Running: It’s All in The Hips

Jan 8, 2013   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  26 Comments

While so many runners, coaches, and others in the running industry are quick to point directly at The Foot as the primary source of all problems and injuries. The fact is, that when assessing running biomechanics, an alarmingly high proportion of the runners we assess (of all performance levels) display fairly well functioning feet and instead a common lack of available Hip Extension in running gait.

Of course, upon analysis, if a runner truly suffers from a foot dysfunction, then this needs to be appropriately dealt with. So many runners however would benefit hugely from freeing their Hips up to function properly.

N.B. In this article I’m discussing Hip Extension. However issues such as restricted Hip Internal Rotation are equally important – check out this related article on Hip Internal Rotation!

Why Is Hip Extension Important For Runners?

The propulsive motions in running gait come together to create an overall extension pattern.

As we run, from the moment our standing foot begins to pass under our body, the overall goal is to create optimal forward propulsion (and some upwards displacement).

This propulsion is created by us effectively pushing the ground away beneath and behind our forward moving centre of mass. We can clearly see great examples of this propulsive extension pattern in many elite distance runners. Look at many of the Kenyans, for example. Their ability to extend powerfully though a large range of motion before the foot leaves the ground, is largely the reason for their long stride length and impressive elastic recoil in their efficient recovery phase (heel-to-butt motion).

Where running pace is governed largely by the combination of stride length and stride frequency (running cadence), it’s clear that the ability to extend well through the propulsive phase is a vital key to developing running speed and efficiency.

Where Should Extension Come From, And Why?

As with so many athletic movements, the term “Triple Extension” applies to running. This refers to concurrent extension of The Hip, Knee and Ankle. We need this extension however to be largely driven top-down from The Hip, with Gluteus Maximus (G.Max.) contracting powerfully to drive the Femur (thigh bone) backwards from with some help from the Hamstrings. For this to occur optimally, The Pelvis needs to remain stable in controlled position.

One of the most important concepts of core stability for runners is the ability to move through the many movements of running gait keeping motion of the Pelvis controlled within a normal range of degrees in all three planes of motion. This is often referred to as maintaining a neutral pelvic position.

The Pelvis is a real cross-roads for forces within the body. It’s articulations with the Sacrum and thus Lumbar Spine dictates much of the position and movement of the trunk. It provides origin and insertion points for a whole host of important muscles, responsible for both movement and stability, proximally and distally.

If the Pelvis is pulled out of this optimal neutral position by a soft tissue restriction, many of it’s attaching muscles are subsequently positioned in a disadvantaged position, and cannot effectively fulfil their role.

Remember, the vast majority muscles function optimally in a relatively mid-range position. This is certainly true for G.Max. By maintaining pelvic neutral as we run, this allows such muscles to fulfil their proper functions.

The Most Common Problem For Runners

As runners, we require a given amount of extension to create the required stride length for the desired pace. We now know that this extension pattern should largely come from The Hip, acting on a stable and neutral Pelvis. This allows G.Max to function properly, creating propulsion through mid-to-late stance – driving us forwards.

The biggest issue is that so many of us 21st century runners spend much of the time sitting down – a static flexion pattern – the complete opposite to running!

We sit at desks, in the car, and on the sofa. If we’re lucky, we sit on the train (Londoners know what I mean) and in our leisure time, many of us sit on our bikes (triathletes). Eight hours a day in a seated position takes it’s toll, and plays a large role in developing soft tissue restrictions in the Hip Flexors and Quads. Most frequently in runners, I see this manifested as tightness in Rectus Femoris (Rec.Fem.).

Somebody once told me that “the human body does best, what it does most often“. I think that’s an appropriate phrase to use here.

If you spend all day in Hip Flexion, don’t expect to be any good at Hip Extension. That is, unless you offset the “damage” done to our movement patterns by prolonged time stuck in Hip Flexion with lots of stretches and activation exercises into Hip Extension.

What Happens When Hip Extension Is Restricted?

At best, if a runner lacks Hip Extension, they won’t be able to increase stride length enough to realise their true potential pace while remaining efficient.

However, when it comes to movement, we humans have a remarkable ability to cheat and find ways to “get the job done“. Sometimes though, this ability can backfire on us!

If a runner becomes restricted into Hip Extension, through tightness in Rec.Fem. for example, the overall extension required to create the desired stride length will instead probably come from The Pelvis being pulled excessively into anterior rotation, and increased extension (arching) of the Lumbar Spine.

Running Hip Extension

As described above, such dynamic changes in pelvic position result in important muscle groups being biomechanically disadvantaged and/or inhibited.

Commonly the Glute complex of muscles are affected in this way, preventing them from functioning properly (more on Glute Inhibition here). This sets the runner up for a whole plethora of potential problems, including Knee injuries, Back Pain and, in my experience, most frequently injuries to the Calf, Achilles, Foot and Lower Leg.

