We all know the story of Goldilocks' and her choosy ways. Just as she needed to find the chair, bed and porridge that were just right for her, runners also need to strive for muscular balance that is just right.
As of late in the health and fitness industry we have seen a surge of mobility tools and techniques including foam rolling, bands, various stretching techniques and other torture devices. Before we start mashing, rolling and stretching our way to injury-free, running bliss, we should probably ask the question, “will mobility alone help my running?”
Most people would agree that the best runners in the world are probably also the most efficient. Running economy is determined by a multitude of factors, when looking specifically at mechanical running economy it makes sense that the less work our muscles do the more efficient runners we can become. In order to become truly efficient we need to make sure that we are taking advantage of what is called the ‘stretch-shortening cycle’ or ‘soft tissue resiliency’.
Let’s use the Achilles tendon as an example, as a runner strikes the ground with the foot and the foot begins to flex towards the shin, the Achilles begins to wind up like a rubber band and then as we push off the Achilles releases that stored energy to help propel us forward, this slingshot type mechanism is known as the ‘Windlass Effect’. “A “windlass” is the tightening of a rope or cable” (Bolgla, Malone) 1 , in this case the Achilles is our rope. This is where the Goldilock’s Zone comes in to play. The ankle joint and the Achilles need to be able to flex and extend through a full range of motion in order to allow the Achilles to go through its full stretch-shortening cycle, therefore producing maximum passive force. But if we have too much or too little mobility in the ankle/muscle/tendon then we get less passive wind-up of the soft tissues which results in more pushing from muscles in the calf and hamstring. This type of ‘push’ in running will not only make us slower and less economical runners, but also more injury prone as soft tissues and joints become overused.
So how do we take full advantage of this Goldilocks' Zone? Finding the right balance of mobility and power is the key to true running efficiency, and we must first start with adequate mobility in our ankles and hips. The following are a few drills to help regain adequate ranges of motion and soft tissue resiliency in the ankle and hip.
Triplanar Ankle Mobilization
Triplanar Hip Mobilization
According to Max Prokopy of the Univeristy of Virginia Speed Clinic, “Tissue health is about posture and alignment (reducing energy cost) and power training will lead to bigger, thicker tendons. This will also protect ligaments and cartilage because a more neutral (less extreme) joint position can be maintained” 2. Mobility is only one part of the equation, in order to ‘tune’ our tendons and ligaments to be efficient slingshots we need to add in some power/plyometric drills such as the following;
Box Jump Rebounds
1: Plantar Fasciitis and the Windlass Mechanism: A Biomechanical Link to Clinical Practice
2: Email correspondence from Max Prokopy of the UVA Speed Lab