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Doctors & Advice

5 Mobility Exercises to Prevent Running Injuries


A Yale sports medicine doctor shares moves that ease stiffness and enhance performance.

If you’re a runner who keeps up with everything experts recommend to prevent injury, you’ve likely heard about a form of movement called “mobility exercises.”

Even if mobility is a new term to you, it’s something sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, and any providers focusing on movement have long emphasized as important. And it’s not just for runners, but all athletes—or anyone, really, who moves their body and hopes to stay strong and injury-free.

Mobility exercises (sometimes called “mobility work”) are designed to increase the range of motion of a joint, says Samantha Smith, MD, a Yale Medicine primary care sports medicine specialist.

“The joints are the points of motion in our body. So, any time we move, we don’t want a limitation because of a stiff joint. This can happen for many reasons, including inflammation of the joint or just because we haven’t been using it, which could cause the soft tissues around it to tighten,” Dr. Smith explains. “A muscle injury or tightness can also affect the joints. Likewise, if the ligaments aren’t being used, they can become less pliable.”

Everyone can relate to waking up in the morning and feeling stiff or tight, Dr. Smith adds. “And you can feel the difference between that and how you feel after your body is warmed up from exercise, where you have more freedom of movement,” she says. “That is the goal of mobility work—to give your joints that freedom instead of having them be a source of restriction and to potentially prevent muscle strains and joint soreness.”

Below, we talk more with Dr. Smith about mobility exercises and share a few to try at home.

Do mobility exercises include stretching?

Mobility work can include activities such as yoga and stretching—both static (holding a specific position) and dynamic (gentle repetitive movements), explains Dr. Smith.

“If you think of dynamic stretching as something you do to prepare your body for a run, then static stretching is about increasing the length of a specific muscle group because it might be tight,” she says.

Mobility exercises, Dr. Smith adds, can be done before a run, after a run, or on a rest day. “You can think of them as a form of recovery,” she says. "Perform mobility work in addition to your usual routine, rather than having it replace a warm-up or cooldown."

Is mobility the same as flexibility?

While mobility and flexibility are related, there is a key difference, Dr. Smith says.

“One way to think about it is that mobility is specific to joints, and flexibility is specific to joints and muscles. Someone can have great hip mobility, for example, but not have the muscle flexibility to do a split,” she says.

What are the best mobility exercises?

Here are five mobility exercises (demonstrated by Dr. Smith) that runners can try. For comfort, use a yoga mat or carpet.

1. Cat-cow

What it’s for: This mobility exercise is helpful for your spine.

How to do it: Put yourself in a kneeling table-top position with your knees hip-width apart and your hands shoulder-width apart. As you take a deep breath in, arch your back (cow pose), drop your belly to the floor, and gaze upward. Breathe out and, as you exhale, pull your belly in and round your back (cat pose). Hold each pose for a breath or two and repeat five to 10 times.

2. Hip circles

What it’s for: This hip mobility exercise helps stabilize muscles around the hip joint.

How to do it: Lie down on the floor on your back. Leave your left leg on the ground and straight in front of you. Bend your right leg and gently hold it with your right hand as you move the leg in a clockwise motion. Do this five times and then switch to a counterclockwise motion for five more circles. Repeat the same exercise on the other leg. You can start with small circles and gradually make them bigger.

You can also try this exercise standing up. Hold on to a sturdy chair, table, or wall for support if needed.

3. Downward-facing dog

What it’s for: This ankle mobility exercise is also great for calf mobility, as well as for stretching your hamstring, Dr. Smith says.

How to do it: Get on your hands and knees on the floor. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and a few inches forward, so they aren’t directly beneath your shoulders. Your knees should be hip-width apart. Spread your fingers wide and press your palms into the floor. Straighten your arms. Draw your belly into your spine and lift your hips up and back as you move your chest toward your thighs. Keep your spine straight and straighten your legs (or keep a small bend in the knees) with your heels on the floor.

Your body should be in an upside-down “V” position. Relax your head, neck, and shoulders, and look at your belly button. Gently shift your weight from the heel of one foot to the ball of the foot. Press the heel back into the floor and lift the heel of the other foot, moving your feet in a pedal-like motion.

Hold the pose for 5 to 10 seconds (either staying still or pedaling the feet).

4. Hip-flexor lunge

What it’s for: This is another hip mobility exercise, which loosens the hip flexors, a group of muscles that flex the hip and bring the leg upward toward the body. They can get tight if you sit a lot.

How to do it: Kneel on your right knee with your right leg stretched behind you. Bend your left leg and place your left foot flat on the floor a few feet in front of your right knee. Keep the trunk of your body tall and straight. Squeeze your right buttock and rotate your pelvis backward. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side. (You can raise your arms straight up, too, if you prefer.) You can add to the stretch by twisting the body to the same side as the knee that is off the ground and holding for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

5. Torso twists

What it’s for: This mobility exercise works on hip, toe, ankle, and trunk mobility simultaneously.

How to do it: Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forward and your hands at your hips. Keep your right leg still as you twist your torso to face the right side of the room. As you twist, let your left leg pivot to the right with your torso. Alternate sides, aiming for 10 reps on each side.

How often should you do mobility exercises?

As with all exercise, the best kind is the one that you can find time for, Dr. Smith says.

“The worst thing is to do nothing,” she says. “If you can fit in five minutes of mobility work a few times a week, it will have a positive benefit.”