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Mobility Basics: Advice from RUNGA Founder, Joe DI

By Joe DI, December 23, 2019

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We're excited to welcome back a guest blogger who keeps his finger on the pulse of peak performance, Joe DiStefano, better known as “Coach Joe DI.” Joe is the former Head of Sport at Spartan Race and founder of RUNGA, he is 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 the root of a problem faced by many athletes–mobility!

To kick things off, InsideTracker asked Joe why he focuses so heavily on the joint mobility of the foot and ankle with his clients, athletes, and guests at RUNGA as well as for some low-technology solutions to help reduce injury and keep people in-tune with their bodies. Here’s what he had to say.

 

The theory of mobility, part 1

To understand this new approach towards mobilizing the body, we must begin by shifting towards a new understanding of the brain and body. We must view the brain not as a manager of an assembly line of muscles, each with a hyper-specific role to play in global movement, but a controller with a far more singular objective. The new objective is of a controller moving our bodies through ranges or via the path of least risk or resistance. In fact, it is helpful to consider the brain as being completely unaware of any individual muscles at all—but rather just one, large unit functioning as an orchestra to produce a desired outcome without showing favorites or insisting any particular muscle do any specific job.

So let’s remove all the labels, names, laws, and specific functions you know about the body, and any beliefs that you may hold about “hamstrings” or glutes that don’t “activate.” In reality, the brain just wants to produce movement in response to either external stimuli or conscious choice via the path of least risk or resistance. This last part is essential because although the brain does not “think” in terms of muscles and their textbook-functions, due to hyper-ultra sensory inputs from our nervous system, it knows more about what’s happening along each millimeter of muscle than we could ever imagine. Meaning, if you have a tiny micro-trauma anywhere, your brain knows about it, even if you are weeks and weeks away from an injury or feeling any discomfort at all.

And that means when we say “via the path of least risk or resistance,” the brain is going to begin shifting movement around or restricting motion and strain away from any area or joint that’s not operating at 100%. This also includes reducing the total motor unit recruitment near that area, all so that we don’t risk greater injury. This means, most often times, decreases in mobility and plateaus in strength gains is not our body working against us–it’s our brain protecting us. 

 

The theory of mobility, part 2

The next big new piece of understanding that we need to address brings us back to viewing the brain as the controller focused on pursuing paths of least risk or resistance. With this objective, the brain also has a vested interest in anticipating and reducing the resistance and effort required for tasks we practice with the most frequency. Which, of course, makes a whole bunch of sense.

Imagine yourself practicing throwing baseballs 5 hours per week. Wouldn’t it be nice if your body began to adapt in such a way that made that practice easier and less stressful on the body? Well, it does. In fact, almost any lifelong, single-sport athlete can demonstrate structural change that stemmed from their practice of the sport. For example, cyclists tend to have a rounded upper back, throwers have one arm that’s far more mobile than the other, hockey goalies have knees that cave in or internally rotate, and runners often cannot achieve full hip extension. These are not problems that always need to be fixed, but rather they are sport-specific adaptations that may be improving these athletes performance in their sport. 

So let’s take this lesson into a new context, given many people reading this article may not participate in a sport, and if they do, my guess is they don’t practice it as much as they practice, say, go to work? 

Remember, whatever “sport” we practice, our body aims to improve our effectiveness at it. Plain and simple. No favorites. No higher consciousness. No aesthetic desires. And sadly, for most of us, our “sport” has become coping with emotional stress and sitting at a computer with our eyes downcast—not exactly maximizing very much of our human potential or mobility! It does not take many 40-50+ hour workweeks for the brain and body to begin adapting to your chair and the stress, striving to get better and better at preparing you for them. 

We’ve lost our mobility because we forfeit it through lack of use and prioritization of immobility. Even if we work out or run 5-6 hours per week, structural change is always going to prioritize what you do most, which, in this case, is sitting at a desk 40-50+ hours per week.

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Let's address muscle tightness

First and foremost, any mobility improvement must begin with a release of judgment or separateness from our bodies. Emotions do not help mobility (a subject for a future article!), and the body is never working against us. Rather, it’s always working with us. The current “length” or “tightness” of a muscle does not matter. What does matter is your newfound awareness and knowledge of this reality as well as your new action plan. Sound good?

