Functional Assessment and Mobilisation for Cycling and Endurance Sports
All human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves.
-Kelly Starrett, [amazon text=Ready to Run&asin=1628600098]
Sport and life for that matter do not end in absolutes such as the number of hours put in towards a goal. While focus is important, an often elusive term thrown around – specificity – comes to mind. Though in its essence the only true question any of us should be asking at any time should be:
How prepared are you for the demands of life, training and/or competition?
If you are the best in the world – yes you are great that day, that moment, that season or even for the length that your achievements stay in the record books, long after you stepped down form the awards podium. HOWEVER, you, your body and the way you move is something you have to deal with for your WHOLE life, each second of every day. Yet most of us forget (and I have been there myself…) that we have to be a functional human first – before we start considering a performance based paradigm.
Without a functional foundation, you are limiting performance and setting yourself for injury. In a world revolving around hacks, quick fixes and wonder supplements it is easy to waste and spend the most precious commodity – time as well as money – by going down the wrong path, or just keep doing more of the same to only to come back to disappointment. Therefore in this article, I plan to give you the tools to assess and address any ‘cracks’ and missing parts in the foundations that all activities and sports rely on – being a fully functional human. Most importantly you will have the knowledge to be your own physical therapist. Whether you are a professional athlete, amateur or a coach, this article is for you. This articles gives you a flashlight to highlight any fundamental shortcoming – Phase 1. The subsequent posts in the functional series will give you the tools to fix what you exposed.
Nobody wants to be injured or be in physical pain, lose training time and overall enjoyment from life; as athletes or coaches we further want to achieve what the the great masters of sports do – to make all movement look effortlessly easy on the way to great victories. While fitness and speed are usually used to describe what is it that all great champions have, it misses the most important aspect – functional – having a mastery of the human body and performing all movements, even under stress and fatigue in the most efficient way mother nature intended us to. A quick reminder is that being functional relies on 2 aspects.
- Motor pattern – kinetic chain – your brain sending the right signals to the correct muscles; doing the right motions in the correct sequence.
- Structure – muscles/joints/tissues
It is not a case of either one or the other – both combine to form functional stability and mobility. By testing simple movements without any load, stress or fatigue, it is easy to get a clear picture of the basic control you have of your body. All of the exercises below represent normal human movements and ranges of motion, yet do not be surprised that you, like many elite athletes struggle with the tests here. We are all very skilful at hiding dysfunctions through high-level compensation; the human body will go around a tight or weak joint/muscle group and use alternative (inefficient/damaging) movement patterns. Whether it is a popular case of ‘skipping or never been properly shown the basics’ or ‘rushing into it/jumping straight into the deep end,’ it does not mean you will not do well in your chosen activity, it means that you will be able to do better, quite often with less effort.
Almost everybody is willing to go harder, do more and try that new training plan, purchase more gadgets, eat less junk food and in rare cases even doping in order to reach new heights, yet being functional is generally being ignored and forgotten. Therefore including functional training as part of your workout routine would open tremendous potential for improvement and most importantly minimize the risk of overuse injuries – you can’t build a skyscraper on a weak foundation that can only support a mud hut. Proper movement is not a theory. While the ‘no pain, no gain’ and suffering at all times seem to be the norm, functional training represents the polar opposite. It’s easy and the benefits outweigh any number of intervals, hard training you can do. The fact that you are a runner cyclist, etc. shouldn’t mean that you can’t help your friends carry that couch up the stairs or do some yard work because you are afraid of throwing your back out or pulling a muscle somewhere.
As a final note before getting into the main part of the article, this is not a genitalia measuring contest – each one of us is unique also when it comes to disfunctions – therefore failing a functional test does not mean you will do poorly in racing or you are a bad person/athlete or you are better worse than your teammates/training partners – it represents an area for (significant) improvement; it means you never asked the right questions from your body so you never got the answers that would have told you that it wasn’t your constantly tight hamstring that was the problem but a weakness in your lower control zone (pelvis). Testing is training. Lastly, be critically honest about yourself.
The beauty of all the workouts here is that they are so simple that they make even small errors pop up, as well as each exercise is repeatable so that you can measure and directly see your improvement over time. Exercises to address disfunctions will appear in the next instalments of the functional series.
Therefore the functional assessment as described in this article will be divided into two sections.
Section 1: Assessing Your Basic Functionality (as described by [amazon text=Joanne Elphinston&asin=1905367422])
- Balance/central axis control.
- Functional mobility: mobility specific to the training and competitive demands of the sport.
- Function of the lower control zone: pelvic stability.
- Function of the central control zone: trunk stability.
- Function of the upper control zone: scapular stability.
