Mobility Basics: Advice from Spartan Director of Sport, Joe DI

By Joe DI Jul 27, 2016

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With the Olympics drawing near and summer athletics in full swing, we're excited to welcome back a guest blogger who keeps his finger on the pulse of peak performance, Joe DiStefano, better known as “Joe DI.” Not only is he the Director of Sport at Spartan Race, he's also a longtime friend and user of InsideTracker. Last we heard from him, he shared his personal “unplugged” approach to sleeping soundly through the night, and provided the methodology for how you can do it too. In this edition, he focuses on a problem faced by many athletes, mobility.

To kick things off, Carl Valle, InsideTracker's Director of Innovation and USATF II Coach, asked Joe why he focused so heavily on the joint mobility of the foot at the Spartan Combine, and how self-care can reduce injury and keep athletes in tune with their bodies. Finally, he asked Joe to share some low-technology solutions to help address these issues for Olympians and weekend (Spartan) warriors alike.

By following his four simple tips, whether there’s a medal on the line or not, you’ll be pushing past your personal records and going for gold. Here’s what he had to say…

I like quick wins and low hanging fruit. And that’s why I like the feet. 

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As you stated, Carl, 'fluid movement starts with great mobility and excellent coordination.' I agree. My theory and the rationale behind what I do with Spartan Pro Team members and Combine athletes (and why I spend so much time on the feet) is maybe one more step back from that.

I say that fluid movement begins with mobility, but mobility begins with coordination.

The theory of mobility

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The brain is not aware that it has a “hamstring” or a “glute.” It simply has a structure beneath it that it uses to support the many objectives via the unconscious mind in response to the vast array of inputs we plug into our conscious minds.

The brain then “thinks,” and all movement and, of course, coordination, is derived unconsciously, in terms of what I would call “flow,” to achieve the objective at hand – let it be to run, climb, hike, throw, carry, sit on the couch, press the gas pedal – whatever.

The brain’s “flow,” then, is always based on the path of least resistance and efficiency. It’s like those GPS apps on your phone that modify your route based on real-time traffic. Sometimes these apps will take you through five residential neighborhoods and three school zones in order to save five minutes by skipping the highway. That’s the brain.

To continue the analogy, when you and I were in school, Carl, we learned that the brain and muscular system worked more like the late ‘90s and early 2000s directions. (The days, when you had to go online and print the directions out and take them with you in the car! A turn + B highway, and so on and so forth.)

Addressing muscle tightness

This then means that the “length” or “tightness” of a muscle literally does not matter at all. At least, not until that muscle’s incorporation into the brain’s “flow” for a particular movement objective becomes optimized and the path of least resistance is redefined. Your glute could be the perfect length, but if the brain finds it easier to use the hamstring in the context of what the rest of the body is doing, it’s going to do that every single time.

Let’s go one step further just to tie this up and get to the real reason I and many others spend so much time at the feet.

Another big reason why, to me, the current “length” or “tightness” does not matter is that muscles are rarely “tight” for no reason. Most of the time, muscles are tight because they are asked to be that way by another joint. So focusing on “mobility” through stretching specific muscles instead of focusing on improving the “flow” through coordinated activity does not make a whole lot of sense.

For example, if the hips feel “tight”, they are probably that way because that’s what you are asking them to be. Maybe you are sedentary. Maybe your core is weak and asking for stability from somewhere else. Maybe the ankle is excessively stiff, so the input the hip is receiving from the ground is distorted. Maybe it’s all of the above.

But sorting that out first will often times remedy most of the tightness and/or help to redefine where the actual problem is.

Starting from the bottom

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Starting at the feet, then, the place where most of our movement begins and to which much of the forces that run through our body with every step are directed – makes sense. If the feet are dysfunctional, how can we be expected to “flow” optimally, and how could any muscle up the chain be expected to be at the proper length or performing the ideal function?

Dysfunctional feet during running means every other joint in the body, all the way to the head, is not going to “flow” as efficiently as possible based on what the joint below it did. Fix the feet and move. Suddenly the knees work better, the hips work better, maybe that shoulder pain goes away, and someone’s neck doesn’t bother them after a run.

Self care for stable support

The feet have 33 joints. They have 33 joints because for a long time we were barefoot and on uneven terrain for our entire lives. Our feet needed to contort and react to the ground and provide a strong and stable support system for the rest of the body to function.

Today, we wear shoes with motion-control, cushioned soles, and heel-lifts and walk around on perfectly flat, hard floors and pavement all day. How much action do you think those 33 joints are getting these days? Not much, and they’re very angry with us.

Follow Joe's four tips for better flow:

1. The first thing I do with most people is my now world-famous “break the credit card” self-mobilization for the foot. Sit on your butt, grab your foot in two hands and act as if you’re attempting to break a credit card in half. Feel those 33 joints that make your foot move and realize how neglected they must feel. As you work around your foot, wiggle your toes, and manually move your big toe around. Do this for as long as you want, as often as you want, and always pre-workout (watch the video below).

 

A video posted by Joe DI (@jdispartan) on

 

2. The next thing I do is take a lacrosse ball and spend five to six minutes rolling it around with the foot. Standing with the ball under the ball of the foot and the heel on the ground, turn the foot side to side over the ball. After a minute or two, go to the arch. Roll in a circular motion, looking for pain to work out. Last, I’ll go to the heel. It’s tricky, but you want the ball on the heel with the toes up. Gently go forward and back. It might hurt.

3. From there, ditch the ball and stand tall. Attempt to grab the ground with the feet and toes. Do this for 20 seconds “on” and 20 seconds “off” for a few minutes. Between each rep, relax, spread and wiggle the toes.

4. Last, whenever possible. Take off your shoes! Be barefoot. Not when you’re going to run 10 miles or walking into the office but, realistically, whenever you can let your feet “feel.” 

So there you have it, a few tips and tricks to keep your performance at it's peak. By regularly implementing these exercises into your routine, you could see a lower inflammation levels, decreased CRP, and a healthy drop in an elevated white blood cell count. But, how will you know if you're reaping the benefits? After all, you cannot measure what you do not know.

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