The Power of Hip Mobility for RunnersDonovan van Gelder
One of the most common problems plaguing modern runners are injuries to the calf or achilles tendon. Calf strains are fairly easy to treat with massage, needling, stretching and ice but the achilles is a bit more resistant to the same treatment because of it’s poorer blood circulation. Treating and recovering from a calf or achilles injury is only half the solution though. What we also need to do is identify why we developed this injury in the first place and then remove that cause so that it does not become a recurring problem. Surprisingly, calf injuries are often the consequence of an issue higher up, which causes us to overdo our push off in order to generate the force we are looking for. Most of our propulsive force should not come from the calves but rather the bigger muscles in the hamstrings, and especially from our glutes. Afterall, these are much bigger and stronger than our calves and the forward motion they generate will be far superior to what our little calves can muster.
In modern living, we spend a large portion of our day sitting, bent at the hips and knees. Either at our desks or behind the wheel of a car. This causes a tightening of the muscles and connective tissue in the pelvis and hips, and it is this tightness that impairs the range of motion that we can generate whilst running. If our hips and pelvis don’t move freely through the running gait cycle, it limits how effectively we can deploy our heavy arsenal, the glutes and hamstrings. At best, limiting how fast and efficiently we cover ground and at worst, causing an overload of the calves which eventually buckle under the strain. This is exacerbated in triathletes who spend even more time in a bent forward position that closes off the hips. The tension resulting from pushing power through the pedals also contributes to a tightening up around the pelvis and hips.
So, what do we do? Obviously, reducing the amount of time we spend sitting would be a good start but we also need to rest when we are training hard and it is not always practical, or polite, to lie down. Not every profession allows us to avoid sitting that easily either. So, regular maintenance and encouragement of good hip mobility is essential. Starting out, if things are very tight, it will take a bit more time per session to get things loosened up but once that is achieved, a bit of loosening up before training and some regular maintenance after training will keep the hips happy and everything down the chain working optimally.
Before run mobilisation should consist of dynamic movements that prepare the body for what is to come. Movements like leg swings and hip rotations. Back and forth and side to side which gradually increase in amplitude and reach. Long lunges maintaining a good upright posture are excellent for stretching out the front of the hip, promoting a good hip extension in our running stride. Add in a few low squats to ‘wake up’ the glutes and we’ll be ready to set off for our run.
Post run mobility should be more relaxing and take the form of more static movements. Begin in a standing position with the usual quadricep, ‘foot to bum’ stretch and less aggressive variation of the forward lunge position, taking the back knee down toward the ground and pushing the pelvis forward so that the stretch is felt in the front of the hip. We can then move to the ground, stretching the glutes and lower back by pulling the knee up to the chest and then pulling the thigh across the body to stretch the lateral muscles of the hip, the glute medias and tensor fascia latae.
A very nice way to ease down from a run while maintaining good hip mobility is to lie on our backs with our knees bent, starting with our feet about shoulder width apart. Rotate the left leg inwards and the right leg outwards whilst keeping the shoulders flat. Just relax into it without forcing things. Then return to the start position and rotate the legs the other way. Nice, slow relaxed movements will allow us to gradually move our feet further and further apart as things loosen up, which will increase the stretch to both the inside and outside of the hips and pelvis. Not only will this relaxed, gentle movement keep the hips happy but it is a great way to ease down after a run and kick start the recovery process.
Keeping our hips happy will contribute immensely to continued, injury free running but we just have to look at the range of motion displayed by the World’s best runners to realise that the benefits of good hip mobility will also result in more efficient and ultimately, faster running.