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Mobility Versus Flexibility

This is an excerpt from Run Healthy by Emmi Aguillard,Jonathan Cane & Allison L. Goldstein.

Now that we’ve debunked the old way of thinking about static stretching, let’s look at what might actually help you as a runner. Rather than focusing on flexibility, let’s talk about mobility. Many times, you’ll hear the two terms used interchangeably, but while they may be related, they are distinct and different attributes.

Flexibility is passive, while mobility is active. Flexibility uses external forces, such as body weight or gravity or a strap, to stretch. Think of grabbing the fingers of your left hand with your right hand and pulling the left hand as far back as it will go. You’ll feel a stretch in the muscles of your wrist. That’s demonstrating flexibility. Now, without the pull from your right hand, try to get your fingers as far back as you can using only the muscles of your wrist. Now you’re demonstrating mobility.

Try this: Stand on one foot, engage the muscles of your core and hip flexors and raise your knee toward your chest. How high you can raise the knee is a measure of your hip mobility. Next, use your arms to hug your knee and pull it higher; that’s demonstrating the flexibility of your hip. Mobility is active, flexibility is passive.

Similarly, you could have enough flexibility to do a split, but without the necessary strength to complement that flexibility, you won’t be able to create adequate hip extension to create a long stride when running. Another way to look at this is our range of motion, and then our strength within that range. Having increased range of motion without control and strength within that range is an injury risk.

Flexibility is a prerequisite for mobility, but to have good mobility, you need to have strength as well. To promote mobility, focus on dynamic warm-up moves such as leg swings and lunges. If you want to do some gentle static stretches after the dynamic warm-up, that’s fine, but you can feel guilt-free if you forgo them.

An ideal warm-up routine starts with foam rolling any areas that feel a bit tight or problematic. Next, follow with a dynamic warm-up. The 3D pivots and the common lunge matrix described in chapter 8 are great for global, triplanar mobilization. Following the dynamic warm-up, spend a few minutes activating muscle groups that play an important role in injury prevention using lateral toe taps (chapter 7) and the runner’s lunge (chapter 9). Now you’re on your way! Begin with an easy jog, then top it off with drills and strides, and you are ready to crush your workout. This ideal warm-up is not critical for easy runs every single time you step out the door, but stick to it on your quality and intensive days.

For cooling down, continue moving for a time to facilitate blood flow to the muscles that were just working hard, which can help to flush out the body posttraining. Pace absolutely does not matter. For some runners, cool-down effort may even be a walk, and that is okay; we just recommend that you continue to move for 15 to 20 minutes after a hard effort. Follow with foam rolling on any areas that feel tight and any of your favorite, gentle stretches. Finally, don’t forget about proper hydration and postexercise fueling (depending on the length and intensity of the effort).