4 Unique Mobility Exercises to Prevent Running Injuries

Discover How to Prevent the Most Common Injuries in Runners

By Coach E

unique mobility exercises to prevent common running injuries

Running injuries are, sadly, a common occurrence.

Yale Medicine [1] stated that “at least 50 percent of regular runners get hurt each year—some estimates put the percentage even higher—sometimes from trauma, such as a fall, but more often from overuse.”

Well that’s just no good! As if running wasn’t hard enough, now you’ve got to worry about injuries, too?

woman running

You might be thinking, “If I run properly—with the right technique, posture, and gait—that will drastically reduce my risk of injuries, right?”

To that, I say “yes and no”.

Let me explain…

Proper running form and gait is the first thing to master in your run training, but it will only work so well if there are underlying imbalances, dysfunctions, or immobility in your joints and muscles.

This is the real key. By correcting problems in your musculoskeletal system, you improve your ability to run properly and injury-free (not to mention – faster).

We’re going to look at the most common running injuries, examine what causes them, and last but definitely not least, give you four of my best mobility exercises for runners to reduce your chances of missing time due to injury.

The 5 Most Common Running Injuries

A study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine showed the following as the most frequent injuries in runners (in order from more to less frequent) [2]:

  1. Patellofemoral pain syndrome a blanket term to describe pain around the kneecap. It’s a common diagnosis that doesn’t give any more info than just calling it “knee pain”. PFPS is commonly associated with problems at the ankle and feet, which we’ll discuss more about in a moment.
  2. Achilles tendinopathy – this is pain in your Achilles tendon, which runs from the calf muscles to the heel. Again, most treatment focuses on stretching or strengthening the calves but achilles tendon problems have the foot muscle dysfunction or ankle ROM deficiency as the more common root causes, both of which we’ll address in exercises here.
  3. Medial tibial stress syndrome aka ‘shin splints’ – This is pain in your shins. It’s very common for new runners, but can become chronic. Again, it’s commonly associated with foot/ankle dysfunctions or limitations, making simple stretches or icing a band-aid solution.
  4. Plantar fasciitis – pain in the bottom of your foot in a band of connective tissue called the plantar fascia, which runs from the heel to the metatarsals (start of the toes). The plantar fascia helps support the arch to absorb force. Know what else supports the arch? The intrinsic muscles at the bottom of the feet. So if they’re not working, well… we’ll discuss this in a sec.
  5. ITB syndrome – describes pain in the iliotibial band where it inserts at the knee. With ITB syndrome, lower body alignment and hip muscle dysfunction, specifically of the hip flexors/tensor fasciae latae are common root causes.

These 5 injuries accounted for 48% out of the 3,580 injuries reported in the study.

© Journal of Sports Science and Medicine

What makes these injuries more common, even among people who run regularly and probably have really good form [3]?

Well, think about it: in a 30-minute, 5KM run, you take around 4,500 steps. That’s a lot of repetition of the same motion in your feet, ankles, knees, and hips.

Plus, most subjects included in the study were adult recreational runners, making the chances of a muscular imbalance, movement dysfunction or lack of range of motion high.

With any of these issues, compensations occur, which result in certain tissues being overloaded and eventually breaking down resulting in pain and injury.

certain tissues being overloaded and eventually breaking down resulting in pain and injury

The body is a marvelous organism and can compensate in many different ways when a muscle is inhibited or too weak to do its job, a certain range is lacking or some other dysfunction is present, so we’re not going to go through all of the permutations of compensations that could occur here.

If you’d like to see some examples, check out this video presentation that outlines how flat feet can cause 3 different problems that runners often experience.

While other causes exist such as incorrect or worn out shoes, it’s the internal issues – problems with movement and/or activation patterns – that are more often the root cause.

That’s what makes the following exercises so important for runners!

A lot of runners pay close attention to their lower body strength and endurance, or focus on their cardiovascular endurance so they can run longer and push harder.

But what’s the point of running longer or pushing harder if doing so increases your injury risk because you’re running on imbalances or dysfunctions?

That’s why proper movement and mobility is JUST as important as strength and endurance. In fact, I’d argue it’s more important because without it, you’ll run into injuries that will reverse the gains you make in other areas since you’ll be forced to sit on the sidelines.

The 4 Best Mobility Exercises for Runners

These 4 exercises will improve muscle activation, movement patterns and range of motion in the areas critical to running injury-free: your feet, ankles, knees, hips and core.

Perform these exercises at least a couple times a week for 2 weeks and I bet you’ll end up sticking with them for much longer than that as you’ll feel better when you run and in between.

1. Big Toe Dissociation

We’re going to start this routine from the ground up with your poor little feet that are stuffed in shoes and absorb 3+ times your bodyweight with every step.

The muscles in our feet do a lot when we run – they propel you forward and absorb forces on every step.

