EVERY running coach should have mobility included into their training program. A program is not complete unless mobility is viewed as the building blocks of the program. We have to view mobility and performance as intertwined, not as something separate.
WHAT IS MOBILITY?
Mobility is the ability to control a movement through a range of motion (ROM), while flexibility is the ability of a muscle to lengthen. Mobility is viewed as an active or voluntary movement while flexibility is viewed as a passive or static movement. A person must have good flexibility in order to have good mobility. However, just because a person’s muscles are flexible does not mean those same muscles have the ability to move through a full ROM.
WHY IS MOBILITY IMPORTANT IN YOUR TRAINING PROGRAM?
Insufficient ROM can lead to an increase in injuries and a reduction in athletic performance. Mobility is essential for human movement. If you lacked mobility, you would not be able to complete basic movements such as, picking something up from the ground, rolling out of bed or looking over your shoulder.
While each individual athlete’s body is an experiment of one, we each have the same basic body design and structure. Our bodies all work in similar ways. Therefore, any great training program must have a mobility and strength component that incorporates all the fundamentals of movement. Beyond the primary demands of your sport, you should always be working towards the goal of having full functional ROM and complete control of your movements.
In running, we do a ton of repetitive movements which can lead to overuse injures due to the lack of variability in our movements. The primary motions needed for running are hip extension, dorsiflexion of the ankle, extension of the big toe, and a small amount of rotation of the mid-back.
HIP EXTENSION AND HIP FLEXION
Running in general, especially sprinting, requires hip extension and hip flexion. Restrictions to hip extension may limit stride length.
Many runners are limited by tight hip flexors. If your hip flexors are tight, then it limits the leg’s ability to extend behind the back while running. If that leg cannot extend properly then you will compensate by arching the back or rotating the pelvis. The faster you run, the more hip extension is required in order to avoid compensating with your lower back or rotating the hips. This compensation can lead to strains on the joints and muscles surrounding the hips. Furthermore, limited hip extension can cause knee and ankle issues.
Dorsiflexion of the ankle is what allows your leg to absorb the shock when your foot hits the ground while you are running. If the dorsiflexion of the ankle is restricted then that load is transferred to other parts of your body such as the knee, hip and low back. For example, most athletes will typically transfer to a squatting position after landing from a jump as to absorb the load. This is the body’s way to distribute the load that is going through the legs.
Basically, when there is a loss in ankle mobility, your joints take a pounding because the force of your leg impacting with the ground has to go somewhere. Lack of dorsiflexion in the ankles also limits the calf’s ability to propel you forward as you run. This limit in ROM of the ankle takes away the ability of the calves to act as an effective springboard. Additionally, the big toe also helps out during push-off. If the big toe cannot bend properly then your ankle will compensating by twisting and causing unnecessary strain at the ankle.
Our lower back rotates with each stride we take while running. Thoracic mobility will help reduce the strain on the lower back throughout a workout. To increase thoracic mobility, athletes should work on having correct posture, performing rotation drills and performing shoulder drills.
Having a limited ROM in the spine can change movement patterns and increase your risk of injury. You want to make sure that you have adequate rotation in your spine and hips, as you need those two body parts stable as to create torque without compensating.
DECREASE THE RISK OF INJURY
If your body is not moving through its natural movement patterns, it typically becomes a question of not “if” but “when” you will become injured. Our muscles and bones are designed to last us for millions of movement cycles. So, when we allow bad movement patterns to continue for a span of months and years, we reduce the number of movements we can safely perform.
Most athletes do not realize they have poor mobility because the body will compensate to prevent injuries, until it cannot anymore. The body can only put up with limited mobility and bad movement patterns for so long.
Waiting until you have pain to fix the movement is asinine. Pain to the muscle or joint is a cue that the damage is already completed. Imagine waiting until the tread on the tires of your car is completely gone and your car is riding on rims. You would think this was absolutely ridiculous, correct? Yes! But this is typically how we treat injuries in running and other sports. Athletes and coaches typically wait until something is wrong or broken, before the athlete just has to see a physical therapist or doctor.
Most injuries are preventable. Mobility training allows the body to handle the demands and stress of a specific sport. The issue lies in athletes and coaches learning to identify poor movement patterns before they become problems. Coaches and trainers have to learn how to identify these problems or work with someone who does. It is borderline negligent for a coach to have an athlete training in any sport without having a plan to mitigate possible injuries while only having sport specific training.
IMPROVE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
Having full ROM allows for more stable and better positions during movement which allows for more efficient movements. Basically, you are working out the muscles you intended to workout, consequently, developing maximal muscle growth.
Having the ability to bring a limb through its ROM allows your muscle to do its job without having to rely on other muscles to compensate. Runners want to be economic and efficient while running. If you can freely move through a ROM, then you are not wasting energy fighting yourself.
JOINT LIFE LONGEVITY
The limited ability of a limb to move through a full ROM prevents muscles from stabilizing and doing their jobs. Joint mobility and stability are important because together each works with your neuromuscular system to activate muscles and control movement through a full ROM.
Our joints get worn out much more quickly if we cannot move through an entire range of motion. Imagine an old door that you might have encountered that will not completely close. If you only work in a specific range of motion that area becomes overused and the other parts of the motion become “rusty.” The door basically become impossible to open entirely without breaking something or tearing it off the hinges. Now imagine your body trying to do the same thing. I'll wait. Not a pretty sight!
Many runners stop running because their bodies and joints are worn out. Without the proper amount of mobility and strength, you are much more vulnerable to injury as you increase volume and intensity.
Mobility training needs to be a top priority in any training program. An athlete with limited ROM is not as effective as the athlete could be.
Mobility training should be included in every warm up before running. Mobility training helps to manage imbalances and reduces the risk of injury. While different people need different levels of mobility training, it is important to either keep the mobility that you already have while increasing your mobility in areas where you are lacking.
We have to marry the two ideas of athletic performance and injury prevention together. Start to think about mobility training as something you must to do to have better performances and a way to reduce your injuries rather than viewing it as something that is optional – IT’S NOT!