• Josh Fields

6 Mobility Techniques to Help You Recover

Updated: Mar 6

If you have soreness, tightness or minor injuries, you may benefit from one or more of these techniques. This is a basic overview of some of six treatment modalities that are generally conservative, safe and easy to do on yourself.

If you've ever been to a physical therapist, you may have experienced some of these techniques.

All of the techniques below have resources that are widely available, and I encourage you to read more or ask a qualified health professional for advice if you have questions.


This article does not constitute medical advice. It is provided for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider if you have questions.


Stretching

Stretching is probably the most frequently used form of mobility work. The one most people know about is called static stretching. Think the traditional: grab your ankle to stretch your quad, reach down and touch your toes, etc. You're going to end range of motion, and staying there to force the muscle to lengthen.


The problem with static stretching is that it can actually inhibit performance. A lot of efficiency comes from the 'springiness' of muscles. If the muscles lose some of their 'spring,' you now have to exert extra energy to overcome that.


That said, if you have muscle imbalance, especially between your left and right, static stretching may be helpful to improve end range of motion.


However, there are two better ways to stretch a muscle that is tighter/shorter than it should be. Remember, if you don't have muscles that are functionally short and causing problems with imbalances, either bilaterally, or between opposing muscles, you shouldn't be using these techniques. Jump down to the other techniques for reducing soreness without lengthening the muscles!


End-Range Isometrics

Get the muscle into the end of it's range of motion, then contract the muscle and hold. After 5 seconds, (make sure to breathe!), relax the muscle and let yourself sink just slightly further. This technique helps you access and actually utilize your full range of motion, rather than just hanging there in a static position. You can see some basics from Dr. Kelley Starrett (of Mobility WOD and The Ready State) here.


Active-Isolated Flexibility

Pioneered by Phil Wharton, this technique involves contracting the opposing muscle group to relax and stretch the affected muscle. Since all muscles work in opposition, not isolation, this technique can be helpful not only for improving static range of motion, but active range of motion. For example to stretch your hamstrings, you would contract your quad. You can see an example here, but I'd also recommend Wharton's video package or DVD, available here.


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


General Foam Rolling

This one's easy! In general, I consider the term 'foam rolling' to include general foam rolling of large areas of muscle with a goal of reducing soreness. If you have sore spots or trigger points, or smaller muscles that need work, jump down to the other sections which are more applicable!


For foam rolling, all you need is... a foam roller. That sounds simple, right? Not. You have dozens of choices just among a handful of major brands. Throw in one-off products from Amazon (which can certainly be good), and you've likely got hundreds of possibilities. Realistically all of them function pretty similarly when used for general foam rolling. The difference will be that some of them are designed to be used with multiple treatment modalities other than just pressing into your muscles.


In general, I would steer away from the foam rollers that are just a cylinder of solid foam. They will compress pretty quickly, and are generally too soft to be much help. Choose a roller that is pretty firm, preferably with either a solid plastic/metal or hollow plastic core. You can always choose to apply less pressure with a firm foam roller, but it's difficult to add more with a soft one. Here's a basic rundown of options I've seen.


Grid Style

The Trigger Point brand Orange Grid roller is nearly ubiquitous among athletes, and for good reason. It's a great starter roller that has a few different patterns on the surface for slightly different effect. I don't think the patterns do all that much, as it's very shallow, but it's still a great roller for general use.


Rumble Style

This is an aggressive foam roller! Designed with multiple large bumps, spaced fairly widely, this can really be useful when your muscles aren't responding as much to the wide surface of a general foam roller. As you roll, the bumps push and stretch your muscles, fascia and skin parallel to your skin, not just pressing down into your muscles. This can be helpful, but definitely uncomfortable at first. You can also sometimes isolate a trigger point on one of the knobs using the technique below.


Contoured Style

This is a broad category including all sorts of shaped rollers that are designed to roll many different areas of your body. Most include a spine channel to roll the muscles on either side of your spine, but many have a lot of other design features built in. You could go crazy trying and buying tons of these, but a lot are going to work pretty similarly.


