The Importance of Joint Mobility and Stability in Sailing Athletes [22]

Feature photo credit goes to my good friends and training partners Carl and Otto from Sweden in the Olympic 49er class.  

My aim for the Sailing Performance Training platform is to provide ongoing education to the sailing community of higher order movement, nutrition, and mindset principles that enhance performance in our sport. Thus, in this blog post I thought I would dig a bit deeper to help our community create an understanding and awareness to what is joint mobility and how stability within that joint allows for better movement mechanics, decreased risk of injury, and increase performance.

I have had many sailing athletes come to me with prior injuries and/or joint pain that have led them to many movement compensations and asymmetries prior to them seeking my coaching. One of the first parts of becoming an OPEX Athlete is to go through a comprehensive movement assessment, where I see how you move and identify any asymmetries that may be limiting your performance.

Shoulder pain

A joint, by definition, is a connection location, or joining of two bones (simple joint) or three or more bones (compound joint), by soft tissue which in turn determines the structural classification of that joint. With consideration of the physiology of a joint, it must be mobile. The function of the joint is to allow movement and the skeletal musculature creates movement at the joint which it crosses, whereas the ligaments and joint capsules limit movement. Every joint of the skeletal system maintains a reciprocal relationship between mobility and stability, since stability of the joint, is just as important in order to maintain structural integrity.

The relationship between joint mobility and joint stability are completely connected concepts that coexist in relation to one another. The relationship between the two can be summed up in this statement: the greater the mobility, the less stable the joint; and the greater the stability, less mobility can occur at that joint. When a joint is capable of greater mobility, the risk of injury is also greater since stability is compromised. On the other hand, when stability is greater, the risk of injury is minimized, but the joint has potentially less range of motion (ROM) and thus has compensatory effects to upstream or downstream body parts in some positions.

What I find with majority of sailing athletes is that they have a lack of stability with many key joints (ankles, hips, shoulders), which have large compensatory effects on other body parts (knees, low-back, neck, elbows, and wrists). So when athletes first come to me with pain in their elbows or knees, I first assess the mobility and stability of their key joints that could be the leading cause of that pain. You can see how this is very different from just treating pain, its solving and removing the underlying cause of said pain.

There are three aspects that determine the mobility and stability of a joint. The joint of interest can be examined based on the following three factors in order to determine what its potential mobility and stability is considered acceptable. Each joint in the body also offers varying degrees of mobility and stability based on the following three determinants:

1. The joint capsule complex (ligaments): The ligaments of the joint offers further stability to a joint and reduces the available ROM. In the example of the shoulder compared to the hip joint (both of which are ball-and-socket joints), the ligaments and joint capsule complex of the shoulder are more relaxed than those of the hip joint. As a result, the shoulder is capable of increased ROM in various planes of motion, while the hip joint is incapable of achieving the same mobility, though it does benefit from greater stability due to stronger ligaments.

2. The shape of the bones: The shapes of the bones of the joint determine joint mobility and stability. In the example above, between the shoulder and the hip joint, the stability of the shoulder joint is much less than the hip, however, the mobility of the shoulder is much greater. This is because the shallow socket of the shoulder scapula provides much less stability than the deep socket in the pelvic bone.

3. The musculature: The musculature of the joint affect mobility and stability of a joint in that the stronger and more massive the musculature that crosses a joint will have a greater ability at creating stability to that joint. In the example of the shoulder versus the hip joint, the hip joint has greater masses of musculature that cross it than does the shoulder joint. The hip joint is provided with greater stability through its musculature than the shoulder joint, but the hip joint then offers lesser mobility in comparison to the shoulder.

These three aspects each play an integral role in creating the mobility and stability of certain joints. The joints with the greater mobility tend to have an increased risk and frequency of injury. The joints with greater stability tend to have a decreased risk and frequency of injury.

Joints have a proper position by which the joint is considered to be the most stable and that is its “closed-packed position”. In the closed-packed position, the parts of the joint articulation are in a position of best fit and congruence, and the ligaments are the most taunt. It is often the case with years of improper training and compromising positions within the sport of sailing that our joints are forced into “open-packed positions”. In the “open-packed position”, the joint is at higher risk of injury due to reduced stability and the congruence of the parts of the joint are less favorable for stability and the ligaments are more relaxed. In these cases we see isolated pain from improper packing of that joint from an imbalance of musculature and ligaments to create proper positioning.

Left: Internally Rotated Shoulder, “Open-packed position”; Right: Externally Rotated Shoulder, “Closed-packed position”

Our assessment process at OPEX fitness looks to identify where athletes are, with respect to both mobility and stability of key joints, and how any underlying structural balances may play into their current performance and ultimately determine the approach to programming in order to create better performance.

Historically, our sport has put very little emphasis on the gaining structural balance as athletes with proper weight training. While a majority of slow boat sailors can get away with improper positioning without injury, largely due to the reduced loads and agility needed (no disrespect, I still sail slow boats as well – just a fact), we are now seeing sailors move towards more high performance classes without the adequate training background (functional weight training) that is needed to succeed at the highest level. It has been my mission as a coach to learn, teach, move, and create a system that will help sailors succeed with the ever changing and increasing demands that our sport is putting on us.

Turkish Get Up

In future blogs I will get more specific about certain joints and how to create stability and mobility around those joints to perform optimally.


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