First we called it “stretching.” Then, the word stretching went out of fashion and we started calling it “flexibility.” Soon, “flexibility” was no longer in vogue and we started calling it “mobility.” And I have to admit, I do like “mobility” best as it gets at the end goal (optimal mobility) as opposed to the process used (stretching).
No matter what you call it, though, the point is that your tissues must operate properly to move your joints through the desired range of motion without dysfunction. Every therapist in the world will tell you that your injuries are a result of some kind of dysfunction as you try to move your body across the earth on two legs.
And the injury cycle usually follows the same pattern. There is tightness in an area. The tightness eventually causes aches/pains. The runner ignores the aches/pains and then ends up with an injury. The idea is to catch the cycle early so you can prevent it from becoming an injury.
The challenge becomes that the simple act of moving your body across the earth on two legs requires a complex coordination of several body systems and a hiccup in one system can create a domino effect and can result in aches/pains close to or sometimes far away from where the hiccup actually occurs.
For example, I was recently working with Tom on his form. He was plagued by calf injuries so we were trying to tease out where the problem might be coming from. He warmed up and I fired up the video camera.
As he ran his easy pace, everything looked good. But as he moved to marathon race pace and then to half-marathon race pace, we saw something interesting. As the pace got faster, his hip rotation increased. We could see it on the video and later confirmed it in the lab. No longer was he able to hold his hips stable while the legs moved underneath, as was the case when he was running at a slower pace.
He knew he had tight hips but here was the proof that as he tried to run race pace, his lack of hip mobility meant that his hips had to rotate as the body “cheated” to try to get the extra range of motion needed for the pace.
And guess what can happen when your hips have to start twisting to get more range of motion? That’s right. This can cause extra torque and dysfunction throughout the body and particularly down where the body interacts with the ground and for Tom that was his calves. They became overworked and his therapist confirmed that while the calves themselves were grumpy, it was his tight hip flexors leading to the extra hip rotation that was probably the root cause of all of his calf problems.
Next step: Gain more hip mobility so that at training and races paces, his hip rotation would stay in an optimal zone.
Mobility is influenced by: 1) your fascia, 2) your nervous system, 3) your soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments) and 4) your joint structure (how the bones interact) and at times scar tissue. In my opinion, this is the reason “stretching” has always been a hotly debated topic. Depending on which of these four influencers is most affecting your particular problem, your “stretching” program better be the correct one to address it. Otherwise, all your “stretching” won’t have the desired effect and this is why there have been conflicting reports about the effectiveness of stretching.
For example, you may be trying to stretch your tight hamstring (trying to lengthen the muscle itself) but it could be that your nervous system is actually holding the muscle tight. You may, in fact, have optimal flexibility in your hamstring but you can’t get the nervous system to relax in order to let the muscle relax. So, you stretch and stretch and stretch and get very little relief (and often find the muscle seems to get tighter). Sound familiar?
However, if you had done mobility work (active isolated flexibility in this specific case) that addresses the nervous system as well as the tissues itself, you would likely have gotten relief. In this way, you would have properly matched the mobility routine with the issue causing the dysfunction.
Let’s then talk about the four mobility influencers and what type of “stretching” is best for each.
Our bodies are encased in a web-like structure called fascia. Think of it like a very wet spider web that encases our entire body. Fascia winds itself outside, inside and around all parts of our body. For example, cut open your leg and you’d find fascia that encases the entire leg, fascia that encases the muscles in the leg and fascia that even encases components of each muscle within the leg. That’s a lot of fascia!
What’s even more interesting is that fascia is continuous. Unlike bones and muscles where we say this part begins here and ends there, fascia is a continuous web running from head to toe and throughout the body. That makes it an entirely different beast when it comes to making sure it’s in an optimal state because a restriction in one part of the web could make another part of the web tighter, even if that restriction is nowhere near where you feel tightness or pain.
