Mobility is a big trend right now in fitness, and for good reason. If you can’t move, you can’t train very well, either. You could spend the rest of your life reading all the books and articles and watching all the videos online about mobility. But when is enough really enough? Is the guy in the “Enter the Pain Cave” t-shirt who spends 45 minutes before and after every workout screaming as he tortures himself with his foam roller doing it right? Is that what you should be doing, too? Let’s try to demystify some of this stuff!
To quote Alex Steffen, “More is not better. Better is better,” and that is particularly true of mobility work. It’s unlikely that foam rolling and other types of compression mobility really deform tissue much. Even though we use terms like “releasing tissue,” it’s more of a metaphor than what is really happening. Likewise, when we “stretch out,” there is probably very little real stretching actually happening. One study showed that it takes over 9000 Newtons of force (about 2040 pounds!) to deform our pal, the iliotibial band, by one percent. 1%! It takes about half as much force to change the plantar fascia on the bottom of your foot by the same amount, too. (1) That’s a crazy amount of force and there’s no way that’s happening with mobility techniques.
Instead, what’s probably happening is that when you mobilize, you help these tissues slide and glide over one another. There’s also definitely a neurological effect. Mobilizing, rolling and applying pressure to the body with other implements will activate certain types of nerve receptors in the skin and other tissues. The bottom line is that going crazy with a foam roller, ball, band or body weight stretch is only doing one thing: making you super uncomfortable! My athletes and mobility students are always asking how to know when enough is enough, and the answer I give them is simple because, the reality is, what feels like “enough” to you may feel too light or too heavy to someone else based on individual tolerances.
So, what I recommend is to pay attention to your face, your jaw and your breathing when you roll and stretch. If you find yourself clenching your jaw, making weird faces, or your breathing changes (speeds up, slows down or you find yourself holding your breath), then you are going too hard. You should have your normal face on, a relaxed jaw, and normal breathing while you’re doing this stuff. If you don’t you’re unnecessarily torturing yourself and, really, you should save the torture for your training, not your pre and post mobility sessions!
The other question everyone has is, “How long should I be doing this for?” I’m a big believer in an active warm-up with fast mobility work to prep for activity, spending no more than a minute or so per area you are mobilizing before training. After training, using slightly heavier (again, within the tolerance parameters I set forth above) pressure that is sustained and slow in movement for up to a few minutes per region seems to work well for most people. I wouldn’t recommend more than 5 minutes or so of pre-training rolling/mobility and more than 15 minutes after training, as a rule of thumb, although there are always particular people and situations that may not fit these basic guidelines.
Give it a shot and see what you think! If I’m wrong, put your Pain Cave shirt back on and get back to grinding, screaming and crying, but I think you’ll find this easier, quicker approach every bit as effective as the marathon sessions you may be doing currently.
- Chaudry H et al. Three-Dimensional Mathematical Model for Deformation of Human Fasciae in Manual Therapy. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. 2008; 108:379-390.