Last week I wrote about the two different profiles of hip flexor problems. This week we’ll look at a popular solution for tight hip flexors that actually backfires. Watch out that you’re not making this mistake! I’ll tell you exactly what to do instead.
The High Cost of Sitting
Hip flexor tightness or, more accurately, not allowing your hip joints to extend sufficiently when you run, comes primarily from sitting too much. Hour after hour, day after day, decade after decade in that chair causes our nervous system to experience flexed hips as normal and anything else as foreign.
Another thing we get from sitting too much is what some call “gluteal amnesia,” in other words forgetting how to use the muscles in our buttocks. The main function of the gluteals–particularly the gluteus maximus– is to extend the hip joints, and they’re kept lengthened and inactive when we sit.
Doing the Opposite of Sitting
A common recommendation for lengthening tight hip flexors when running is to reverse what happens in sitting–to actively contract your glutes.
This strategy exploits a mechanism called “recprocal inihibition,” which means that when muscles that extend your hip joints contract (your glutes), then the muscles that do the opposite (your hip flexors) relax.
Reciprocal inhibition works throughout your body and in simple movements it’s a pretty reliable phenomenon. For instance, if you lie on your front with your legs straight and lift one of the slightly off the floor, it’s pretty likely that as you contract your glutes to do it, your hip flexors will relax to allow it to happen.
But that’s not 100% guaranteed, since you might have very strong movement habits that involve contracting your hip flexors as you contract your glutes, or you might be so afraid of hurting yourself in that unfamiliar movement that you instinctively contract your hip flexors as you try to lift your leg, in an effort to protect yourself from harm by preventing the leg from lifting. All of that would likely be entirely subconscious.
If you hold your leg in the air 10 seconds or more, chances are better that your hip flexors will actually relax and lengthen, since your nervous system will have time to notice that contracting the hip flexors interferes, the glutes can handle the job, and that the movement feels pretty safe.
Better yet, if you make the movement of lifting your leg so small that you barely notice an effort and feel zero concern about your safety, you’ll gradually be able to feel what makes it easier to lift your leg, and recruit more and more of your glutes while relaxing your hip flexors more and more. And at that point you’ll be doing an extremely simple Feldenkrais lesson. This is why Feldenkrais works so well.
However, all of that is in the very simple context of lying on the floor and lifting a leg, where glute contraction produces hip extension and requires hip flexor lengthening and relaxation.
Running is nothing like that.
The Glutes Don’t Do What You Think
The main problem with applying the principle of reciprocal inhibition to lengthening your hip flexors when you run is that just because your hip flexors are too tight doesn’t mean its the right time to be strongly contracting your glutes.
Short hip flexors are most of all a problem as you’re moving from midstance towards toe off and the flight phase of running. That’s this part:
People commonly believe the main job of the glutes is right at this moment, helping you push off. But EMG studies of muscle activation in running such as this one suggest they while they may do this to some extent—more so in uphill running than on the level—this is not their primary function.
Your glutes actually are most active right before and during midstance—that is, when your weight is most on your foot on the ground—and then a moment later when your free leg is swinging through. Their job is primarily isometric, meaning they’re not making movement, they’re stopping movement.
The movements they’re stopping are (in the case of midstance) your torso falling forward and you landing on your head, and (in the case of midswing) slowing down your swing leg so you can land on it.
The Effect of Intentionally Activating Your Glutes to Push Off
So if you activate your glutes to actively push off when running, you run the risk of forcing them to work excessively during late stance. Which means that your body is going to do something it wouldn’t normally do.
Let’s go back to the example of you lying on your front on the floor. Do that for a sec, and activate one side of your glutes—just one buttock. Don’t lift your leg, just squeeze, and notice what part of you presses more into the floor.
You’ll almost certainly notice the front of your hip presses more.
That’s what happens when you activate your glutes on one side during late stance and toe off: your hip gets pushed forward. This is the exact opposite of what’s supposed to be happening. That side of your pelvis is supposed to be moving backwards until just before your toes leave the ground. It’s part of your core action, the counterrotation of pelvis and upper body.
So actively squeezing your glutes on that side interferes with the movement of your pelvis, which interferes with your shift of weight from leg to leg and the ability to use your torso as a spring. It also interferes with your forward lean by forcing you to move your head backwards to maintain your balance.
And all of this adds up to shifting your overall bodyweight farther back relative to your feet, resulting—surprise!—in sore, stressed, and overused hip flexors and quads!
The sore quads come about because, with your weight is slightly behind your stance foot at midstance, your quads are required to contract to hold you up.
Sore, stressed, overused hip flexors come about because your pelvis can’t assist your leg in swinging forward during that phase of the gait cycle, as it got pushed forward too early. So your hip flexors have to do more of the work from an overstretched, mechanically disadvantageous position.
And the cherry on top is that, ironically, running like this means you will need more hip extension (or hyperextension if you want the anatomically correct term) than you otherwise would because you are more upright. (More on that next week.)
So all of that is what happens if you contract the glutes on one side as you push off. What if you contract/squeeze both glutes as you run?
Lie on the ground again and squeeze both sets of glutes. Notice how both hips now press into the ground?
That’s what will happen when you run. Both sides of your pelvis will be pushed forwards the entire time, making it very hard for your pelvis to turn or tip normally. You’re basically locking it in place.
You also will likely push it so far forward that your upper body will be pushed backwards, putting into motion a more intense version of the sequence of events I described above and resulting in sore and irritated quads and hip flexors.
And on top of that, your stride length will actually shorten because the chronic contraction of your gluteals means that your legs won’t be free to swing forward as easily or far as they should. The reduction of your pelvis movement also shortens your stride.
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that trying to activate your glutes while running is not going to solve your hip flexor problems, it’s going to make them worse.
However, going back to reciprocal inhibition, you can use that phenomenon to help you ease hip flexor tension and encourage them to lengthen as a warmup before running. Even the most basic glute exercises will work. For instance the popular exercise know as the bird dog (pictured), but ignoring the instruction to hold your pelvis and back still—just let them move, it’s healthy!—works as a good warmup.
Here’s a glute warmup I do before running, though it’s a little more complicated. You can start by holding each leg in the air for 10 sec to help you “find” your glutes again.
Doing these things pre-run and then letting yourself run naturally will help your hips extend better.
To make more progress on changing your habits of shortening your hip flexors, what really works are Feldenkrais lessons. I’ve got a set of two that work together to help you feel how to connect your whole body into an easy movement of hip extension through late stance and toe-off, and also how to use your glutes properly to support you in midstance. If you haven’t already got them, get them here:
Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more about hip extension in running, because I’m not anywhere near done with this topic.
Here's the Facebook Live I did on this blog post, demonstrating what I was talking about and expanding on it:
Posted by The Balanced Runner on Friday, September 22, 2017