Mobility for the Uphill Athlete

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  • #65755

    Mark, Nate, and Steve,
    I am curious to know if you all do any type of movement screening or range of motion assessments with your coached athletes? If you do, are these benchmarks something you have developed in house or on your own or do you utilize something like the Functional Movement Screen (FMS)? My interest in this topic stems from my own desire to improve my range of motion. I would not describe myself as a naturally flexible person. As a result, I have been seeking out a better understanding of how to achieve improved mobility and movement quality by attending certification level courses for Functional Range Conditioning, MovNat, and Movement and Mobility through Kelly Starett and the Ready State. I have really enjoyed seeing the inclusion of Uphill Athlete Yoga and the Ido Portal warm-up for the gym version of the ME workouts in this training group.

    The second part of this question is understanding how you all might go about adding in more mobility work to a training program if you felt that the athlete would benefit from increased range of motion.

    Any thoughts or observations you would be willing to share on this subject would be greatly appreciated.


  • Participant
    Nate Emerson on #65790

    Hi JP,
    Great questions. I’m glad that you are bringing this up. We’re glad that you’ve liked the
    Portal WU and the UA Yoga.
    Each coach uses their own methodology for screening. With the sports and activities we tend to focus on, we’re most concerned with the movement quality with locomotion (e.g. running, hiking, ski striding, skating). For endurance oriented sports, the general ROM tends to be smaller. With the typical workout schedules in our coached programs, I think it’s common for nearly all endurance athletes to improve in their movement quality over time. There is an element of self-organization that seems to occur when athletes hold themselves to a basic standard of good movement in high volume, low intensity exercise. For time-crunched fitness industry individuals, or athletes in traditional team/individual sports it’s probably advised to have a more thorough screening.
    Flexibility for flexibility’s sake isn’t necessarily going to protect you from injury or improve performance. Improving ROM might be helpful, but it definitely depends where and why you want to improve it. So understanding how you are put together is most helpful. For example, an elite sprinter needs generous posterior chain flexibility, while an elite distance runner will usually have comparably lower posterior chain flexibility. Running economy for distance runners (to marathon/HM distance) is probably different than ultra running. Mountaineering is likely different. Mobility at the ankle seems really important for safe and effective cramponing.
    I’d recommend the FMS. I’ve done several hundred screens for both occupational safety and personal training, but I’m not regularly using it. The FMS is an awesome tool, and the guys behind it have really great perspective on the relative importance of various factors of mobility, stability, proprioception, balance, etc. It’s the integration of these factors that matters. But the FMS requires a lot of training to be useful – it can be easy to misinterpret the results, or even easier to misunderstand how to address the results. There are some individuals that can get a relatively high score in the screen, but be potentially at the most risk for injury (hypermobile athletes).
    Kelly Starrett’s approach seems quite healthy. I’ve recommended one of his peer’s methods – Jill Miller’s Roll Model – to many athletes. I think a few other coaches have recommended the Roll Model as well, if only to develop an individual’s awareness of their own body and how to assist with recovery.
    Before jumping in with any program, I would just consider what populations these programs work with, and see if their emphasis lines up with yours. The FMS team has focused on traditional team and individual sports programs. Kelly Starrett was an early adopter with CrossFit, so we can assume some bias towards olympic lift mobility (while fun, many individuals do not need or benefit from trying to get the appropriate mobility for these lifts). But I haven’t gone through much of the Ready State. I can’t speak to MovNat.
    Is a focus on improving mobility even necessary? Have you had a lot of injuries? I submit that an athlete going through the ChamFit program may actually be have enough self-organizing physiological factors to be actively improving in many of the qualities that these other programs might focus on. A mountaineer or ultrarunner will definitely have a totally different emphasis on all of these qualities, as compared to a defensive end, point guard, competitive swimmer, or olympic lifter.
    If warranted, each individual may need a different approach to improve mobility. Prior to strength training or high intensity workouts, I might have an athlete target a few specific movement patterns as part of their Movement Prep or Dynamic Warm Up. If we include some targeted mobility work, I often try to follow up with a loaded movement to utilize/engage the modified ROM. Many of the coaches prescribe mobility and recovery on rest days or in the evenings, at the very least to maintain/restore ROM – hence the development of the UA Yoga program.
    One example of an integrated approach: With ski touring or alpine skiing athletes, we want adequate ankle mobility paired with adequate foot strength (see Janda foot exercises). For less active individuals, both these areas commonly need some work. If an athlete is near or at the end ROM in dorsiflexion in a buckled boot, and/or has a weak foot, it’s common to have alignment issues observable during boot fitting and/or in high performance downhill skiing. A weak arch will exacerbate this issue. Improving ROM at the ankle – combined with short foot exercises and calf raises – can clean up many alignment issues in high performance downhill skiing, as long as there are no structural issues with the arch or ankle. Many elite WC alpine skiers don’t need (or want) significant alignment correction or supportive footbeds because of their healthy ankle ROM and foot strength. This is an example of stability in the foot musculature and connective tissues, paired with healthy dorsiflexion in the ankle. How we get there is based on the individual.
    Hope that helps!

