Take Care of Your Body
Improve Performance and Prevent Injury
A critical component of long-term health and fitness is mobility, and by far the most effective way to prevent injury and improve movement mechanics is – you guessed it -- mobility. Serena Williams, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning and Roger Federer are still top athletes in their mid and late 30’s. The concentration of players in their mid-30’s in the NBA, NHL and the NFL has more than doubled in the last 30 years. Athletes are taking better care of their bodies and extending their careers, and those of us in the lower echelons of sports can do the same.
I first learned about the magic of mobility when I was playing professional soccer. We had a game on a Friday night in Los Angeles, followed by a Sunday afternoon game in New York. I played in the Friday game, and afterward I couldn’t walk, and my hip literally froze. My glute was so tight that I couldn’t move it. I was in the line- up for the New York game in less than 24 hours, and I knew I had to play. Our team trainer put me on the massage table and dug his elbow into the side of my hip for about 10 minutes. The tension resonated all the way to the front of my shoulder. After 10 minutes, I got off the table and I was totally pain free. It was then that I realized how tight, ropey tissue could have a tremendous impact on performance, in addition to being quite painful. I also realized the importance of knowing how to fix issues that restrict movement. After that experience, I began to build time into my day to work on mobility, compression, and overall body maintenance.
Here’s what I discovered are the four most effective ways to maintain freedom of movement, stay injury-free and recover quickly:
- Two minutes or more. Gone are the days of bending over and touching your toes for 10 seconds to stretch the hamstrings. We now know that holding a position of restriction, such as a shin-to-wall or hamstring stretch, for two minutes or more, actually changes the tissue and is far more effective. So find a time when you can really focus on working tight areas, breathe deeply and hold that position for at least two minutes. I do this before bed while watching a movie or reading a book. Pick two or three things to work on and spend 15 or 20 minutes digging in.
- Compression. Grab a lacrosse ball, foam roller, or something that you can dig into your tissue and muscle with. Find a place on your body where you’re tight. Next, apply pressure with the lacrosse ball, foam roller, tennis ball, softball -- anything will do. You can move while you are putting pressure on the muscle, or you can find a single trigger point and stay on it. Doing this correctly will break up tight muscle and scar tissue. Remember it takes two minutes or more to make a change. One word of advice: this may be painful, so try to avoid going too deep right away, as your body will tighten up and defeat the purpose of compression.
- Do not “stretch” before a workout, race, or game! The kind of mobility and stretching I’ve discussed thus far is called static stretching -- the stretch-and-hold type of stretching – and it’s not appropriate for pre-workout-race-game warm-up. Static stretching helps with blood flow and can help relax a muscle experiencing spasms, but this type of stretching before a workout, race or game can actually decrease performance levels and lead to injury.
Your warm up and mobility before a workout, race, or game should look a lot like what you’re going to be doing for the workout, race, or game itself. This is called dynamic stretching, which involves moving and not holding a single position. Dynamic stretching incorporates full body movements that take you through a full range of motion. A few examples include warming up with air squats or lunges if you’re going to do a workout that requires squats. If your workout involves a lot of sprinting, then you’ll need a lot of hip range of motion, so you could do leg swings as part of your dynamic stretching regimen. Notably, dynamic stretching has been shown to make measurable improvements in range of motion, speed, power, and performance. Below, I cite two published studies that show the poor effects of static stretching vs. the positive effects of dynamic stretching before a workout.
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/reasons-not-to-stretch/?_r=0 (this is the article from the NY times on static stretching)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25933060 (this is the study from pub med on dynamic stretching.)
- Fish oil or Omega-3 fatty acids. This type of fat is found in most cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, halibut, and trout. Omega 3’s help with osteoarthritis, and fish oil helps with decreasing inflammation in the joints. I recommend six to eight oz. of cold-water, wild-caught fish weekly. If that’s not possible, then take four grams of fish oil from a good, reliable source on any day you don’t consume actual fish. Another good option is one to two tablespoons of cod liver oil. It’ll have the same effect as the fish oil; the only difference is that it's disgusting. Try getting your two-year-old to chug down cod liver oil! If you’re going for the cod liver oil, I recommend the fermented form. It will not only help with inflammation, but it’s great for your gut!
We are all athletes, and we want to stay strong, healthy and fit, so we work hard and commit a good bit of time to regular, intense exercise. However, the type of conditioning we do takes its toll on our bodies, so taking care of ourselves before and after we work out is a key component of a lifetime of good health and exceptional fitness. Try to take at least a few minutes to mobilize after your workouts this week.