Mobility for Runners

How to improve your body’s function through simple mobility exercises.

As humans, we naturally have imbalances, says Jessica Marie Rose Leggio, sports biomechanics, athletic injury correction and conditioning expert, and owner/co-founder of #RunPainFree, a New York-based injury correction and prevention clinic. “Running,” she says, “exposes any and all of the natural imbalances we all already have within us.”

Leggio is a huge proponent of mobility exercises, and she shuns stretching. “Tissue is restrictive,” she says. “If you have tissue restricting your mobility, and you stretch tight muscles under that restricted tissue, you strain muscle insertions.” She adds that people who are hyper-mobile should pay extra attention to building stability and should stay (far) away from stretching. [Note: The jury is still out on stretching for runners, and the majority of runners benefit from targeted stretches.]

Mobility, versus stretching, refers to the active movement of a joint—your controlled range of motion. Stretching refers to a passive range of motion. Working on your mobility helps improve your body’s ability to control your range of motion, and therefore move in a healthy, safe way. Here are Leggio’s recommendations for mobility exercises before any run to augment your current warmup and set your body up for success in motion.

Foam roll

Utilizing a foam roller is the easiest way to prevent injury, says Leggio, and not rolling is the fastest way to get injured. “The job of your tissues is to protect you, so they’ll restrict mobility when they sense you’re unstable,” she says. “Releasing that restriction is imperative for activity. Full-body foam rolling is work, but it’s the first step to injury correction and prevention.” Roll all the muscles in your legs, your glutes, and your back. If your muscles are tender under the foam roller, that means they’re tight and it’s good you’re rolling them out.

Increase range of leg motion

Leggio prescribes a move she calls “Drive-backs,” which, she says, activate the glutes to control the range of motion in your natural leg swing. To do it, get into a lunge position up against a bed or couch, and put your front foot under the object, and your shin flush against it. Step your other leg straight behind you and bend your front leg. Wiggle the toes of your front foot and put your weight in your heel while you stand up, bringing your back leg to meet your front leg. Your glutes, instead of your quads, should lead this move. Repeat 10 times on each leg.

Deadlift/kettlebell swings

Certain muscle extensions are crucial to a runner, notably in back extension, hamstrings and psoas. “You can’t run an open stride without them,” says Leggio. “Your muscles only fully contract when they’ve been fully extended first, so a runner with a short stride never has an opportunity to extend their hip and fire their glutes—or extend their glutes and fire their hip.” Repetition then creates locked-up quads (from overuse with no help from the glutes), shin splints, hamstring strains, knee pain and both hip flexors locking up—ultimately leading you to tank mid-race. Leggio’s preemptive solution is deadlifts, and/or kettlebell swings.

The baseline key to any kettlebell work, she adds, is a proper deadlift, “where you first sit back into your glutes, keep a flat back, your chin up, your heels heavy, hinging at the hip.” From there, you want to lead with the hips to stand up, as opposed to rolling into your knees and then your quads. While incorrect form can lead to injuries, she says, doing it right can do wonders for overall running mobility. Start doing deadlifts with little to no weight at first to ensure proper form. “From there,” she notes, “you can move on to using a kettlebell with a swinging action, which mimics strength endurance and biomechanics—what distance runners need.” Before your next run, try three sets of 10 deadlifts with what feels like a relatively light weight (maybe an empty barbell or 15-pound weighted bar), to ensure proper form and glute/hamstring engagement. 

Straight-legged walking kicks

The hamstring’s job, says Leggio, is to ensure you don’t hyper-extend your knee. To mobilize your hammies, use a foam roller to help release them, then fire your glutes with drive-backs, and extend your hips properly with deadlifts or kettlebell swings. She does so with walking steps where your knees are locked-out and your feet are flexed. “Do 15 steps each leg, so 30 steps total,” she says. “A straight leg/locked knee is what you want. That’s how you’ll extend the entire backside of your leg. If that means that you don’t get your leg very high off the ground, that’s totally fine.”

Following the four above steps, in sequence, will provide the right prep so that your body is released and your muscles are firing and loaded—ready to, as Leggio puts it, “sustain a much more enjoyable, injury-free, injury-prevented run.” And the mobility work isn’t just run days, either. You can also do exercises like these on days off. Doing so helps reinforce healthy movement patterns for the next time you get back out on the road or trail. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.