    Nate Emerson on #65808

    I wanted to add three key points to this topic:
    1. An athletes history (training volume, specificity, injuries, etc) is probably much more relevant in crafting programming than a movement screen. A movement screen might be indicated by this history, or maybe if an athlete has little history with a particular aspect of training.
    2. There isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence relating movement screens and reduction in injury (or improvements in performance). There are athletes with poor movement in the gym or in their sport, but sometimes those athletes are durable and perform well (e.g. Lebron’s squats compared to his career minutes played). Conversely, there are athletes that perform very well on movement screens and get hurt all the time. Improved movement quality can be shown to reduce stress on joints/tissues, but it’s often up for debate whether poor movement quality in a screen (or even in the field) is actually correlated with reductions in performance or increase in injury.
    3. If you feel like you are at risk because of a mobility issue, it’s probably better to consult with an experienced physical therapist. A PT can consider structural issues related to movement that a coach or personal trainer might miss. You don’t want to be working too hard on mobility if your body has an issue preventing you from further progress.

    jzamarron on #66760

    Hey Nate,
    Thank you so much for your detailed and insightful response. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to get your perspective on this topic. I found that interesting that there isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence to support the correlation between movement screens and injury reduction or improved performance. I also realize I wasn’t exactly certain of what ROM was needed for most endurance athletes. To answer your question about my injury history, I have been very fortunate to not have had any major injuries so far in my life. The worst of which was a minor stress fracture in my left foot and a bad right thumb sprain. Otherwise, only minor sprains or muscle strains.

    I think my interest in mobility has come from several different influences. I stopped running my freshman and sophomore years in college, because I read a few articles that running was “bad” for your knees. I played a few team sports through high school but did not play at the collegiate level. I found that I greatly missed running as a form of exercise. When I started running again after this hiatus, I found that I had a pain on the outside of my left knee. I also would sometimes get the same pain when I was hiking downhill. I believed that I had injured my knee.

    I went to see a doctor and he took x-rays of my knees and moved my leg and knee through a few different ranges of motion. He found that my knees had plenty of cartilage and looked healthy, however, he also stated that I should limit my running and that I would never run a marathon. I don’t recall him offering an explanation outside of this. I couldn’t understand why I shouldn’t run if I had “healthy” knees with plenty of cartilage? This piqued my interest and I started doing my own research. Eventually, I came across discussions about the catch all “runner’s knee”. Through a consultation with one of Kelly Starrett’s staff. I learned how to address this by self-myofascial release techniques and some ways to strengthen my Glute Medius. It is seldom that I have this issue anymore and I can run pain free.

