The Importance of Mobility
Before you read this I want you all to know that I am not a professional physiotherapist and all information I write about is either based on my personal experience as a professional athlete through research in the relevant fields, and trial and error during a career spanning 18 years.
In rugby you are always going to have some sort of soreness due to the high levels of impact we take during each match, the weights training we do or from the many hours we are on our feet for field trainings. This is why it is so important to understand your body and how it reacts to different situations.
As a young player I never stretched or took the time to address any mobility and performance issues. I simply didn’t think I needed to do it because I never felt any pain or soreness. Well, that would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes I made during my professional career. Unfortunately, without the right sporting education and mentoring, it’s perhaps the same mistake many other young athletes make everyday. Being young and able to recover so fast, we never really think of the long term effects all the training and contact will have on our bodies until we get older and it catches up.
After so many years of neglect, I found that my body had become rigid, sore, and in pain. I had fallen into bad habits such as poor posture when running, poor technique when lifting heavy weights, poor hydration, poor prehab and rehab skills.
I know you must be thinking; how could I have not been in good physical shape with all the resources around me as a professional athlete and with some of the top trainers and medical staff in the code. Easy! As a young player, I never actually wanted to know how and why things worked or how my body reacted. I just did what I was told, without question. Sure, the trainers and physiotherapists’ work on you and your physical preparation but I never knew anything in depth about myself and the reasons why I was doing certain things. I was lazy in my approach to self-maintenance.
The information I needed was all around me but I never took the time to really delve into it. Nowadays it is different and as soon as I realized I was part of the problem, I saw that I could be part of the solution.
I began speaking to old trainers from some of the teams I had played for to get their advice. I also read a lot of books on how to prepare my body and it was then I came across two books called “Becoming a Supple Leopard” and “Ready to Run”. Kelly Starrett, a Doctor of Physiotherapy and one of the world’s leaders in human movement wrote both books.
The main area that was bothering me was my speed. In recent years I had lost a lot of my explosive speed over 40m, which in rugby is so important as the game is played over a 10-30m threshold. Very rarely do rugby players make huge line-breaks over this distance. Agility and explosive power is what we are known for.
Some of the issues I realized that were hindering my performance was found out through a number of the 12 standard tests Dr Starrett asks you to perform. It turns out that I had Position Problems, range of motion problems along with Performance Problems. So what does that mean in the bigger scheme of things? I had mechanical issues, a bad one to say the least. I wasn't able to get into a correct squatting position, which meant that I wasn't using my posterior chain to access the power I needed. My hip function was terrible, as I couldn't even stay in a “sitting squat” position for more than 30secs. How bad is that for a professional athlete!
What did I do to fix these issues? I knew I had to work hard at my mobility and so that meant getting into a routine and maintaining good habits. This meant getting to training an hour early and going through my mobility/stretching routine. I also did this for my warm downs after training sessions.
I realized that good habits were so important to keep up my flexibility and to keep me in a constant state of readiness to perform well. Now a days I have 3 main exercises I habitually do before and after training.
1: Sitting Squat
Build up to 4 - 5 mins in 30secs - 1 min increments, to improve and open up hip and ankle function. Why is it important to squat well and squat properly? According to Dr Starret being able to squat well is the foundation of good movement patterns that enable you to access that all-important power center, the posterior chain and prevent injury. Having glutes that are working properly means you can have better knee drive, hip drive, and the correct mechanical function that all good runners have. It allows your body to move by using the correct muscles for that particular movement, and prevents other muscles taking on the additional load that is created when your muscles aren’t firing properly. The images show the proper way you should achieve this standard.
*Note: You can use a resistance band attached to an anchor point if you find it difficult to stay down in this position.
2: The “Couch Stretch” or Banded Hip Flexor stretch
I do for 2-3 mins each leg. This is another great stretch that elongates the Hip Flexor and frees up the front of the hip ball and socket joint. It’s important to not over extend your lower back in a forward position, but to maintain your pelvis in a neutral position keeping your core engaged and spine straight.
*Note: Use the resistance band to distract the hip joint anteriorly, so that is repositions centrally in the socket.
3: Banded “Glute and Hip Distraction”
Your glutes are one of the largest muscles in your body and rightly so because it's the main muscle that drives you forward as you walk and most importantly run. If this muscle isn’t firing properly you can say goodbye to your speed and explosive power. Have you ever had that feeling when you’re running or even jogging, like you’re almost popping up off the ground each step you take? Well that's because your glutes are engaging each time your foot hits the ground. If they’re tight and sore because you haven’t freed them up or completed your mobility routine, they’re not going to want to work for you. Your other muscles like the hip flexors, lower back and hamstrings will end up taking on the work load that the glutes should be doing, which in turn leads to over use injuries and other over compensation/movement problems.
*Note: Use the resistance band to distract the hip to realign the head of the femur into the centre of the joint.
Henari Veratau is a professional rugby player currently playing for London Scottish in the English Championship. He has previously played for the Sydney Roosters, Queensland Reds and ACT Brumbies. Henari has won both a NRL and Super Rugby title in an illustrious career spanning 18 professional years.