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.
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.
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.
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