Flexibility, mobility drive results for top athletes



If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to be an Olympic rower, try keeping up with Conlin McCabe on your gym’s Concept2 rowing machine. The pride of Brockville, Ont., holds the Canadian record for covering 2,000 metres on the Concept2, with his top time of 5:39.4. That’s 1:24.8 per 500-metre interval.

It’ll only take you a few strokes on the machine for you to appreciate McCabe’s strength and endurance — both mental and physical — but it might surprise you to learn that flexibility is just as essential to his Olympic aspirations. The wider his range of motion in the rowing shell, the more power he will be able to generate.

Get mobile

Physical therapists refer to a balance of strength, flexibility and coordination as “functional flexibility” or “mobility.” It’s just as important to the health and well-being of every Canadian, as it is to McCabe’s Olympic dreams. This became a key aspect of McCabe’s training after switching coaches, and rowing styles, in 2013. He’s currently training for the Rio Olympics under coach Martin McElroy, whose style of stroke favours a longer reach forward at the front-end than that of Mike Spracklen, who coached a longer layback at the back end of the stroke.

Spracklen coached McCabe to a silver medal in the men’s eights at the 2012 Games in London.

“I am tall, very strong and have a great aerobic capacity,” said the six-foot-nine-inch McCabe, who is competing in the coxless fours (#TrueNorth4) with fellow Ontarians Tim Schrijver and Will Crothers, as well as Kai Langerfeld of Parksville, B.C. “I am able to row as long as I need to, but not as comfortably as I would like.”

Mobility fuels power, prevents injury and pain

Sarah Black, lead therapist at Rowing Canada’s National Training Centre in Victoria, has been working with McCabe to gain more mobility through the ankles and hips. “His lack of mobility prevented him from achieving the technical changes required for the McElroy stroke,” she explained, adding that his newfound mobility “allows him to access more of his phenomenal physiology and power to be efficient and effective on the water.”

Black’s athletes do a dynamic warm-up before every training session to prevent injury and increase mobility. Mobile joints increase long-term performance and decrease injuries. When you stay healthy, there are big results. A recent Australian study shows a sevenfold increase in performance when athletes avoided training injuries.

After six months of focusing on increasing his mobility, McCabe is sold on this approach. “It’s exciting to have something new to work on where I can see some progress,” he said.

Joint maintenance benefits everyone, Black said, not just elite athletes. “Healthy, mobile joints are key to decreasing the severity of acute injuries such as sprains and strains, but also have a huge impact on chronic conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis and degenerative disc disease,” she added.

Sarah Black’s three tips to be stronger and more flexible

1. Hold your stretches longer: You may feel good for a few hours after holding a stretch for 30 seconds, but if you want long-term changes to stick, the tissue needs time to adapt to the input of the stretch. Two-minute holds are the minimum we use.

2. Strengthen your new range: Passive stretching is useless for most activities if you don’t strengthen your new-found range. Concentrate on activating your range of motion safely in the gym, with a partner if needed, before you try it at home.

3. Make stretching part of your daily routine: Stretch in your warm-up, cool down, between sets, or your lunch break. Ideally, you have dedicated sessions to target mobility, but that can be a pretty lofty goal if you haven’t been doing anything to this point.

On that note, here are four simple stretches from the Don’t Change Much website that will help you avoid pain, make your body more resistant to injury, and keep you nimble.

What do you do to increase your functional flexibility and mobility? Send Adam Kreek a message on Twitter @adamkreek. You can also find more tips to improve your body on the Don’t Change Much website.


This article is also available through CBC Sports.