Why Should I Care About Mobility – For Athletes

It can be difficult to discern which fitness trends are fleeting fads, and which ones are important science-based developments.  If you had any doubts about the concept of mobility training, rest assured that it can have a critical effect on your performance, recovery, injury prevention and overall quality of movement.

Depending on your sport/workout environment, mobility training may be an old friend (I’m looking at you, Crossfitters, who have been way ahead of the trend in this area, thanks in no small part to mobility genius Dr. Kelly Starrett).  But for the rest of us, what does mobility and stability training even mean?

Mobility:  the ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion with strength and efficiency.  Your output of muscular strength is inherently limited by your range of motion.

Stability:  the support that your connective tissues give to your joints. Your ability to generate power (safely, symmetrically and efficiently) is dependent on the stability of your joints.

What does that mean for me?

A simplified but demonstrative example:  you could build the world’s strongest hamstring muscles, but if you have tight and sticky hips, your compromised range of motion means that you won’t be able to translate your insane hamstring strength into the movement required for say, a squat.  And if you have instability in your hip or knee joints, you won’t be able to use your insane hamstring strength to generate the power necessary for something like jumping.


This concept will translate differently into different sports, but the underlying principle is the same:

Cyclists:  tight hips will inhibit the power of your pedal stroke, and asymmetrical hip function will compromise the efficiency of your pedaling.

Runners and Nordic Skiers:  tight hips and ankles can dramatically limit your stride length, thereby compromising your performance in a way that no strength or speed training can fix.

Alpine Skiers:  tight hips will inhibit your ability to get low in your turns, causing poor balance and also back pain (if you can’t flex properly at the hip joint, your body will compromise by bending at the lumbar spine, which is not meant to bear that kind of load).

What should I do about it?

As with any high-performance machine, regular maintenance is your body’s best friend.  Most of us know that we can’t get away with skipping some sort of stretching or myofascial release (foam-rolling) for our hard-working muscles.  And hopefully all of us know we can’t get away with skipping brushing and flossing our teeth.  When it comes to something as important as your joint health and your range of movement, there’s no reason why you should take it any less seriously.

Performing a full-body range of mobility exercises for just 15 minutes every day will work wonders towards achieving optimal joint health.  Remember, mobility work is not stretching, as you can read more about here.  If you’re not able to join me for one of my mobility workshops, I encourage you to check out the books Becoming a Supple Leopard or Deskbound by Dr. Kelly Starrett, or any of his videos.

How Mobility Training Differs From Stretching

Let’s say you drove your car this morning, and the engine started sputtering and shuddering, causing you to bounce along the road, ending up in a ditch with a flat tire.  Would you fix the tire and continue along your merry way?  I hope not.
But this is essentially what so many of us do when we decide to “treat” our back or neck pain by just stretching our back or neck muscles.  In many instances, our aches and pains originate from something gone haywire in our joints—whether it’s compromised mechanical function or an impingement or other restriction that limits our range of motion and/or the stability of the joint.
Stretching alone will not address this type of issue, because stretching focuses exclusively on muscles.  Specifically, the goal and result of stretching is to elongate tight and shortened muscles.  In contrast, mobility training uses movement to free up restrictions in not only muscles, but also ligaments, joint capsules and any related tissue restrictions.  To relate back to the car analogy, mobility training is doing the work on the underlying mechanical engine issue, rather than just fixing the resulting flat tire.
Let’s say your lower back hurts.  You decide to lie down and do some spine stretches you remember from yoga class, and maybe you even do a couple hamstring stretches, because you read somewhere that tight hamstrings can lead to back pain (true!).  Maybe you achieve temporary relief, but the next day the same cycle repeats.  It’s likely that you’re dealing with some impingement in your hip joint.  (There are endless reasons why our hips get tight, but perhaps the biggest culprit is one that none of us can avoid—sitting.)
Your hip joint is designed for mobility, while your lumbar spine (lower back) is designed for stability.  Obviously, your lower back is capable of being mobile, but it doesn’t respond well to being used as a primary mover.  It simply wasn’t built for that.  But because our bodies are endlessly adaptable, if a tight hip is rendering you unable to move into a particular position, your lower back will pick up the slack and move instead.  You might not even notice this movement compensation at first, but over time your lower back will find a way to let you know that it doesn’t like having to take over the work of your hip joints (hello, pain!).
To this end, your spine and hamstring stretches are unlikely to remedy a hip impingement, leaving you wondering why you’re still in pain after continuing a diligent stretching practice.  What you need in this instance is a daily regimen of hip mobility exercises which will bring back range of motion and loosen up any tissue restrictions.
To read more about what compromised mobility can mean for your body, click here.

Give Your Feet a Break

High-heeled shoes.  Sigh.  This is one of those topics no woman wants to discuss.  “Don’t take my heels away from me!”  I know, I know . . . WAIT!  Don’t stop reading yet, please, just take a second to look at this picture. 


If that makes you stop for a second, please read on to learn how wearing heels on a daily basis could be doing irreparable damage – not only to the bones and muscles of your feet and legs – but also to your posture, your gait, your back and your hips.

Heels give us the impression that our feet look  more dainty, our legs look longer and our glutes look more shapely.  I get it, I really do.  But at what cost?  The information below is what caused me to reevaluate and add some really cute ballet flats to my shoe collection.  My body has never been happier.

Effect on Feet, Ankles, and Knees:

The most obvious repercussion of wearing heels is the compression of the bones in the feet.   Increased pressure is caused by the unnatural downward angle of the foot and the additional weight that your foot bones have to bear (weight they were not designed to bear!).  This increased pressure can lead to pain and issues such as bunions, hammer toes and neuromas.   The higher the heel, the worse the pressure!  If you’re not willing to give up heels completely, consider the difference that  lower height can make.  Wearing a 3 1/4 inch heel increases the pressure on the bottom of the forefoot by 76%!

 The ankles are also at risk, because of the way in which heels limit the motion of the ankle joint. Regularly wearing heels can cause a shortening of the Achilles tendon, which in turn can lead to tendinitis of the Achilles.  And your knees aren’t immune either.  While in heels, your knee stays bent, and your tibia (shin) turns inward. This puts unnatural pressure on the inside of the knee, which is where many women start to experience osteoarthritis.  In fact, knee osteoarthritis is twice as common in women as in men! Coincidence?

Effect on back, hips, and posture

Back pain is one of the most common physical complaints in our society, and those heels are not helping.  Your spine has a natural curve in the lower back.  When you wear heels, your upper body naturally leans forward slightly in order to keep you balanced.  This lean pulls the natural curve of the lower back too straight, which in turn pulls the rest of the spine out of alignment and can lead to back pain.  Your hip flexors can also start to experience pain for similar reasons.  Because of the unnatural angle of your feet in heels, your leg muscles aren’t able to exert the normal amount of force in moving you forwards as you walk.  Accordingly, your hip flexors have to step in and do more work.  Over time, overused hip flexors start to shorten/contract, which can also lead to flattening of the lower spine =  back pain.  Finally, the negative effect that heels can have on your posture and gait should be clear by now.  The above-mentioned need for your body to lean forward in order to stay balanced in heels can cause long-term problems with the alignment of your spine.  It all boils down to the fact that the position your body is in while you wear heels is not the natural position your body was meant to be in. 

Please keep these things in mind when you’re choosing your shoes for the day!  No, it’s not realistic to expect women to give up their heels completely.  But consider supplementing your sky-high stilettos with some lower heels and some great ballet flats.  Rotate them around so you’re not subjecting your body to heels every day.  Trust me, your body will thank you!