But if these muscles aren’t strong or functional, they can’t do these things and you’ll run slower and more force will have to be absorbed up the chain at the ankle, knee, hip or lumbar spine!

This exercise also trains extension of the big toe. If your big toe lacks extension, this movement has to come from somewhere and this can be a cause of overpronation.

Mobility Exercises for Running Injuries - Big Toe Dissociation

  • Start with your feet spread shoulder width apart, your stance relaxed and natural.
  • Lift your right big toe up, but keep the other four toes firmly planted on the floor.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds.
  • Lower your big toe and lift your other four toes without letting your big toe leave the ground.
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds, pressing your big toe down into the ground. You should feel the pressure not just in the toe, but also the pad of your foot (the metatarsals).
  • Perform 1 set of 3-5 cycles per foot.

2. Banded Dorsiflexion Mobilization

This is one of my all-time favorite exercises to improve ankle dorsiflexion, which is absolutely critical for proper running form and running freely and without pain.

I did a deep-dive article into the importance of Ankle Dorsiflexion, which you can see here.

But for the TL;DR version, basically proper ankle dorsiflexion (the movement of pulling your toes up toward your knees) is critical for better running, skating and anything that requires you to move on your feet [4] because if your ankles lack dorsiflexion, the foot can turn outward or inward or the knees will compensate, putting more strain on your feet, ankles and knees.

Remember that the most common site of running injuries is the knees so whatever we can do to keep them healthy must be a priority and improving ankle dorsiflexion is at the top of the list.

Mobility Exercises for Running Injuries - Banded Dorsiflexion Mobilization

  • Wrap a resistance band around a solid pole (workout bench leg, table leg, etc.).
  • Step your right foot into the band so the strap tightens across the front of your ankle.
  • Step your left foot onto the band and then step back creating tension. This will pull the band slightly downward, improving ankle bone alignment.
  • Pushing through the bones right under your toes (metatarsal pressure), drive your right knee forward as far as possible with knee aligned and heel firmly planted.
  • Hold for 5 seconds, then push back with your right foot to actively come out of the range.
  • Repeat for 1-2 sets x 10 reps per.

3. Hinged Knee Flexion-Extension

This exercise is one EVERY one with a body should do.

Why?

  1. It lengthens your hamstrings
  2. It fires up the quadriceps, particularly the VMO, which is often sleepy and can result in knee pain
  3. It trains terminal knee extension, which is often neglected and can result in knee issues
  4. BONUS: It mobilizes the sacroiliac (SI) joint

mobility for runners - Hinged Knee Flexion-Extension

To perform this exercise:

  • Plant your feet shoulder width apart, with your knees slightly bent.
  • Keep your spine neutral and hinge forward at the hips, bending until you feel your hamstrings pull tight.
  • Holding the bent position, extend your right knee to straighten the leg. Feel your quads firing and your hamstrings pulling slightly as you extend the leg.
  • Hold for a 1-count, then bring your right leg back to its starting position.
  • Repeat with the left leg.
  • Hinge up to a straight standing position, making sure to move slowly.
  • Repeat for 2 sets of 3-5 cycles.

4. Standing Dead Bug

This dead bug is a popular core exercise that’s performed lying on your back. In this version, you’ll be doing it standing and this has particular benefits for runners as it trains the diagonal muscle activation pattern from hips to core that is important for efficient running form.

It also activates the iliopsoas, which is often sleepy (especially in those who sit a lot), which once activated and strong can relieve tensor fasciae latae and/or rectus femoris tension or pain.

Plus, because this exercise requires single-leg balance, you’ll strengthen all of the stabilizing muscles from feet to hips.

mobility exercises for running injuries - standing dead bug

  • Stand with your feet together, posture erect, comfortable stance
  • Bring your right knee up to hip height directly out in front of you, and lower your left hand to your kneecap.
  • Use your hand to press down gently on your knee, and use your leg to push your knee up against your hand.
  • Push for a 2-count.
  • Return to starting position, and switch sides—left knee to right hand.
  • Repeat for 2 sets x 3-5 times per side, for 3 sets

Exercises

Sets / Reps / Hold Time

1. Big Toe Dissociation

1 set x 3-5 cycles per – 5 sec hold

2. Banded Dorsiflexion Mobilization

1-2 sets x 10 per – 5 sec hold

3. Hinged Knee Flexion-Extension

2 sets x 3-5cycles per

4. Standing Dead Bug

2 sets x 3-5 cycles per - 2 sec hold

Perform this routine 2-3 times per week for 4-6 weeks or longer if you find it’s very helpful for you.

Like I said before, commit to just 2 weeks and by then you’ll be feeling benefits and will want to continue. Stick with it for the prescribed time and you’ll reduce your risk of injury and enjoy smoother and more efficient running.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.

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