By Jon-Erik Kawamoto
Your skeleton is essentially a stack of joints. By design, certain joints are meant to move more while others are meant to stabilize. Prolonged sitting while at work or when travelling to races can leave you feeling stiff and creaky. If you lose mobility at one joint because of a tight muscle or previous injury you’re increasing your risk for injury.
The Joint-by-Joint Approach
I’m a big believer that being stronger (weight training, jumps and sprinting) will make you a faster runner. But equally as important as being strong, is having optimal flexibility and joint mobility. To help outline what our body needs, we can refer to the joint-by-joint approach to training and stretching.
Expanding on the stack of joints idea, your body is layered from the feet to the ankles, the knees, hips, lumbar spine (lower back), thoracic spine (upper back), scapula (shoulder blades) and gleno-humeral (shoulder) joints. Each joint or series of joints has a unique function and movement allowance based on how it’s designed.
If a joint has a problem and does not move appropriately, pain is usually seen at the joint above or below. For example, following an ankle sprain, the ankle joint tends to stiffen and lose mobility. But remember, the ankle wants mobility. So if you’re running with one stiff ankle, your body will look for mobility elsewhere, in most cases, the knee. But the knee is designed for stability. Placing unwanted stress to the knee by making it track outside of its normal design will lead to an overuse injury.
Similarities can be found with tightness in the hip. A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that those with patellor-femoral pain (runner’s knee) exhibited significantly less hip extension range of motion compared to those without knee pain. Therefore, oftentimes the site of pain is different from the origin or cause. You can treat the knee for knee pain but it may also be caused by a stiff ankle.
Minimizing your risk for getting injured requires more than just strength. You need appropriate ankle, hip, thoracic spine and shoulder mobility to run at your best. Don’t be a statistic and address your mobility issues with these mobility drills.
These drills are designed to improve the mobility at the joints that need it (ankles, hips, thoracic spine and shoulders). These can be performed pre- and post-run or race and also in a hotel room after checking in. Keep the stretches short (10 seconds) pre-run and long (60 to 120 seconds) post-run.
Downward Dog Calf Stretch
FOR: Ankles, Hips, and Shoulders
Start in the top of a pushup. Push your hips upward, move your heels closer to the ground then push your chest toward your toes. Try to form a straight line from your hands to your hips and from your hips to your heels. Bend one knee and push your opposite heel into the ground – you should feel a good calf and hamstring stretch. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.
Start in the top of a pushup. Bring your right leg forward and cross it underneath your chest. Keep your right shin at a 90-degree angle to your torso as your slowly sit your hips on the ground. Keep your chest up and support yourself with your hands. You should feel a stretch in your right hip. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch with Overhead Reach
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Take a large step back with your right leg and place your right knee on the ground. Get tall and push your right hip forward – you should feel a stretch in front of your right hip and upper thigh. Reach upward with your right arm and lean slightly to the left. You should then feel a stretch deep in your abdomen. Hold for five to 10 seconds, switch legs and repeat.
Kneeling Quad Stretch
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Take a large step back with your right leg and place your right knee on the ground. Turn and grab your right foot with your right hand. Turn to face forward again and get tall. Slowly push your right hip forward – you should feel a strong stretch in your right thigh. Hold for five to 10 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
FOR: Hips, Thoracic Spine, and Shoulders
Start in the top of a pushup. Step up with your right foot, placing it beside your right hand. Place your left elbow and left knee on the ground. Turn your torso toward your right knee. Place your right hand on your right knee and gently push it outward. While doing so, push your left hip forward. Hold for five to 10 seconds. You should feel a stretch in front of your left hip, in your right hip and under your right leg. Next, reach for the sky with your right arm. You should feel a nice torso stretch. Switch sides and repeat.