This part is best done with a friend/training partner/significant other, someone that can watch you. Again I repeat, it is NOT a contest. There is a handy PDF for download that you can save/print that you can use for assessment. The exercises to address any shortcoming will appear in teh next instalments of the Functional Series
Section 2: Checking for lack of range of motion, restricted tissues, tight and imbalanced muscles etc. ([amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837] and [amazon text=Ready to Run&asin=1628600098])
Lack of proper motor control is only part of the story and not being able to get into some of the positions above means that you lack range of motion in tissues and joints. Stretching is NOT going to make it better, mobilisation will. How and why will feature in that section.
Section 1: Basic Functional Assessment
The human body and movement as a consequence cannot be viewed in isolation. It is not just a matter of the biceps contracting/triceps relaxing to flex the arm – there is wayyy more functional stuff happening. Therefore through the simple tests here you can see if some parts of the kinetic chain are not functioning properly and as such you are seeing compensation patterns that are inefficient and quite often damaging and the reason behind 98% of all injuries.
Unlike most other sports, here you are looking for the lowest possible result. Zero (0) points means you are functional in that area. Besides the basic balance, score the third attempt. Any mistake adds a point and a score above zero represents an area that needs addressing. The higher the scores, the higher priority issue it represents; anything above 3 means REALLY high priority issue that might be causing quite significant muscle imbalance (pain) and is for sure wrecking havoc on performance.
In addition, it is through our feet that we find our balance, it is how we evolved and it should be natural and easy. Therefore any ‘foot fixing,’ rigidity and over activity in that area is an automatic point. Similarly a good way to compensate for dysfunctions is to make a pain face, etc – any lip biting, face tensing, etc. is another automatic point no matter the exercises.
The diagrams here are for illustration, the PDF version of the test+a scoring sheet are available for download at the end of this article.
Preferably, do the tests barefoot or with thin socks
What to do when finished? Functional exercises are coming in the future instalments of the Functional Series.
While rarely an activity or sport relies on standing still, balance represents the communication between our feet and the brain as well as the control we have of the spine. The test is performed first with your eyes open and afterwards repeated with eyes closed. Why the eyes closed part? We achieve balance through three systems – vision, somatosensory (information from skin, joints, muscles, etc) and vestibular (in the inner ear). When you eliminate the vision it reveals how well the remaining two are functioning. While running/moving in in changing and/or low light conditions if you are unable to quickly and reliably find your balance you can twist your ankle, fall down etc. While it doesn’t relate directly to cycling, I remind you again that we are human first.
Eyes Open/Eyes Closed
Functional mobility represents relationships between body parts. You should be able to move one body part without influencing another, usually referred to as dissociation. Any shortcomings here point towards lack of body awareness, weak or inactive muscles group(s) and/or towards asymmetries between left and right sides of the body. The latter is particularly important in cycling where the pedaling action requires perfect symmetry and any deviation from that would be further compensated through dysfunctional patterns (more information here).
What’s being tested?
- Shoulder mobility
- Trunk control
Seated Hamstring Test
This test can be done with two chairs if you do not have a swiss ball. Be (safe and) creative.=)
What’s being tested?
- Lumbo-pelvic control
- Hamstring length
Body rotation is important during walking gait, it is the rotation of the pelvis that stores energy that is used in the next step, therefore any limits here would influence everyday life and/or running, etc. Weight should shift between both legs as you rotate.
Whats being tested?
- Available range of motion on both sides
- Weight shift between feet
Lower and Central Control Zone
Static Lunge/Split Squat
What’s being tested?
- Spine control
- Gluteal activation
- Hip mobility and leg control
Standing Knee Lift
What’s being tested?
- Spine control
- Lateral (side to side) pelvic stability
- Foot and hip connection
- Hip flexion
Upper Control Zone
What’s being tested?
- Ability to stabilize your scapula (generate torque with your shoulders)
- Upper and lower body coordination
The wall press represents a ‘no load’ pushup and examines:
Global Control – Superman
What’s being tested?
- Scapular stability
- Pelvic Stability
- Trunk control
This is an exercise to test how all three zones (shoulders/scapula+trunk+pelvis/hips) are coordinated globally
Section 2: Body Archetypes and Mobility
Some of the reasons for not obtaining a perfect score above is because you lack the range of motion to get into the positions – you have joint/tissue restrictions. Stretching is NOT going to fix that because it focuses on only one part of the system the muscles. Stretching lengthens a muscle, however, your brain doesn’t know what to do with it. The muscle had become tight because of a muscle imbalance due to a bad position – it molded itself to whatever you put it throughout the day. Therefore CORRECT position and application of it through movement (motor control) as described in the section above is paramount, afterwards you will need to address the structure – joint, fascia, muscles, etc. This section will show you how to do it.