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Hip Restriction And Lower Leg Injuries

Over the years working with runners, I’ve noticed a real correlation between not being able to achieve the required G.Max powered propulsion from the Hip (due to restriction into Hip Extension – usually tight Rec.Fem.), and Calf Injuries, Achilles Injuries and Plantar Fasciitis.

I like to explain this by saying that when a runner can’t achieve propulsion from the “right place” (i.e G.Max, at the Hip), a disproportionate amount of propulsion is created by the Plantar Flexors and associated soft tissue structures (Calf, Achilles, Plantar Fascia, etc…) as the runner compensates and “gets the job done” by pushing-off excessively with the lower leg musculature in late stance phase.

The Plantar Flexors are clearly structured in such a way to contribute to propulsion through the Foot and Ankle during running gait, but certainly not to take too great a role in creating this propulsion. G.Max and the Plantar Flexors work best in concert, sharing the propulsive load.

How Can Runners Work On Hip Extension?

There are a few key exercises you can regularly practice to help not only increase Hip Extension, but also develop Glute activation through an extension pattern.

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Knee To Chest Glute Bridge

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.

 

26 Comments

  • Great to see the focus shift to the hip rather than the foot. Would love to see more focus on hip-trunk dissociation, that is, the ability to move your hip without losing neutral pelvic position. This isolated muscle activity creates an efficiency of movement which protects the spine and optimises hip function.

  • Thanks for this article and great info. I can attest to the fact that I was guilty of this and it resulted in an injury that ruined my entire 2012 race schedule. It also took me forever to find a PT that was able to identify my problem and how to fix it.

  • This is me!!! Thanks for posting such a comprehansive article, helps me to understand the exercises I am doing and how they will help me get back to running. Great stuff.

  • The psoas muscle attaches to the lumbar spine anterolaterally and courses over the anterior aspect of the pelvis after merging with the iliacus. Therefore, the hyperextension of the lumbosacral spine and pelvis would be effective at stretching the psoas as well as the rectus femoris.

    • Thanks Dennis. You’re right, attention should certainly be paid to Psoas. I wanted this post to be less of a detailed break-down of anatomy, and more about presenting the movement based concepts above, hence only citing Rec.Fem. in my example.

      As a general pattern though, in runners I see more tightness and restriction coming from Rec.Fem. and weakness existing in Psoas. Will be blogging about this more soon… Shirley Sahrmann’s great work has taught me a lot recently :) Interesting stuff.

  • Hi James, thanks for the great article. I’d interested in your take on the extent you think the lack of hip extension is rooted in hip flexor tightness compared to hip extensor weakness. I don’t disagree with your observations about being able to extend well and apply force being a key aspect of faster running. One observation I’ve made is that many runners would be doing better if they could be applying force from the glutes up to the point where the thigh moves to extension. If you can do this with some flex in the knee you do get a reasonable range. It seems like many quit applying force even before the thigh has reached extension – result as you say is to pop off the calves and spend a lot of energy and time going up and down on the spot. Anyway no easy answers here – cover all bases and strengthen the hip extensors and mobilise the flexors!

  • This is great info and thanks for including some exercises to help correct the problem! I noticed I had a very low recovery stroke a few months ago after reading about optimal running form and interestingly struggle with plantar fasciitis! This is the first article I’ve read linking the two together and it all makes perfect sense to me now. I am wondering though, are there running drills that can help with hip extension – so dynamic things one can do? For instance heel to butt running etc.? Thanks so much!

  • Practicing the ChiRunning technique is a great way to learn how to get more movement in your hips (called “pelvic rotation” in ChiRunning). The gist of pelvic rotation is that, while the pelvis should remain level, you allow your hips to be “pulled back” every time your legs swing out behind you. As this article proves, pelvic rotation can greatly reduce the risk of lower leg and feet injuries, as well as other common but very painful injuries such as IT band syndrome. For more information, check out chirunning.com.

    • Thanks for commenting Casey.

      To clarify for those reading this, I assume you’re referring to increasing pelvic rotation in the transverse plane as being encouraged in Chi Running.

      To achieve this kind of increased pelvic rotation, the runner will need significant available internal rotation available at the hip during late stance phase, otherwise Hip Extension will still be restricted, and an abductory twist of the foot may be seen.

  • Really well written and extremely helpful. Thankyou James
    @irongirljane

  • [...] act to flex the femur (thigh bone) onto the lumbo-pelvic complex, i.e., pull the knee upward. This article from Kinetic Revolution explains the importance of hips in propulsion for running. I found this [...]

  • I have recently had some foot issues and wondered if it was because I ran too much in my vibrams. I went back to basics and realised I wasn’t extending fully through my back leg, especially when running up hill and fast. I have decent hip extension and internal rotation so it had to be something else…. I went back to basics with myself and slowed down, shorter vibram runs, longer in my nikes and more glute work along with focus on my foot landing under my body and stretching out behind me. Foot issues disappearing.