Now, you may not have heard of fascia but it is quickly becoming recognized as a super important component with implications for many health issues and I bet more and more therapists will be using myofascial release in the coming years.
When it comes to actually mobilizing fascia, what’s interesting is that it is less like stretching and more like a workout. Just Google myofascial stretching and ELDOA and you’ll find exercises where runners put their bodies in positions where they are rotating and contorting the arms and legs in order to “wind the fascia” and thus get it to lengthen. Ever watch a newborn move? They look as if they are fighting to get out of their own skin. They reach, twist, rotate and activate their muscles. This is somewhat what myofascial mobility work is like. It’s work and you’ll use your muscles to twist the limbs and wind up the fascial system and get it to lengthen.
There isn’t much movement but more of a powerful contraction of the muscles to stretch the fascial system. It can look strange but over time, therapists and pro-level coaches are seeing mobility changes that reduce dysfunction caused by the fascia.
Best mobility technique(s):
To help with fascial issues, runners, coaches and therapists are finding best results with myofascial, ELDOA, yoga, and active isolated flexibility routines. Combine these with movements like you did as a kid waking up in the morning – twisting and rotating your body and limbs while contracting your muscles to “stretch” work great if consistently done. There are lots of great myofascial stretching vides on YouTube so a quick search will provide some specific movements or you can search out a therapist in your area.
2) Nervous system
Except for reflexes, the nervous system runs the show when it comes to muscle contractions. It sends signals to contract the muscles and knows when to allow the muscles to relax. As you can imagine, the simple act of running causes a lot of nervous system activity and with fatigue and overwork, you can find that your muscles are tight, not because the muscle itself is shortened but because the nervous system won’t relax and instead keeps the muscle slightly contracted.
Stretching this muscle with traditional static (long holds in a constantly held position) holds simply won’t work very well. The nervous system fights back and may even resist even more and therefore cause the muscle to feel tighter.
In this case, you would want to take advantage of a process in the body called reciprocal inhibition. Reciprocal inhibition means that when one muscle is contracted, its opposing muscle is signaled to relax. For example, if you tighten your quadriceps muscles (the muscles on the front of your thigh), the brain tells the hamstring muscles (the muscles on the back of the legs) to relax. The body is pretty smart, isn’t it?
So part of an optimal mobility plan would be to make sure the nervous system is relaxed and not holding the muscles tight. That’s why you see all the pro athletes doing “rope stretching.” This system, called active isolated flexibility, works the nervous system as well as the fascia and soft tissues by contracting one muscle to get the opposing muscle to relax and therefore be lengthened.
Using a previous example, you’ll often see runners lying on their backs and they’ll contract their quadriceps muscle to raise the leg. Then, as they reach the end point of where they can raise the leg, they pull on a rope or strap that is wrapped around their foot to gently lengthen the hamstring muscle, which has relaxed because the quadriceps muscles have been contracted. The “stretch” is only held for two seconds then the leg is lowered and the next repetition begins. Runners perform 10-20 repetitions on each leg.
This on/off of the nervous system seems to reset the nervous system that may be agitated by your training. The nervous system then relaxes and your muscles can relax and feel better.
Best mobility technique(s):
For the nervous system, runners, coaches and therapists are finding best results with active isolated flexibility and more “dynamic” or movement-centered routines. Phil Wharton, who has popularized Active Isolated Flexibility, has several videos on YouTube that you should research.
3) Soft tissues
Your soft tissues (the length of your muscles, tendons and ligaments) also affect mobility. Most “stretching” programs from years past were designed to lengthen the soft tissues (specifically the muscle). The idea being that if the muscle was longer (or at least not shorter), mobility would be optimal.
And athletes can be very successful at lengthening the muscles. Martial artists, gymnasts and yoga practitioners show that with concentrated effort over time, there can be significant lengthening of the muscles themselves. For the runner, however, a wholesale lengthening of the muscle hasn’t been shown to reduce injury or increase performance. This is likely due to the fact that runners actually want their tissues to be “springy” and this requires slight stiffness in the soft tissues.
