How Hip Extension Impacts your Running Form (and Comfort Level)
Does hip extension impact your running efficiency? What about running injuries and pain points?
Yes, yes, and yes! Hip extension matters in all of those cases.
Hip extension in running begins as your leg passes behind your center of gravity in your running stride. It is essential to producing the power phase that propels you forward.
It can make or break your running stride.
This article will help you better understand how your hip extends while running - so you can improve your efficiency and prevent unnecessary running injuries.
Hip biomechanics when running
As discussed in the guide to handling hip pain from running, the anatomy of running has a lot to do with hip positioning.
There are a lot of variables at play in the biomechanics of running, but the easiest way to understand them is to look at the running gait cycle and why hip extension is so important throughout.
Running involves a lot of propulsion. These actions create extension throughout your body, including your hips.
When you are in the mid stance of your running gait, your foot passes beneath your hips. Here you need to create a strong and stable propulsive drive to move into the next stride. You do this by pushing the ground away and moving your body forward.
This propulsive extension is essential to effective running and involves continuous and repetitive hip extension. Running athletes with a powerful stride and large extension range are likely to store extra energy in their hip flexors and tendons due to an efficient recovery or elastic recoil.
Hip extension opens up your stride for the elastic recoil of your hip tendons. If you stretch your tendons quickly, they should spring back to their original length. This motion pushes your knee forward again so you can start your next stride.
Your hip is not the only part of your body going through extension while you run though. Many runners may be familiar with the term “triple extension.” This term applies to your running gait and the extension of your hip, knee, and ankle since they happen concurrently.
Understanding the hip flexor motion during extension is necessary because triple extension is driven top-down, meaning it starts at your hip. This extension involves your iliopsoas muscles, glutes, and hamstrings as they drive your leg back, stabilize your pelvis, and flex forward once more.
While each of these muscles has a role to play, the iliopsoas is the major player.
Hip extension for efficient and pain-free running
Since your running stride moves in a top-down motion, your hip positioning and extension dramatically influence your running efficiency.
During hip extension, your push-off leg moves behind your body and your gluteus maximus and hamstrings perform the brunt of the work. In order to reach an efficient triple extension, you need to be able to reach far back enough in your stride to engage your glutes fully.
What would prevent full glute or hamstring engagement during hip extension?
Tight and imbalanced muscles are largely to blame.
You could also be dealing with a rotated pelvis, IT band syndrome, foot pronation, piriformis syndrome, lateral hip pain, or a multitude of other pain points. But did you know that all these issues could be related to tight muscles?
Specifically, tight iliopsoas muscles.
Tight muscles in your pelvic region, especially the hip flexor muscles, can cause a domino effect that impacts other major muscle groups and joint structures.
The extension of your hips can also be impacted.
Your iliopsoas is responsible for hip flexion, or moving your legs forward and up. When your leg goes into extension, you are no longer engaging the iliopsoas, you are stretching it.
If these muscles are too tight, they are “frozen” in a shortened position, limiting your backward movement during extension.
Limited extension of your hip while running means your body is less likely to achieve the most efficient mode of triple extension. You may notice your body begin to compensate, such as by arching your lower back to “achieve” a similar motion. It also means you are exposing your body to higher impact.
A combined muscle strength in the glute and hamstrings and flexibility in the iliopsoas is necessary to reach triple extension or efficient hip extension. Improving both can create harmonious balance in your running stride and improve your range of motion and speed.
Poor hip extension and running injuries
Limitations in your body can impact the extension of your hips and increase the potential forrunning injuries. The three main limitations include:
- Tight hip flexor muscles
- Poor glute activation and strength
- Weak hamstring muscles
Any one of these things can cause the other, meaning once you experience limitations in your hip extension, be on the lookout for weak glutes and hamstrings as well.
If poor extension is allowed to continue as you push more running miles, it is also possible you’ll begin to experience hip pain after running.
Tight hip flexor muscles
Muscle tension in the hips and even weak hip muscles may be associated with an imbalance in running biomechanics that disrupt your running gait and hip extension.
Nearly all runners I’ve seen have tight hip flexor muscles, not just because they engage these muscles as they run, but because they live a sedentary lifestyle outside of running.
When you sit, your hip flexors are engaged and pushed into a shortened position for extended periods. Over time, your muscles can become frozen in this shortened position. This is bad, especially for runners, because when you run, you not only need hip flexion, but extension too.
Your hip flexor muscles need to be flexible and strong enough to fully stretch, propel, and lengthen as you move through your gait cycle.
As your running form gets out of whack from an inability to perform a proper gait and extension, other parts of your body may start to suffer. If these muscles are allowed to stay shortened and tight, they can even cause a rotated pelvis - leading to running posture and form issues.
Do you have knee pain after running? Well, that might be from tight hip flexors!
Have you ever asked yourself: why do my ankles hurt when I run? Well, you guessed it, it could be from tight hip flexors.
Once the kinetic chain is disrupted in your pelvic region, you can guarantee a domino effect will move down your body until you fix the imbalance, muscle tightness, and alignment.
Muscular imbalance and weakness
Poor muscle activation, weak muscles, or muscular imbalances can all impact your hip extension effectiveness - and even cause some running injuries.
If you are a runner that doesn’t do enough cross training or strength training, it is easy to develop muscular imbalances that lead to poor muscle activation or strain.
When one muscle is not strong enough to keep up with the rest, the surrounding muscles end up putting in the hard work, increasing muscle fatigue and the likelihood of injury.
Running recovery exercises for injury prevention
In order to have full mobility and efficient extension in your hips while running, you need a solid foundation of optimal joint and muscular biomechanics. Then, you can start focusing on things like your overall strength, power, coordination, and synchronization while you run.
In order to achieve balanced biomechanics while running, you need to build healthy habits and running recovery routines that include practices like:
- Strength training
- Cross training
- Mild stretching
- Muscle activation activities
- Joint mobility exercises
- Muscle tension release
You might not know how to implement all of these things on your own, and that’s okay. It is best to seek professional help from a physical therapist to make certain you use proper form and the appropriate exercises for your needs.
As you perfect your biomechanics, you can move into coordination that focuses more on running form and achieving triple extension.
In order to get there, you need happy, aligned joints and relaxed muscles. While you may be able to tackle your glutes and hamstrings with a foam roller or massage ball, the iliacus and psoas muscles that make up your hip flexors are much harder to reach.
That’s why I invented the Hip Hook and the Hip Release Ball.
The Hip Hook is specially designed to reach behind your pelvic bone and apply prolonged pressure to the hard to reach iliacus muscle.
The Hip Release Ball can then be used to reach the psoas muscle. The size and firmness of the ball make it possible to target the psoas without the ball getting lost in your abdomen. Plus, this ball can be used to release the back of your hip and your glute muscles.
Forming healthy habits that include muscle tension release and the above practices can help you achieve a healthy hip extension while you run. This will not only shield you from running injuries, it can even improve your performance.
FAQs about hip extension and running
How much hip extension does a runner need?
An average runner extends their hip around 10-15 degrees from toe off. Hip extension can be limited by factors such as a tight iliacus and psoas muscle.
How can I improve my hip extension for running?
Improving your hip extension involves improving your hip mobility, hip flexor release, and a consistent running recovery routine. Make sure you focus on both the psoas and iliacus muscles, the primary hip flexors.
How do tight hips impact my running?
Tight hip flexors can pull your body out of alignment, imparting your running gait and many other parts of your body. All of these factors influence your running form, hip extension, hip flexion, and how your foot hits the ground when you run