PHYSIO ADVICE: Mobility vs Strength for running

Mobility vs Strength for running

As runners, we all have different routines, and warm-ups, conflicting training schedules and methodologies, and everyone believe theirs to be correct! Now is a great time to brush up on the science that guides the programmes and advice that we as chartered physios provide.

What stretches should I do before a run?

What we traditionally picture stretching to be is called ‘static stretching’, for example, a hamstring stretch trying to touch the toes, and holding that position. Brace yourself. There is no evidence that this type of stretching helps us before a run! Some studies show that it reduced our power in the subsequent 10 minutes after performing it. However, the changes were so small that they do not apply for most of the population, perhaps only extremely high-level athletes. Because the changes were so small, I do not see any harm in performing this type of stretching, if it suits people and works for them. So if you do this, and you remain uninjured, keep doing it! From a psychological perspective, static stretching after a run can be to be quite effective, as it is a ritual that allows our mind to turn off from the run and begin to relax again, promoting better homeostasis and recovery in the body.

Is mobility not important for runners then?

Of course not. Mobility is still crucial. To run correctly our body needs to move our joints through a certain range of hip flexion and extension. Our spines and hips need to sustain a certain amount of rotation to stride effectively, without developing incorrect movement patterns or compensations.


What is the best way to improve my mobility if I am lacking?

Strengthening and dynamic stretching. Or dynamic strengthening as I like to call it. Dynamic stretching is taking the body towards the end range of motion it has available, via an eccentric muscle contraction. This is where the muscle slowly releases its grip in a controlled fashion, lengthening the muscle, increasing the stretch little bit by bit. Often a muscle will be tight because it is weak. The nervous system detects that a muscle is weak and interprets this as a potential vulnerability to the surrounding joints and tissues. To protect this vulnerability and develop some ‘ fake strength,’ it will stimulate this muscle to become stiff and tense. This results in dysfunctional muscles and increased risk of injury. By loading the muscle with a controlled stretch it will begin to lengthen while also improving your Strength. As your Strength improves it reduces the stimulus for the nervous system to revert back to stiffening your muscle. An example of a dynamic stretching would be a single leg Romanian deadlift (RDL), which would lengthen the hamstring while building Strength in the muscle, hips and core.

What about foam rolling?

Although you feel better afterwards, foam rolling does not improve mobility or flexibility in the long term, despite contrary belief. When combined with strengthening exercises, it may allow us to move through more range of motion, but more studies are needed in this regard before we can say for certain. If you are foam rolling and not doing any accompanying strengthening or activation work, sadly you are wasting your time.

I don’t incorporate strength work into my training. Should I?

With complete certainty, yes. The current research shows that strengthening can boost our running significantly. By even incorporating 1-2 quick sessions in a week, we can improve force absorption, running efficiency, reduce injury risk and increase time running until exhaustion is reached. Running efficiency will improve, and you will get more bang for your buck for the hard miles put in. Injury risks decrease as tendon capacities improve and your neuromuscular coordination improves, reducing in better biomechanics and less leaking of force or torque into your tissues and joints when you run.

What’s the best way to improve Strength while incorporating dynamic stretching?

Reformer Pilates. Unlike traditional mat Pilates, we operate on the reformer, with spring tension applied for resistance. Because we have this applied resistance and the carriage can move, we are challenging the muscles through their full range of motion. Being strong through full range is more functional than the Strength gained from traditional static mat holds, calibrating our nervous system to allow us to move more effectively while reducing stiffness. Other alternatives are gym or resistance programmes which can be individually tailored towards you by a physiotherapist.

Where do I go from here?

If you are static stretching or foam rolling and you feel it works for you, by all means, continue as I don’t see any harm in these activities, but possibly not much benefit either. However, if you are not performing any strengthening work either in the gym or the reformer studio, then you need to tailor your programme to fix this. There is no general blueprint that we can apply to everybody at once, but incorporating 1-2 hours of strengthening per week split into two sessions is an excellent place to start in conjunction with your running. If you would like to know more, or book in for a class or an assessment with one of our physiotherapist, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.