Vibrating Style

There are quite a few of these on the market now. I don't think they offer much extra benefits, because they are treating too large an area of muscle at once for the vibration to have an effect. You can see here on my Recovery Product Rundown that I do think vibrating balls can be helpful, and that's because the treatment area is far smaller. That said, if you don't already own a foam roller, and have the extra cash, they do feel good! A contoured vibrating foam roller might be helpful for your back, but I haven't seen one yet.


How to Use

Just roll! Start with fast and light strokes over the entire muscle, at different angles. Then slow down a bit and add a bit more pressure. You can also experiment with moving the joint below the area you're rolling through it's range of motion, in order to get the muscle into different positions and states of contraction. Stay away from bones! I like to start with my feet, then move up through my lower legs and quads into my hips and glutes. In general I personally don't get much effect from foam rolling my hamstrings, so I use other tools. If you need to foam roll your hamstrings, you can sometimes do it by using the roller on the edge of a coffee table or some other elevated surface, in order to let your knee bend and relax the hamstring.


In general your body will tell you what it needs. If you are not sore at all while rolling, you're probably wasting your time, so give that muscle a once-over and move on. Foam rolling is usually a 'hurts-so-good' situation.


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


Trigger Point Release

Now we're zooming into work that's really helpful on small spots. Trigger points are essentially a small spot of very tight or involuntarily-contracting muscle fiber. In many cases these can manifest in referred pain to other areas of your body, so they can sometimes be tough to pin down. If you find you suffer from trigger points frequently, The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook may be a good investment! It can help you map your referred pain with the trigger point cause, and then help you release that.


Trigger Point Hold

First, when you find a trigger point, stop moving! Try and pay attention to precisely where the trigger point is, and how deep in the muscle. With your foam roller, ball or even your fist/fingers, apply fairly firm pressure to the trigger point. Concentrate on fully relaxing the muscle. If you need to, use a contract-relax technique to encourage the muscle to fully relax. To do that, contract the muscle, without moving it, hold for a few seconds, then relax and really try to let yourself sink into the pressure. Often trigger points are deep in the muscle, and it can reactively tighten to try and protect painful spots! Once you're sure you're on it (you'll know), stay there until you feel the muscle release (up to 30 seconds). Don't stay on it too long, or use pressure that's too hard, as that can actually cause the opposite effect. Afterward, lightly massage the area with the trigger point, and then give the muscle time to recover. Start with just 1-2 times per day to allow the muscle to recover and rehydrate, unless otherwise directed by a professional. If it doesn't respond to this, active release may be required, so read on!


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


Active Release

Active Release should be self-explanatory – you're actively moving the affected area to release the muscle. That said, there are two ways to do this. I don't have enough experience to tell you one is better than the other, but both can definitely be useful.


Self-Activated Release

This is truly active because YOU are contracting and moving the muscle. Hold the trigger point or sore area, as above, and then move that joint through its range of motion. So if you have pain in your lower leg, you'll rotate and flex your ankle while applying significant pressure to the trigger point or area of soreness. If it's in your quad/hamstring, you'll most likely be moving your knee. If it's in your glute, your hip. Again, pain may be referred from a trigger point in a different location, but you get the idea. Basically, whatever motion makes the muscle move slightly underneath your pressure is what you want. Like a Trigger Point Hold, give it 30 seconds of movement, and then allow the muscle to rest and respond.


Therapist-Assisted Release

This is more passive, but it's still movement-based. It's a similar idea as above, except this time a therapist (or friend/partner) is doing the movement for you, while you focus on relaxing completely. So for a trigger point or sore spot in the quad, they will move your knee and perhaps hip through it's range while applying pressure to the trigger point or sore spot.


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


IASTM

Short for Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization, you might have also heard it called Graston or Gua Sha. IASTM treatment encourages fibroblast production, increased vascular response and collagen remodeling. It can be especially helpful for tendons and small muscles. There are lots of different tools you can buy for this, but you may not need to spend any money right away. Essentially you're looking something that's smooth and fairly thin but slightly rounded. A good quality spoon might even be rounded enough to get started.