    The other impetus for trying to learn more about mobility was my right hip and my overhead shoulder mobility. For as long as I can remember, it has always been uncomfortable for me to sit cross-legged. My right side is significantly tighter than my left. My upper leg is probably around a 45-degree angle from the floor whereas currently I can have my left leg resting comfortably on the floor in a cross-leg position. I feel tension and almost a pressure in my right hip joint when I reach end ROM for the cross-legged position. While I have seen small improvements from yoga and other mobility work, in my mind, there is still a large disparity from right to left. I think from my research on the topic and hearing that improved range of motion and movement control/quality could also reduce stress on joints inspired me to want to take as good care as I can of my joints.

    jzamarron on #66761

    I did three sessions with a DPT recently. Her findings were that my shoulders were tighter than my hips, which was surprising to me, because I felt like it was the other way around. Her explanation for this difference between my hips was that I might have a larger femoral head or a smaller joint socket on my right side. She said that only an x-ray could confirm that. For my shoulders she felt that it could be from a tightness in my forearms and/or pec’s or perhaps a nerve impingement based on how I described trying to control overhead movement. I have also been doing some sessions with a Rolfing/Anatomy Trains practitioner with some interesting results.

    I remember in Kelly Starrett’s course that I took, he discussed hypermobile athletes versus non hypermobile athletes in one lesson. One of the takeaways I had was that “tight” athletes that perform well and are durable can sometimes have less injuries even if they have limitations in their range of motion. An example of where I struggle going overhead is in the overhead squat. Thanks to ChamFit Level 3, this movement has gotten easier, but I would be surprised if I could do this movement with a weighted bar.

    It was interesting to hear you mention how difficult it is to interpret the results from the FMS. Dr, Andreo Spina, the creator of Functional Anatomy Seminars and Functional Range Conditioning has said similar things regarding how difficult it is to interpret the results from existing movement screens and assessments. I have heard him say that his Controlled Articular Rotations (CARS) is intended to make it easier to dial in on the cause of an altered movement pattern.

    I also realize that part of my interest in this topic is simply that watching people like Ido Portal or Erwan LeCorre of MovNat makes me want to move that way as well, which goes back to your question about is a focus on mobility even necessary. I think this discussion has helped me to reconsider how much mobility I need to reduce stress on the joints/tissues given my focus on endurance sports. Thank you again for your time and your thoughts on this topic.

    Nate Emerson on #66773

    JP, it sounds like you are doing your homework! I’m glad that you are looking to a wide range of information sources and seeing some professionals. Hopefully you can put together your own concept of what mobility looks like for your needs for sport and health.
    I agree that there’s an attraction in having high mobility. I feel like there’s a bias with some practitioners that want to promote mobility to achieve something like an overhead squat, snatch, or deep squats. I also feel like endurance athletes can sometimes have the hardest times with these. I personally would love to have improved mobility to do a perfect clean and jerk or an overhead squat. But there are awesome alternatives with KBs and unilateral lifts that give huge benefit and don’t push athletes to the end ROM where they’re more likely to get hurt. And unilateral lifts are nearly always more sports specific.
    My understanding with the FMS (not necessarily the SFMA) is that the screen exists to bring asymmetries and compensatory movement to the surface, not to identify a precise issue. This helps orient the process to help an athlete along the way to better movement.
    It’s interesting to hear that Starrett’s course said something along the lines of some cases of durability coming from tightness – while I think that there’s some truth to that when you compare it to someone on the hypermobile end of the spectrum, I think it’s important not to hide behind tightness as a way to be durable. The wear and tear that comes with a life well-lived can sometimes lead to restrictions that contraindicate certain lifts, and as long as someone can do a majority of movements without major compensation, that might be plenty to live a healthy life and achieve most fitness goals.
    Very interesting that the DPT identified greater shoulder tightness than hip tightness. Maybe that’s a great place to direct attention for now? It’s come up in more than one case that reduced shoulder mobility can be a greater factor affecting squat (even back squat) form than reduced hip mobility. I’m sure that has ramifications for sports and day to day living.
    It sounds like you’ve identified a notable asymmetry with your hips, and you’ve been doing your homework (and body work). I wouldn’t neglect checking your day to day repetitive patterns and especially ergonomics. There are a lot of case studies of people identifying their workspace created issues (e.g. corner desks, reaching too far with the mouse hand, lighting issues, leaning to one side). Multiplied by hours per week, and extrapolated to months and years, it can be a lot of time exacerbating a problem.
    If you are still looking to delve deeper into resolving the asymmetries, have you explored MAT? There’s a lot of people who’ve had success with MAT, especially with those who’ve experienced physical trauma. MAT is another body work technique. I did several sessions and it reduced some asymmetries as a result. Might be worth a look.

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