When we run, our hips are critical in helping us move efficiently, avoid injury, and enjoy ourselves. If you place your hands on both sides of your hips, you can feel some of the 36 muscles that need to work together in order to have relaxed, supple, and competent hip function.
But it doesn’t always work smoothly. The long muscles that cross the hips can compress the joints when tight and the horizontal muscles, when tight, can bind the hips down and limit the natural rotation of the body—all causing undue stress on our knees, hips, and lower back.
When we run, there is a gentle rotation of the leg inward as we land and follow through. Ideally, we gently land on the outside of the foot, shifting our weight more medially (toward our center) through the stride and finish the contact phase of the stride off the big toe to a relaxed follow-through. A relaxed ankle off the ground helps relax the hip.
The lower lumbar spine (lower back) does not rotate at all. And given the fact that the knee is largely a hinge joint, we know our legs should not rotate too much when we run.
So where does all this essential counter-rotation come from when we run? The horizontal muscles of the hips and the thoracic spine.
Our hips work in a coupled motion: As we lift our knee forward and bend at the hip, the thigh tends to rotate outwards; as we extend our leg behind the knee, it tends to rotate inwards. This is necessary for optimal function, but it can get limited or reduced from extended sitting or cycling—something triathletes tend to do a lot.
To enhance the natural counter-rotation and relax your hips, practice this simple hip mobility set of exercises. It should also help give you a sensation of increased rhythm and fluidity in your running—and teach you how to relax your ankle off the ground to extend your stride. This circuit ends with an exercise that helps familiarize your body with another critical part of running: how to keep your heel close to the ground. These exercises require patience to begin with, but the benefits will pay off with diligent practice.
Hip Mobility Circuit
Do this exercise slowly and gently, to a count of six to eight up and six to eight back down.
Lie on your back, keeping your shoulders on the ground. Let your right knee rotate outwards. Gently bend your knee and shorten your foot. Lift your foot off the ground as your knee moves outwards, and bring your foot up along your left leg as far as you can. Slowly return your leg back to the starting position. Repeat six times each leg.
Gently and slowly rotate your right leg inwards. Lift your right hip up off the floor to make space and softly shorten your right foot and bend your right knee. Slowly lift your right foot off the ground, and draw it up your side (your hip can roll to the left side) while your shoulders remain on the ground. Slowly straighten your leg.
Repeat this six times and then do the other side. This can be challenging, but usually improves rapidly with practice.
To begin with, lean on something for support, but later it is good for balance and control to do it free standing.
Facing forward: Keep your eyes looking ahead. Roll your knee out, bend it, and gently shorten your foot. Slowly pick up your right foot along your midline and lower it back down.
Facing backward: Lift your right foot, roll your knee in, and bend it. Slowly extend your right knee behind your hip with a shortened foot. On the first movement, look over your right shoulder and see if you can see the sole of your foot, then slowly return your foot to the ground. Now repeat this, slowly lifting your right foot up, extending it behind you, but looking over your left shoulder.
Repeat this exercise slowly three times over each shoulder for a total of six movements.
On all fours, gently shift your hips from side to side. Think of wagging your tail like a dog.
Perform 10 to 15 repetitions until you are comfortable with the movement.
Next, lift your right foot a few inches off the floor, relax your ankle, and bring it out to the side. Once you have slowly moved your right leg out and in five times, as you move your foot out, hike your hip, look over your right shoulder to look at your foot. Your whole right side should shorten and help your hip movement.
Repeat for five slow, controlled movements and then repeat again on the left side.
Stand about one meter away from a wall and raise your right leg so that your thigh is parallel to the ground. Reach forward with your left hand to balance against the wall.
Keeping your left heel on the floor, gently shift forwards so that your right knee touches the wall. Try to keep your shoulders stacked over your hips or even slightly ahead of your hips. Once you have shifted forwards to touch the wall five times with your knee, rest your knee on the wall, and relax your upper body. Relax your left heel on the ground, and feel the stretch in your left hip and calf as you draw your left knee back so the left leg is straight. Relax the right foot that is in the air.
Try to do this in front of a mirror so you can see what your form and posture looks like in this position. Repeat on both sides.