In this article, I’m going to look at the importance of hip extension in running gait.
How important is the “hip drive” aspect in your running technique, when it comes to keeping you running injury-free?
Hip Biomechanics & Running Injuries
Many runners are too quick to look at the foot, and footwear, as being the source of many running injuries.
However, the fact is, that their problems often stem from issues further up the kinetic chain. Frequently, we can trace the biomechanical cause of many (but of course not all) running injuries to poor biomechanics around the hips and pelvis.
Looking back at over a decade of assessing the running biomechanics of injured runners, a pattern is clear to see. While sometimes there is a problem at foot-level that needs addressing, far more frequently runners need to work on the quality of movement coming from their hips during running gait.
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Promoting good hip function, including a focus on mobility, stability and strength of the surrounding muscles (dealing with glute inhibition for example), is hugely important for you to achieve proper running form.
In this article, I’m discussing hip extension. However, identifying and dealing with restricted hip internal rotation is equally important – check out this related article on internal rotation of the hip…
Why is Hip Extension Important for Runners?
The propulsive actions in running gait come together to create a global (whole body) extension pattern.
Here’s a link to a video if you want to quickly refresh yourself on the running gait cycle.
From the point during running gait known as “midstance”, which is the point at which your standing foot passes beneath your hips, the task is to create a strong propulsive drive to push you onto the next stride.
This propulsion is effectively created by you pushing the ground away, behind your forward moving centre of mass. We can clearly see great examples of this propulsive extension pattern in many elite distance runners.
Look at many elite runners: their ability to extend powerfully through a large range of hip extension motion before the foot leaves the ground is largely the reason for their huge stride length. The potential energy stored in their hip flexor muscles and tendons during this powerful hip extension enables the 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.
Propulsion during running gait
As with so many athletic movements like jumping and even Olympic lifting, the term triple extension applies in running gait. This term refers to the concurrent extension of the hip, knee and ankle.
In running gait, we need this triple extension to be driven top-down from the hip, with gluteus maximus and the hamstrings contracting powerfully to drive the femur (thigh bone) backwards from the hip. For this hip extension pattern to be most effective, we need stability and control around the pelvic region, to provide a stable base.
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When it comes to core stability for runners, one of the most important concepts to work on is your ability to move through the many actions of running gait while keeping the motion of the pelvis controlled in all three planes of motion. This is often referred to as maintaining a neutral pelvic position.
The pelvic region is a real crossroads for forces acting across your body as you run. It’s articulations with the sacrum and thus lumbar spine dictate much of the position and movement of the trunk during running gait. The pelvis provides origin and insertion points for a whole host of important muscles, responsible for both movement and stability.
If your pelvis is pulled out of this optimal “neutral” position by a soft tissue restriction, such as tightness in your hip flexors, many of it’s attaching muscles are subsequently positioned in a disadvantaged position, and cannot effectively fulfil their role.
Remember, the vast majority of muscles function best in a relatively mid-range position. This is certainly true for gluteus maximus. By maintaining pelvic neutral as we run, this allows such muscles to fulfil their proper function.
Why is Triple Extension Important for Runners?
Running with good technique requires an adequate degree of triple extension to create the necessary stride length for the given running pace. We now know that this triple extension pattern should largely come from the hip, acting on a neutral pelvis. This controlled neutral position of the pelvis allows the powerful hip extensor muscles (glutes and hamstrings) to function properly, creating propulsion through mid-to-late stance – driving us forwards.
A huge issue impeding this triple extension in runners is the 21st-century lifestyles we live. Most of us spend so much time sitting down from day to day. We spend hour after hour in a flexion posture – the complete opposite to the extension required for proper running form!
We sit at desks, in the car, and on the sofa. If we’re “lucky”, we get to sit on the train (fellow Londoners know what I mean!) and in our leisure time, many of us like to sit on our bikes.
Eight hours a day in a seated position takes its toll. This 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 the rectus femoris muscle of the quads and hip flexors.
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 working into hip extension.
As an aside, it might be an interesting exercise to track the amount of time you spend sitting each day. The results might scare you!
Issues Created by Poor Hip Extension
If you lack either the hip extension or pelvic control to effectively make use of the hip extension you have, there are a few issues that can present themselves when you run.
At best, it’ll be harder for you to increase stride length sufficiently to realise your true potential pace while remaining efficient.
However, when it comes to movement, us 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, due to tightness in rectus femoris, for example, the triple extension required to create the desired stride length will instead most likely come from the pelvis being pulled excessively into an anteriorly rotated position, causing 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.
Often it’s the glute complex of muscles are affected in this way, preventing them from functioning properly (more on glute inhibition here).
This compromised gluteal function sets the runner up for a whole plethora of potential problems, including knee injuries, back pain and, in my experience, injuries to the calf, achilles tendon, foot and lower leg.
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Running Injuries Caused by Hip Restriction
Over the years working with many runners, I’ve noticed a real correlation between runners being unable to achieve the required glute-powered hip drive during running gait (due to tight hip flexors) and calf injuries, achilles tendon injuries and plantar fasciitis.
I like to explain this in saying that when a runner can’t achieve propulsion from the hips (i.e glutes and hamstrings), a disproportionate amount of propulsion is created by the plantar flexors (the calf complex) at the ankle.
Runners compensating in this way to “get the job done” end up pushing-off excessively at the ankle during late stance phase, placing more demand on the plantar flexors of the ankle, the calf complex.
Anatomically, 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. the glutes and the plantar flexors work best in concert, sharing the propulsive load.
When the glutes are inhibited by either restriction around the hips, or poor pelvic control, the plantar flexor group picks up the slack in terms of propulsive effort.
This situation can manifest itself as chronic calf tightness, achilles tendon injuries, or even injuries like plantar fasciitis and shin splints.
If you’re currently injured; hopefully this description will get you thinking about what you could perhaps work in terms of your running form as you work through your return to running plan.
Hip Extension Exercises for Runners
There are a few key hip extension exercises you can regularly practice to help not only increase hip mobility, but also develop glute activation through the important extension pattern. Feel free to add these to your regular running strength training regime as part of your marathon training plan, or half marathon running schedule.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Single Leg Glute Bridge
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
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.
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:
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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
I have a question that I just can’t seem to find the answer to anywhere. Whenever I try to get into this half-kneeling position for a lunge or stretch such as this, and my right leg is the forward or “up” leg, my pelvis or spine does some sort of rotation thing, that I can’t seem to figure out. I try really hard to make it mimic the left, but my motor control is apparently so lacking that I can’t consistently change it. The best way I can describe it is that if I were getting into this position in jeans, when the right leg is forward, the outseam of the pants on that side seems to come in towards the front of my leg more than the left outseam does when the left outseam is forward. It’s hard to tell if the right hip is hiking, the femur is rotating, or the pelvis and/or lumbar spine is rotating… or some combination of the three. I also have a lot of trouble activating my right glute, and I can’t consistently get a good contraction out of it, which essentially eliminates the effectiveness of even the most basic of exercises. I know it’s all connected, because every once in awhile when my brain clicks, it feel right… like the kinetic chain is working as it should.
of all the tips iv reed this one has helpt me the most I thank thanks for the grate tips
Great article, I have recently discovered how much using the hips really helps with forward propulsion and its actually helping me to run in more of a forefoot style and therefore increasing pace/cadence. In the past I have had bad calf strains from trying to run in a forefoot style and only using the calfs/achilles to achieve this but now that I’m using the hips a lot more I have discovered how much more efficient my running can be. Thanks
Many thanks James very useful.
Can you discuss knee lift, what part it plays in running and its importance in achieving a good running technique? Which are good drills/exercises?