Adopt a stance with the head erect, neither hanging down, nor looking up, nor twisted. Your forehead and the space between your eyes should not be wrinkled. Do not roll your eyes nor allow them to blink, but slightly narrow them. With your features composed, keep the line of your nose straight with a feeling of slightly flaring your nostrils. Hold the line of the rear of the neck straight: instill vigour into your hairline, and in the same way from the shoulders down through your entire body. Lower both shoulders and, without the buttocks jutting out, put strength into your legs from the knees to the tips of your toes. Brace your abdomen so that you do not bend at the hips.
-Musashi Miyamoto, [amazon text=The Book of the Five Rings&asin=1590309847]
Many years ago Musashi put into words what it takes to be in neutral spine position and what Kelly Starrett in his [amazon text=absolutely brilliant book&asin=1628600837] refers to as generating torque (for more information see the final sections here). In simple terms, you are activating the muscles that support the joints (taking up the slack within hip, shoulder capsules, etc). When you fail to do that you are hanging on by the tendons and ligaments and you create an instability. Our bodies are smarter than that and will resort to a bad position (knees turned in, collapsed arches), slouched shoulders, etc.
We generate torque in our hips and shoulders or the pelvic and shoulder girdles in order to bear weight and as a stable platform perform strong movement with the arms and legs. Therefore it is no wonder that it is those areas where a lot of the functional movement happens. The idea is that when doing complex movements/sports you mask (compensate/go around) problems with mobility. How can you see which parts are limiting you? Kelly Starrett in his amazing book [amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837] calls them archetypes that are based round the hips and shoulders
Archetypes represent optimal STABLE positions of the human body, that mimic everyday motions, therefore by using archtype positions you can highlight problems and most importatnly if you will know what a strong and stable position is and you can use that knowledge in everyday activities.
How does that refer to mobilisation?
First, not surprisingly the archetypes closely mimic the positions in Section 1 (lunge, wall press, etc).
Second, if even with proper technique if you are unable to get into these stable positions, it means your joints, fascia, muscles need work.
The reasons can be grouped in three categories:
If a joint is ‘tight’ muscles around it have become imbalanced. Therefore when you put a joint in good position the muscles and fascia around it would automatically improve. How did the joint get tight in the first place? When held in bad positions for prolonged periods of time, the body molds around that posture and the joint capsule gets adaptively tight – sitting with slouched shoulders is the perfect way for tight shoulder and hip capsules. You can mobilize the muscles around the joint and create slack, however, you are not dealing with the main culprit – the capsule. As you can imagine the capsule is very strong; it is a ligamentous sac that encloses the liquid (synovial fluid) and is the first thing that holds bones aligned. When you stretch the muscles around it it barely budges, while the muscles scream for mercy. By NOT addressing the joint capsules you are leaving a good deal of mobility and improvement untouched.
How to address it?
Gapping with a Band/Banded Floss
You need to create space within the joint. One way to do it is by using a flexible band such as an (old) bicycle tube and hold a static position as shown below. (you can tie the band to something stable such as the support of your stair railing)Works best for shoulders and hips. When restricted – hips get pulled to the back of the capsule while shoulders to the front -you distract/pull them to the center – in general, hips need to be pulled to the front, shoulders to the back. Physical therapists call it traction. Now you can do it yourself.
The banded flossing is an ideal way to mobilise the joint while going in and out a position/archetype. You are using the newly opened joint capsule in full range of motion. In the example above it means lunging.
Force and Rotate
You can force the joint to its original position by using a dumbell/kettlebell/band. I can personally attest that this one works pretty good with the kettlebell (it did seem kinda scary at first).
This one is only used for (creaky) knees and elbows ie. hinge joints. You put a towel or rolled up t-shirt in between the two levers and create a space to restore the range of motion.
Sliding Surface Dysfunction
Try squatting with skinny tight jeans. You can’t or at least only a little. For unrestricted movement your skin, fascia, tendons and ligaments must glide freely over each other. For example prolonged sitting makes your gluteus maximii (butt muscles) stick together and as such you can’t contract them fully (or at all) and as a result you can’t stabilise your pelvis and/or have to rely on your hamstrings as a hip extensor (tight hamstrings anyone? ). This is among the main reasons behind chronic low back pain, though I digress.
If you pinch your biceps whether it is relaxed or contracted it, there is no pain or weird tightness. That is how healthy tissue should feel like – supple and pain free.
How to address sliding surface dysfucntion?
In short: You have to use large shearing forces aka pressure or the way you use a rolling pin to flatten dough.
Smash (and Floss)
Best done with a tennis, lacrosse (large tennis) ball or The Sock! (two tennis balls in a sock tied at the end). You are pinpointing a tight area/spot. Take a deep breath and relax (as much as you can)for a deep tissue mobilisation.
