay fixed if an athlete goes straight back into the same movement patterns that caused the injury in the first place.
“If you are doing things like massage therapy, chiropractic, or physical therapy and the issue is not resolving, it could be a distortion in the fascial tissue,” Tracy explained to me. He used an analogy that compared an injury to running over a nail with your tire – a very relevant image for a cyclist. Even if you remove the nail, he said, “There is still a hole in the tire that needs to be fixed. FDM patches the tire so the other work you do can hold its benefit.”
Did Fascial Distortion Model Work?
Yes, I think so. I got better. It took a bit of time, because even once the compression had been released on my nerve, the nerve itself still had to heal. Tracy actually works a punch/counterpunch protocol with a local physical therapist, Martina Vidali. It’s an excellent model, as Martina helps evaluate imbalances and problem spots, and then Tracy irons them out.
I should probably warn you that FDM hurts. It’s the sort of bodywork that makes me bite my lip, wiggle my toes, and squeak in an attempt to work through the tension. Then again, it’s no less uncomfortable than somehow ending up in a face-down discussion with a massage therapist about the current state of politics in United States. Nonetheless, my FDM practitioner’s intuition in poking the tender spot I’d prefer he overlook and the way I can feel tension dissipate as he holds pressure on each hot spot makes me believe the discomfort is worth it.
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Traditionally, I would have had a healthy dose of skepticism after my treatments – was my recovery really due to Tracy’s work? Would I have gotten better with time anyhow? Was this really just a placebo effect? In this case, however, I had some undeniable evidence to prove that my sessions had been worthwhile.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Cyclists are notoriously attached to data, so shortly after giving up my career-long adoration of my SRM power meter, I picked up a Garmin running watch on a sweet Black Friday deal. As I dove into new kinds of data, one metric had me a bit concerned. The Garmin measured something called “ground contact time balance.” This number basically shows the amount of time you spend with one foot on the ground versus the other – and mine was far from even.
I watched that figure with trepidation for more than a year, understanding cognitively that not all people are entirely symmetrical and that my problem might not be such a problem at all. But here’s the thing – within three weeks of working with FDM, and with no other real changes in training, my numbers started to come out 50-50. I felt more physically balanced too, but the fact I could actually use data to document the change fascinated me (I may have tried to use this anecdote to entertain and impress other endurance athlete data geeks, with mixed results). I was absolutely sold.
Should You Try It?
Like many therapies, from acupuncture to foam rolling, there is no conclusive scientific literature that proves FDM works. One 2014 study out of Germany found dramatic improvement in patients being treated for shin splints, while a 2018 review of literature in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Theories claimed insufficient proof of FDM’s efficacy. Proof or not, my own experiences lead me to strongly recommend this work as an option well worth trying for anyone dealing with musculoskeletal pain.
For myself, I’m hooked. Sure, it’s possible that I, too, have finally fallen victim to a bodywork placebo, but for now I count myself among the FDM believers. After a few months of treatment with Tracy, life got busy and I began to think myself permanently cured. However, after a month-and-a-half of going it alone, I started to feel tightness in my lower back and left glute. Then, slowly but inexorably, my ground contact numbers went back out of balance… and I had to pick up the phone.
Ultimately, our goal is to figure out what movement patterns are causing me to keep going crooked. In the meantime I’m grateful – and I confess, a bit relieved – to finally have an ally I trust to help keep my body healthy. In the long run, taking a step toward learning the lesson that good things can come from asking for help is a big gain in itself.
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