So, the runner wants “optimal” length in the tissues and this doesn’t require the same effort as other athletes. The goal for the runner is first to address the fascial and nervous system. Then within these techniques as well as with traditional “stretching” – 30-60 second holds in a position where the muscle is put on a stretch – the soft tissue can be maintained at an optimal length. Again, excess length isn’t ideal for the runner. We want some stiffness and springiness. We just don’t want the tissues so tight that mobility is compromised.
Best mobility technique(s):
For the soft tissues, runners, coaches and therapists are finding best results with isolated flexibility positions (think stretching the calves by pushing against a wall with one leg back and ankle flexed) and integrated flexibility positions where multiple muscle groups are stretched at once (think the down dog yoga position) or active isolated flexibility and more “dynamic” or movement-centered routines. However, the best results occur when the fascia and nervous system are addressed first (see #1 and #2 above) then soft tissue work is performed.
4) Joint Structure
The final factor in your mobility is your joint structure. There can be cases where a person’s genetics have created joints where functional range of motion is compromised simply by the structure of the bones. You hear about this in ankles and hips where the runner simply can’t achieve full ankle dorsiflexion or hip flexion because the bones are bumping into one another. A good therapist can do some mobilization on the joints to evaluate whether your issue is cased by joint dysfunction. There is not much you can do about your joint structure except blame your parents. If you have an issue that is being affected by joint structure, it will be critical that you make sure your fascia, nervous system and soft tissues are optimally mobile to maximize your available range of motion. NOTE: There can be situations where scar tissue from previous injuries can also create dysfunction like joint structure. In this case, a round of therapy to break up the scar tissue can reduce or eliminate the issue.
WHEN TO MOBILIZE
A common question is, “When should I stretch?” The answer is, “It depends.” It depends on what your issue is and what you like.
For oft-injured runners, runners who feel “tight” or ones that just want to be more prepared for their run, it is recommended that you do some myofascial movements and active isolated or similar dynamic mobility movements before each run. Static stretching (where you hold the muscle in a lengthened position for 30-60 seconds) isn’t advisable before a run unless directed by your therapist. A movement-oriented routine prepares the tissues for your upcoming run and may help your tight areas. It’s a matter of warming up the tissues before you begin to challenge them.
For all runners, it is recommended that you perform myofascial, active isolated and/or integrated movements like traditional stretching, yoga, etc. after each of your runs. Your tissues are fully warmed up and most receptive to mobility work after your runs so commit some time after each run to take advantage of this optimal mobility time.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
It can be overwhelming to think of adding a full mobility routine to your already crowded life schedule. But, the trick is to create an essential routine that addresses your injury-prone issues then as time allows, you add more and more movements. This way you, at least, address the most critical areas.
For example, my calves are my oft-injured area so I commit to at minimum doing active isolated flexibility on them after each and every run. I then feel good that I’m doing the right thing for my body but also, my calves are less grumpy.
If I have more time, I add more and more movements to my routine but I’ve found that by just committing to this essential treatment, I’ve significantly reduced my most common ache and pain.
My advice is to experiment with lots of different routines/movements as well as the timing – before your runs, after your runs and even at other times of the day – and see what you like and you find works for you. Then, come up with a priority list of movements and commit to getting the most important one(s) like I do with my calves.
I suggest you check out our Magic Mobility program – it’s the most comprehensive mobility program for runners.
As I hope you’ve learned from this article, optimal mobility is related to the type of dysfunction you have and that determines what may work best for you. Like most things in running, it takes some trial and error to see what works best for you and what works best may be different than what works best for your training partner. The bottom line is that mobility seems to be a key to overall health and to helping your body move in an appropriate way.
As you get started remember that variety in mobility is key. Experiment and see what works for you and most importantly, find a routine that you can consistently do because just like run training, mobility training takes commitment over a long time to see your ultimate results.