A Guide to Mobility and Flexibility Work for Recovery
Mobility vs Flexibility
The words “mobility” and “flexibility” are used interchangeably outside the movement community, but when it comes to fitness, there are some subtle differences.
Here we’ll help you understand the scope of each term and how they can be used to optimize your training and recovery regime
the biology of motion
Most of our movement is based on the range of motion (ROM) of the limbs around our joints., how well this works depends on a few factors:
How stretchy our muscles are
The health of the joints and surrounding tissues
Joint congruence (symmetry)
Nervous system control of the muscles
We can improve some, if not all of these factors with mobility and flexibility training but how does one distinguish between the two?
This is the stretch capacity of a muscle, or how long it can become when pulled. In flexibility training, athletes stretch and hold the muscle in a stationary position for a number of seconds, then release and repeat - known as ‘static stretching’.
This is the ability of a joint to move comfortably through its full range of motion. Mobility work encompasses all the elements that limit movement, including flexibility but also motor control and stability, implying an element of strength in the surrounding muscles as well.
what science says about stretching
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, does not cause the same problems. Dynamic stretching is the continuous movement of the limb through its full range of motion with active control over form throughout. Research has shown that dynamic stretching can improve muscle power, as well as jumping and running performance.
Numerous studies have shown that stretching and mobility are also valuable techniques for recovery. One trial looking at hamstring injuries found that athletes recovered faster with an intensive stretching and mobility routine.
soft tissue work and flexibility
Another novel approach to flexibility is soft tissue work, i.e. self-massage with foam rollers, and other purpose-designed devices. Foam rollers function by using a person’s body weight to apply pressure to the soft tissue in a rolling motion. Experts believe that it relieves tissue stiffness and increases blood flow, although the details of exactly how this works are as yet unclear.
A recent meta-analysis of 21 studies concluded that foam rolling correlated with a small (+4%) improvement in flexibility and sprint performance, as well as reducing muscle pain perception.