Have you ever had a hip flexor tighten up on a run, or do you maybe even suffer from a chronically tight hip flexor? The feeling of it tugging every time your leg is behind you may make you yearn to stretch it out, and you might even find yourself giving it an extra little pull each time you feel the tug to try and lengthen it.
If you do that, though, you may have noticed it never gets better. In fact, it can grow more and more annoying, possibly cause you to end your run early, and even sometimes turn into a pull that affects subsequent runs.
This whole sequence of events is set into motion when you decide that the feeling of tightness indicates that the problem is that the muscle is tight. But there’s another way to look at it that will lead you to an actual run-salvaging solution.
This shift of perspective starts from thinking of your whole body as a system that works together. From this perspective there’s no such thing as a local problem; a single muscle that wasn’t tight to start with won’t just get tight all by itself during a run. Something about how you’re running causes it to tighten.
Furthermore, there’s not much point in talking about your tight muscle as if it were a single independent rebellious entity. No part of your body acts on its own. Your muscle isn’t an “it” that’s “tight.” The movement of your whole body all together is coordinated by your nervous system, which tightens and lengthens muscles as needed by the situation according to your interaction with your environment and your idea of what you’re doing. You – meaning your nervous system – are tightening up that hip flexor because you feel there is reason to do so.
In other words, it’s not that your tight hip flexor is the problem, it’s that you are tightening your hip flexor to try to solve a problem. Solve the problem the tightness is meant to fix and it will go away.
The shortening of a hip flexor is part of the act of bringing the leg forward. The sensation of tightness there indicates that something about how you’re running is making it too hard to bring the leg forward. That’s the problem you need to solve – how to more easily bring the leg forward.
Often the difficulty is what Romanov, inventor of the Pose Technique, calls a “late pull,” or waiting too long to start bringing your leg forward so that it’s still a bit behind you when you’re in midstance instead of right underneath, where it belongs. (I disagree with his view that we should actively “pull” or lift the foot from the ground, but his terminology could describe a passive as well as active movement so I’m going to stick with it.) This creates tremendous drag in the leg and leaves the hip flexor stretched too long, and your nervous system responds to the sensation of stretch by tightening the muscle. You consciously feel only the tightness, and if you react to it by trying to leave your leg back a little longer to “stretch,” you’ve just exacerbated the problem, which will begin to snowball.
Other possible (and not mutually exclusive) causes include having the opposite side glutes not active enough, having trouble turning the pelvis to help bring the leg forward, and having the glutes or hamstrings on the same side chronically a bit too contracted and thus creating too much resistance to bring the leg forward. You probably wouldn’t actually feel any of these things because they’re not intrinsically uncomfortable, whereas an overstretched hip flexor is.
No matter which – or how many – of these possible causes underlies your hip flexor issue, the solution is the same: bring the knee forward more quickly. You’ll rapidly feel the tension ease off.
No matter how smart you are, your unconscious mind is smarter, and when it sees fit to tighten a muscle trust the impulse and go with it. Your brain is trying to bring your leg forward, so do it! If shifting your form to help the tight muscle work more effectively doesn’t fully do the trick you could also stop and try this, which works on the same principles.
If you regularly get tight hip flexors, then you need more than just an effective technique for relieving the tension once it starts–you need to address the root cause so it stops happening. So I’ve put together a set of Feldenkrais lessons for you that addresses all three of the possible causes. I call it the Hip Flexor Balance Kit, and you can get it for free here:
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.