Contract and Relax
Once you hit a tight spot with the smash, the initial (pain) reflex is to tighten even more. How do you counter that? You inhale and contract the tight muscle and than you exhale and relax so you sink even deeper in the tissue. It’s using your body’s natural neuromuscular abilities in order to mobilise a tight spot. Rinse and repeat a couple of times.
Global Shear/Pressure Wave
This is exactly the rolling pin and dough flattening idea. Best used on large muscles such as your trapezius, calves. You can use a broomstick, rolling pin, bottle, etc. Do it slow and steady.
Ever wondered what to do with that bike tube that is not good anymore? Cut the valve and ‘fillet” it longitudinally to create a Voodoo band. This is a high-powered shearing method that breaks up scar tissue and helps with mobilising a compromised joint. The idea is that you tightly roll the band around a problem area and perform the desired movement. For example you wrap it around your knee and squat. DO IT FOR NO MORE THAN 2 MINUTES! The massive shearing forces around the tissues will surely break up any scar tissue, free up the layers of fascia and after you remove the band the blood rushes back into the previously restricted body part and flushes everything out.
Also the commercially available voodoo band is exactly 28 inches (road tyre size) long – coincidence – I think not.=)
This is a way to get rid of joint swelling, though I personally have no experience in using it like that.
Muscle Dynamics and Imbalance
Lastly if you have addressed the joint and sliding tissue, you are left with the muscles. Tight or weak for variety of reasons you need to push them to end of their current range, relax and do it again. Unlike static stretching, you create a contraction, contractions are signals form the brain as such you are actively moving in and out of a position. Once you have increased range of joint motion, you have to learn to use it. Leg swings are one such example.
Everything listed above represents tools. Tools work best when used properly.
Here are some rules:
Rules of Mobilisation
- 90% of the stuff you can addrss yourself, the remainder might be serious stuff (stress fracture, torn ACL, bone cancer, etc.). Go get checked out by a trained professional first to rule out the 10%.
- Common sense: If it feels weird it is weird. Normal range of motion is called normal for a reason, don’t force anything.
- Some pain is, OK; burning nerve pain is your body yelling stop!
- Make it count; 10-15min a day means getting down to business and not lazily checking your phone while sitting on the roller; 2-3 exercises per day should be enough
- 2min per side.
- Consistency: try to find 10-15min every day (between commercials, etc.)
- Above and below: For example: If you are addressing a knee problem, mobilise your ankle and your hips. Remember that the site of pain/discomfort is rarely the cause.
- It is my experience that those are best performed AFTER training, before going to bed. They cause a massage like relaxation.
- Leave no area unexplored.
- Be creative, it’s a dynamic process. One week your trapezius might get tight, others might be your calves.
Putting it All Together
It’s important to take a whole body approach so you can enjoy pain and injury free life and athletic performance. As such taking a functional path to assess and evaluate how you move, should be part of EVERY training regimen. Especially if you are just getting into (serious) training. Pain and injuries are NOT a badge of honor or a sign you are working hard, they show that you are doing things wrong. You cannot wait for something to break down and pain to start screaming at you; be proactive – in a way preventative maintenance. Even when you are nursing a minor injury you need to know the true cause behind it, so it doesn’t become chronic and worsen over time. The most important part is that you have to make lifestyle changes first – (less sitting, more movement, neutral spine posture). The second is that you need to realize that functional movement is not an opinion, reserved for those with enough time on their hands. With this article I hope to have given you a further understanding and easily accessible tools that you can be your own best physiotherapist.
Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Functional Series.
Download link towards Functional Assessment: Basic_Functional_Assessement_TheTallCyclist
I welcome comments, however, before asking a question please visit the Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) page.
- Part 1: Fit, Fast, but Are You Functional?
- Part 2: An Apple and a Grapefruit – Functional Anatomy
- Part 3: Muscle Imbalances, Injuries – How, Why and What to do About it
- Part 4: The Amazing Foot
- Part 5: Mobilis in Mobilis – Taking care of the structure: Mobilizations
- Part 6: Strength Training Routine
This article is crystallisation of some great work by amazing people – check it out!
[amazon text=Becoming a Supple Leopard&asin=1628600837] – Kelly Starrett
[amazon text=Ready to Run&asin=1628600098] – Kelly Starrett and TJ Murphy
[amazon text=Stability, Sport and Performance Movement&asin=1905367422] – Joanne Elphinston
This article is for my personal use and educational purposes only, please always consult a licensed health professional. I cannot be held responsible for any damages caused by the information contained in this article.
- Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons
- Voodoo Floss: Link