Mobility workouts are so important if you’re a regular runner. We asked fitness experts to explain why, what the benefits are, and how to do them.
Running is a fantastic, high impact form of cardiovascular activity, that gets your heart rate up and even helps you to build muscle. But because it is so high impact, chances are that if you run regularly, you’ll start to experience aches and pains in your muscles and joints. This is where mobility exercises come in.
Mobility exercises are all about improving your range of motion and promoting joint health, which is particularly important for runners. The benefits of this are many and varied, ranging from injury prevention to improving performance.
For a more in-depth look at what mobility exercises can do to benefit your running and recovery, we asked Tashi Skervin, a runner, trainer, and founder of the fitness bootcamp TSC Method, and Dr Sarah Davies from Panacea Health, to explain exactly how mobility exercises can help runners, how often we should be doing them, and some of the best ones to incorporate into our workout routines.
What are the benefits of mobility exercises for runners?
“Having a good level of mobility will allow runners to use their full range of motion whilst running, which in turn will improve your running economy and reduce your risk of injury”, explains Tashi. According to Dr Sarah, this has to do with the ways in which mobility exercises help to prevent “wear and tear” from frequent impact, by “preventing the stiffening of the muscles in the leg that can restrict joint movement”.
Common injuries runners face include muscle and tendon strain injuries, such as “Achilles tendinopathy, calf muscle strain, hamstring tears and tendinopathy”, says Dr Sarah, as well as “lower back problems including disc herniation”. But by doing mobility exercises regularly, you can reduce the likelihood of causing the sort of damage that may lead to these injuries.
How often should I be doing mobility exercises if I want to improve my running?
Having good mobility is pretty much essential for people who run regularly, and so Dr Sarah says that you should be aiming to do mobility exercises “as frequently as you need”. Every person is different, and not all bodies will need a lot of loosening. So she recommends listening to your body. “If you’re stiff and need to increase your mobility, then you may need to undertake mobility exercises daily, but if you’re very flexible, then you should spend less time stretching and more time on strengthening your muscles to stabilise your joints”.
As a general rule, though, Dr Sarah recommends doing these exercises three times a week. In addition, she says that doing some or all of these dynamic stretches before heading out for a run can be useful “to help mobility and performance in the short term”.
The best mobility exercises for runners
Lunge with an overhead reach
Tashi explains that a lunge with an overhead reach is a great exercise for targeting “tight hip flexors and your lower back”, and that it also “helps to activate your core as well as your legs”. To complete the exercise, lunge forwards. Then, “when you’re comfortable in the lunge position” and feeling a slight stretch, “lift your arms up overhead and lean back slightly”. Hold for up to a minute, and then “return to standing and repeat on the other leg”.
High lunge rotation
Another lunge-based exercise is the high lunge rotation, recommended by Dr Sarah, which helps to optimise thoracic (or spinal) rotation. Again, start with feet hip-width apart, and lunge forwards, ensuring you keep your back knee off the floor. From here, “lengthen through the spine and place the opposite hand on the floor to the inside of your front foot”. You now need to raise your other hand above you and rotate your chest upwards, “being careful not to twist your neck”.
Do this on both sides and hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat the exercise between four and eight times, with the goal being “to achieve four minutes in total under tension on each leg”.
Kneeling hip flexor
This is a great exercise for optimising the range of motion at the hip joint, as Dr Sarah explains. To start, stand with your feet in a wide stance, about hip-width apart, then “engage your core and lunge backwards, taking your back knee to the floor”. Once you feel a stretch at the front of your hip, Dr Sarah recommends you hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds, depending on how much your body can withstand and is comfortable with.
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Come back up to your starting position, and then do the same thing with the opposite leg. Repeat the exercise four to eight times, again aiming to achieve four minutes under tension on each leg.
Heel raises are great for optimising the range of motion in your ankles, which very often take the brunt of the impact when you run. Dr Sarah says that, ideally, you should try doing these as a single-leg exercise, but if you can’t manage that just yet then start out with double-leg.
To begin with, “stand on the bottom stair, feet hip-width apart, with the heels of both feet hanging below the step”. From here, you need to “slowly rise up onto your toes”, holding onto the banister or wall for balance if necessary. Then, slowly lower your heels “as far as possible below the step”. Do 15 of these, rest, and then complete another set of 15.
Wall ankle drill
Another exercise that is great for ankle mobility is the wall ankle drill. This is recommended by Tashi as a way of reducing ankle strain, which is “often responsible for knee and hip pain”. To start, stand facing a wall, and then step your right foot forwards, “so that your toes are touching the wall”. Then, “bend your right knee until it touches the wall and hold for a few seconds”. Return to standing before stepping in again.
When you repeat this exercise, make sure you step your foot in so that it lands a couple of centimetres further away from the wall each time. The idea is to keep going “until you can barely touch the wall with your knee”. Only once you have achieved this should you change legs.
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