Think about your last 24 hours. How many of them were spent in a seated position? Most of us sit at work all day. We sit in the car, bus, or train on our commutes. We sit for meals. We sit all evening in front of the TV or computer. Even if we have a job now where we often stand and move, most of us sat for hours in school during our formative years. We have been sitting so long that we forget what standing up straight feels like.
You’ve probably heard that excessive sitting puts your health at risk—even if you’re active—but did you know it can also affect your running?
Sitting puts your hips in a flexed position, with your legs angled at 90 degrees or less from the front of the body. Hip flexion is not, in itself, bad—the running motion uses hip flexion for knee lift as your legs drive forward. But effective running also requires hip extension—the movement of the leg behind the torso—and sitting too much can compromise that.
Here’s why that’s problematic: Good hip extension allows the leg to push backward without rotating the pelvis side to side or tipping it and torqueing the back. It allows the powerful glute muscles to fully engage, pulling your thigh and knee backward while your hips stay stable, transferring power directly to forward motion.
In other words, the faster you want to run, the more important good hip extension becomes.
How to Assess Your Hip Extension
Physical therapists, biomechanists, coaches, and elite athletes all agree that the one thing virtually every runner can benefit from is improved hip extension. To check yours, take this simple test.
Stand in front of a doorway with your back against the right side of the doorjamb and your left leg in the doorway opening. Kneel down in a lungelike position with your left knee on the floor inside of the doorjamb and your right foot in front of you with your knee above it. Your left thigh should be vertical beside the doorjamb, with your back resting against the front of the doorjamb. In this position, you’ll naturally have a bit of space between your lower back and the wall. Tilt your pelvis backward so the hollow between your lower back and the doorjamb disappears. Your pelvis should rotate up in front and down in back.
If you have trouble completing this rotation or feel tightness in the front of your hip and down the front of the thigh, your hip flexors—the muscles on the front of the leg that limit hip extension—are too tight. You are not alone. Physical therapist Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners, says that at least 85 percent of runners have tight hip flexors.
The first solution for overtight hip flexors is to do something we’ve been told not to do any more: a long, static stretch. Numerous studies, such as those cited in an overview of research in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, have shown that static stretching before running reduces strength and power. In response, most runners have converted to dynamic warmups and active isolated (or AI) stretching.
However, in situations of limited mobility from shortened, overtight tissue, static stretching is one of the only ways to lengthen and release the tissue. “Improvements in flexibility come from long duration stretches that physically tear the tissue surrounding muscle fibers to increase mobility within the muscle,” Dicharry explains. To avoid the negative effects, reserve static stretching for after a run, later in the day, or during a day off from running.
The most basic hip extension stretch is to do the test described above. Once you get your pelvis rotated back so you feel the stretch on the front of your hip, hold it for 3 to 5 minutes, focusing to maintain the posture and keep feeling the stretch as your hip opens. If you have trouble maintaining focus for that long, hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat several times, and try alternating with other hip extension stretches.
Dicharry says you need to do the stretch 4 to 6 days a week for 10 to 12 weeks to achieve the desired result. Yes, it takes that long to lengthen tissue. It is worth it. After 2 or 3 months of regular stretching, if you no longer feel tightness in the front of your hip when you get in the stretch position—tall, hip rotated, and back straight—you can stop the static, muscle-lengthening stretches and focus on dynamic mobility of the region by doing things like leg swings, checking periodically for renewed tightness.
For more stretches and exercises to improve your form, and the most current research on topics from stride rate to running shoes, check out, Runner’s World Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster—with Fewer Injuries.
This article is reprinted with permission from Rodale Books. Copyright © 2017, Rodale Inc.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.