    Your article and follow up comments to comments are fantastic – I am still a believer in the foot and that it is mistreated/misused but that combined with poor hip function made alot of sense to what I had been noticing recently.

    thanks heaps
    lisa

  • Hi James,

    Just finished the sixweek training, run into this article (because I suffer from calves pain) and thought of searching more on the internet concerning the ‘hip extension’ phenomenon.
    And I’ve run into this site:

    http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2009/01/learning-how-to-run.html

    Frankly, if I do have a good understanding of what his saying, he’s against the whole idea of ‘heel picking under the hip/butt’, hamstring & glutes driving the leg recovery….as he’s describing it: it’s a reflex, nothing more, nothing ‘assisted’.

    Well, it seriously raised some questions for me….

    What do you think of it?

    Thanks,
    Daniel

    • Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for this. There’s some really great content on scienceofrunning.com, I’ve been a fan of Steve’s work for some time.

      I completely agree with his observations that there is no need assist the leg through the recovery phase – because in the article you cited, he’s talking specifically about the wasted effort in emphasising the role of the Hip Flexors and Quads in saying: “A common mistake is to try to lift the knee at the end of the recovery cycle“.

      He doesn’t seem to refer to picking the heels up actively using the hamstrings as a negative point of focus.

      In the six week programme, the focus I put on getting the hamstrings actively helping the swing leg through the recovery phase is born from the fact that so many sub-elite runners (and triathletes in particular) insufficiently use their hamstrings, favouring their quads and hip flexors, pulling the swing leg through.

      Steve somewhat brushes over this element in his article, in saying that “The lower leg will lift off the ground and fold so that it comes close to your buttocks“. This may be a given for many of the serious track athletes he works with, but I find that this needs to be coached in many recreational and sub-elite competitive runners. Learning to better lift the heel with the hamstrings helps to change the centre of mass of the leg such that the weight of the leg requires less effort to pull through.

  • Hi James. Thanks for the article. Very informative. I have a problem which no one can seem to figure out and I think u could. On my left side, anterior hip, mainly aggravated after a run, if my hip is hyper flexed – say if I get into a squatting position or pull my hip to stretch, when I try to release from that position, it’s almost as if my leg is locked- sensation felt anterior hip. It hurts!!!! And i feel almost a band like sensation anteriorly in my thigh. I then have to gently try and unlock it which involves a lot of rolling back and forth and screaming from pain. When I am able to stand, I cannot out weight on it but one thing is consistent, my leg is best in an external rotation of my foot. I hobble around with my weight supported for about a minute or less literally after which there is a release. I find I tend to swing my hip back- like a quad stretch then I can literally go about my day as if nothing happened! Very frustruating. Can u help? I should say on my right, I have a longstanding “issue” with my SI. That is getting better tho! Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  • Very well explained. I am always emphasizing this exact thing to my athletes “It is all about the hips”. Great to have such a good explanation to send runners to read

  • I love reading about the role of the hips across all sports and this article has thoroughly set out what I try so hard to explain to clients and friends alike.

  • Hi James. I love your work. I just want to confirm that you suggest a neutral pelvis position during long distance running. I have come across suggestions of slight anterior tilt? Thanks in advance mate.

    • Hi Darren,

      Thanks! When I say neutral, I mean within a ‘normal’ neutral range of anterior pelvic tilt. Sometimes this is quoted as being up to 7o (men) or 10o (women).

      Cheers,

      James

  • [...] This triple extension requires a certain range of motion at the hip in particular, into extension, with an active ‘drive’ coming from the glutes. With common soft tissue restrictions into hip extension, caused by tightness in the hip flexors for example, the body will struggle to achieve this important powerful extension. Read what happens when we lose extension at the hip. [...]

  • Love this!

    In my years of treating running injuries I have found it helpful to “unlock” the hip to allow hip extension by making sure to have a “slight knee bend” on foot contact. This allows the hip to move more freely into the extension James Dunne talks about here.

    Notice most efficient runners never contact the ground with a completely straight knee.

  • Great article. I’m not sure why you chose to say “look at many of the Kenyans” when you could have just mentioned the two in the video by name.

    • Hi Laura,

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

      Fair comment. I could have mentioned Mutai and Mosop by name, referencing the video, which was used as a visual example of the discussed movement pattern.

      However the point I was trying to make is that this great hip extension is a common factor amongst elite distance runners in general – not commenting on these two athletes specifically.

      Cheers,

      James

  • […] glute activation in runners. In particular the importance of being able to run with adequate hip extension to facilitate Glute.Max. […]

  • Hi Guys! Kinetic Revolution is a new discovery for me and this is all very informative. When highlighting an example I really like the way you state in brackets the previous teaching points so we understand exactly what is happening to the muscles involved. Off to read more of your work!
    Cheers for now, Andy

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