In many cases, even for athletes, sitting is the enemy of mobility and the root of non-repetitive stress or contact issues. There’s nothing worse than sitting and being immobile. Sitting dehydrates joints, tightens muscles, decreases core function, and increases the risk of injury at virtually every joint. 

 

So what’s the opposite of sitting? (Hint: It’s not standing)

Walking! After 16 years of coaching athletes and clients, I will tell you any program to address tension or tightness will not work optimally until it’s piled on top of an active lifestyle that includes lots of time spent on foot, performing low-intensity physical movement. This low-intensity physical movement retrains our anatomy on how  to move and where joints should sit from toe to head. On the contrary, our days are spent either highly immobilized at a desk or highly active during strenuous exercises like running or boot camp workouts, in which those largely desk-bound muscles are suddenly tasked with handling up 10-20x our bodyweight with each passing box jump. This transition severely limits the opportunity for the brain to naturally restore our movement, mobility, or function. So it’s no wonder that up to 82% of runners and thousands of high-intensity exercisers become injured every year! 

We need to build a substantial base of a middle ground, which for most, means walking, hiking, or yard work on the weekends.

 

Tip #1: 10,000+ steps per day.

If you can hit it, even if you do nothing else, it will make a monumental difference in your entire body’s movement. If you want to start with a goal of 5,000, that’s better than 4,999, but it’s worthwhile to set the intention to never walk less than 5,000 steps in a day. I achieve 10,000 steps or more most days just by walking my dog for 30-40 minutes in the morning and at night and by ensuring I walk during my phone calls. 

Let’s go one step further to tie in the real reason I spend so much time on the feet.

Put simply: Starting at the feet means beginning at the place where most of our movement begins. With every step, forces of 2.5x your bodyweight are directed into your foot, up your leg, into your pelvis, and directed up into the shoulders, neck, and head. Ever thought about the mechanics of gait and wonder why your right arm swings when your left footstep? The body is one piece, an orchestra in motion. If we’ve spent the last 10 hours adapting to our chair, tightening and tensing muscles to improve our efficiency at sitting, is it any wonder why our gait, or that arm swing, would be disrupted?

Dysfunctional feet during walking or running means dysfunctional input to virtually every other joint in the body, all the way to the head. If we fix the feet and move more, from my experience, suddenly the knees work better, the hips work better, maybe that shoulder pain goes away, and someone’s neck doesn’t bother them anymore after.

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Tip #2: Shoe selection is key.

The best tips I can offer would be to avoid too much cushion, high heels, and narrow toe boxes. While I do not believe barefoot running is the answer, being barefoot as often as possible, in the yard and around the house, and wearing a minimalist shoe casually or throughout the day, is a great way to stimulate the feet and improve mobility for most people. 

It's all about self-care for stable support. Did you know that your feet have 33 joints and over 100 muscles!? We have such dexterity and potential in our feet because for a long time we were barefoot and living 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.

Fast-forward to today when most of us are wearing tight dress shoes with heel-lifts to walk about perfectly flat, rock-hard surfaces all day and how much action do you think those 33 joints are getting? Not very much! And what’s worse, is they’re sending those skewed signals up the entire stack above them. 

 

Tip #3: Make use of a mobility ball.

Twice per day, take a mobility 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 two or three minutes on each foot, move to the arch. This time, 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 down. Gently roll forward and back. It might hurt but it can help knock loose some of the really tight plantar fascia around the base of the heel.

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.

Laying this foundation of understanding of the root cause of our problems, and giving our body some credit where credit is due, is key to getting the most out of any mobility or stretching program. For more information, including routines for stretching and movement, check out my recent e-book, Breathe Better, Move Better here!

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About Joe

Joe DiStefano is an international speaker, fitness expert, entrepreneur and lifestyle coach. In his career, he has coached over 15,000 clients and athletes and has instructed over 100 workshops in nearly 20 countries around the globe. 

He is the former Head of Sport and Training at Spartan Race and is the Founder of RUNGA, an experiential lifestyle brand empowering individuals through highly effective and sustainable practices that fuel health, wellness and performance. He is also the host of STACKED with Joe DiStefano, a podcast that dives deep into a multitude of areas of nutrition, health, performance, and longevity.  

For more of Joe’s work, including all his latest podcasts, please visit www.coachjoedi.com.

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