Hip Stretch & Strength for All Runners
What’s the first thing you think about when you start running? Shoes? How your foot hits the ground? Both important things but we’re forgetting the true powerhouse of running. Hips
The joints and muscles that make up the the hips are not only some of the strongest muscles in the body, but also key to good running form. Strong hips can lead to faster running and weak or tight hips can increase your risk for injury.
What are the hip muscles?
Hip Flexors - small muscles at the front of the hip that connects your pelvis to your upper leg. Stand up and lift your leg like you are marching in place — the hip flexor is what lifts your leg off the ground and pulls the thigh closer to the body. Hip flexors are also chronically tight in many people because of the amount of sitting we do.
Glutes - a much larger but frequently under utilized muscle a the back of the hip. Connects the back of the pelvis to the back of the upper leg. Glutes are responsible for the opposite motion of the hip flexors. Because they are so large they can produce a lot of power —
Abductors / Adductors - these are also smaller muscles at the inside and outside of the thighs. While these muscles are not directly responsible for lifting the leg of pushing off the ground they play a MAJOR part in stability. They keep your legs from swinging side to side when your leg is in the air. Abductors move the leg away from the body and adductors move the leg back towards the body.
Why is hip strength so important for runners?
Many things that might not seem like a “hip injury” actually stem from weaknesses or tightness in the hips. Iliotibial band [IT] Syndrome, Iliopsoas Syndrome, strain or tears of the hamstring or hip flexors. Weak hips can affect your alignment causing injuries lower on the body as well. Would you belive that my chronic Plantar Fasciitis was actually a result of weak muscles in my hip girdle? Yep.
Harnessing the strength of your hips is one of the best things you can do to prevent injuries from happening. If you are currently experiencing hip pain [or any pain for that matter] that does’t go away after a week of rest then please contact a doctor or PT. While it may be physically possible to run through pain it will almost certainly cause issues later down the line that you can’t avoid.
What is the difference between tight and weak muscles?
A tight muscle has a limited range of motion, or limited flexibility. Try this - stand up and try to touch your toes. If you can not reach down very far it is because you have tight hamstrings [the muscles at the back of the thigh]. Now imagine you have a heavy weight in your hands and you need to stand back up fast. If you struggle to lift the weight you have weak hamstrings.
You can have strong muscles that are tight - but that becomes a problem as you begin to increase the load [weight] of a given exercise. This is why we often say “tight muscles are weak muslces”. They might actually be strong for a limited range - but aren’t all that practical in helping us move around.
So before we focus on getting stronger it’s important that we get flexible.
Static or Dynamic? What types of hip stretches are best for runners?
Stretching is quite a hot topic. Maybe you’ve heard that you should do it to reduce your risk for injury. Maybe you’ve heard it causes more injuries. There is so much conflicting information out there so what is actually best? The answer is different types of stretches at different times.
Dynamic stretching is when you move through a range of motion repetitively - in the process stretching the targeted muscle with each pass. Stand up and swing your right leg forward and back. At first this movement might feel uncomfortable or restricted — but after a while the movement feels more fluid and you may feel that you can swing higher in both directions. That is a dynamic stretch for the hip flexor and glute! Dynamic stretching can be risky if do it with too much force so take it easy especially if you are just starting out.
The bonus of dynamic stretching is that it also does double duty as strengthening the muscles while it stretches. It works best when you do dynamic stretches that mimic movements that you are about to do in your exercise. Runners will do a series of leg swings, where baseball players may do a series of arm swings.
The best dynamic stretches for runners with tight hips
These are my go-to dynamic stretches before all my long runs. It would be ideal to do this before every run but I know we’re all crunched for time these days so if you can only do once a week — that’s better than nothing! I go through 10 repetitions of each move 2x through and then I feel ready to go.
Forward backwards leg swings
Side to side leg swings
Knee lift with a kick back
Side to side lunges
Static stretching is when you stretch a muscle to the point of tension [when you feel like you cant stretch any further without pain] and then hold that position. Static stretching is best for POST run — when muscles are tired from a prolonged period of contracting and relaxing. You can also do some static stretching first thing in the morning to loosen up your body after being stiff all night.
The best static stretches for runners with tight hips.
These are my go-to stretches for post run. Stretch only as far as you can stay comfortably with no pain, and then hold for 30 seconds. A popular stretch that I chose to leave off this list is the pigeon pose or pigeon stretch. While it looks impressive to do and may even feel good to you — getting this stretch right so that it’s effective isn’t always easy. You can achieve the same result and stretch the same muscles with figure 4 and kneeling lunge which are both easier to do for all levels.
What else can I do for tight hips?
Once again if you are experiencing chronic [doesn’t go away or lessen even after rest] pain or discomfort please see a doctor or PT. The above exercises should be done as pre-hab to get stronger and help reduce risk for injuries.
The most major thing you can do aside from these exercises is reduce the amount of sitting you do in a day. Sitting makes hip flexors tight, and glutes weak. If you can’t change your workspace to a standing desk try taking a walk break every 30-40 minutes.
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