If you want to buy something, you can find tools for anywhere between $15 and $200. Yes, you read that right. Is there a difference? Not a whole lot, at least in the $30 - $150 range. I personally use one by this brand, which offers a wide variety of models. The price is a bit higher than some of the cheapest options, but they're well-designed, the edges are contoured a little differently on each side, and they are well-polished.


How to Treat Yourself

Essentially you're scraping the tool over your muscles. Generally you should start in the longitudinal direction, especially with tendons, and only applying pressure in one direction, with less pressure on the return stroke. Start with very little pressure. You can add a little lotion, recovery balm, or even coconut or olive oil to smooth things out a bit. Keep the treatment area relaxed and loose.


One thing you're searching for a texture that feels "gritty." Sometimes you can even hear the texture change. When you get to that point, I like to work quickly with very little pressure at first to warm up the area. Gradually I'll increase the pressure and slow down the pace. That grit you feel is what you're trying to get rid of, but you may also find some sore spots/trigger points. You can try cross friction as well, with other stroke ideas at the link below.


Treat for 3-5 minutes, about 30 sec at a time of deeper pressure. As with these other techniques, you want a dose of treatment, and then time for the area to respond. The tissue should turn a gentle red after treatment, but you should not see any capillary damage, which can lead to bruising. If you bruise afterward, you used too much pressure! You can see some more ideas here.


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


Compression

Compression is probably the most widely-used recovery technique. If you read my article on the R.I.C.E. protocol, you hopefully remember that I said compression wasn't helpful. That refers to compressing a tissue or joint, and leaving it there for an extended period of time. What can be helpful is compression for a short period of time, followed by time without compression, ideally with movement. You're encouraging drainage, followed by encouraging the blood to renew the tissues. There are several ways you can do this.


Compression Wear

This includes compression socks, leg sleeves, tights, etc. Put on your compression gear after exercise, wear it for 20-40 minutes (take a post-run nap!) and then take it off and walk around.


Voodoo Floss Band

This is a big band that you wrap tightly around an affected tissue. You leave it on for 2 minutes, then remove to allow the tissues to flood with fresh blood. I recommend the CTM Band as it's multipurpose, and you can check out The Ready State (formerly Mobility WOD) for more details about how to use it.


Air Compression

These are the fancy inflatable leg sleeves. You can read more about options in this post. Most brands default to a 15-20 minute treatment, which is just about perfect. Afterward, be sure to get up and move around to allow all the fresh blood to get back in!


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


Percussion Massage

This requires a more expensive tool, so I put it at the bottom. You can read more about the different tools available in this post. They're pretty easy to use, just allow the tool to do the work and don't press too hard. Treat the affected area for two minutes or so, and then let it recover. You can use the tool for longer if you are treating large areas, but don't stay on any one spot for more than a few minutes. Dose and response!


Afterward, follow the After Treatment section at the bottom.


Overall Takeaways

These treatment modalities have a lot in common. You're encouraging the muscle to 'reset' itself to it's healthy state, usually through some introduction of force. Most of these modalities are causing microtrauma, which causes the body to flood the area with more nutrients and encourage better healing.


As a general rule, you should focus 2-5 minutes on one area, depending on the treatment. Then let it respond. If you have more than one area, you may be spending more time. Give it time in between sessions, with the exception of Stretching, which should be done multiple times per day to encourage the muscle to lengthen. Breathing is essential! If it hurts too much to breathe, back off a bit.


After Treatment

If you read my article on the R.I.C.E. protocol, you know that active recovery is one of the big keys. So the biggest helpful thing you can do is start using the muscle gently. Go for a walk, an easy bike spin, or even just contract it repeatedly while lying on the couch. You could also use a muscle stimulator.


You should also hydrate a bit extra, and add some salt to the water for better hydration. You want to rehydrate those tissues, since most of these techniques caused some microtrauma.


Now, eat a good meal, and get a good nights sleep. Repeat the next day if necessary, mixing up techniques if desired, and you'll hopefully be able to improve a lot of small issues you might be having.


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