Your lower back hurts when you run, you land too far up on your forefeet or too far back on your heels, your quads get really sore, you have runners’ knee, you run too upright, you run too slowly, your stride length is too short, your shoulders get tight…the list of running woes that can be traced back to tight hip flexors is a very long one. How can just one problem cause so much havoc?
The answer is simple. When you run, your pelvis has to be able to pass your foot that’s on the ground. In other words, your leg has to be able to go behind you.
Your hip flexors are the muscles responsible for the opposite action: getting your leg in front of you. So they have to lengthen to allow your leg to go behind you. And when they’re tight or habitually held too short, one of two things happens:
- They don’t allow your leg to go back
- Your lower back arches in order to allow your leg to go back
Pounding the Feet and Knees
If #1 happens, you end up keeping your feet too much in front of you and can’t easily push yourself up and forward.
Your feet may land much too far forward, creating a “pounding” sensation and slowing you down.
And by the time you’re in midstance, with two or more times your bodyweight supported on one foot, that weight might still be behind your foot, as if you were sitting in a chair.
Except of course there’s no chair there, so instead your quadriceps muscles contract strongly to keep you from sitting on the ground. This can be irritating to the patellar tendon, leading to runners’ knee and also making sore quads an issue you regularly have to deal with.
Then when it’s time to shift forward and push off into the air, your weight is still not as far in front of your foot as it should be so you push yourself up more than forward, leading to excessive bouncing (aka vertical oscillation) which also increases your feeling that you’re taking a pounding each time you land. And it makes you run more slowly, since you’re not moving forward as much with each step as you should be.
Also, when you push off with your weight too far back, you can end up with too much pressure on your foot, which irritates and even injures your plantar fascia, leading to plantar fasciosis.
Stressing the Back and Forefeet
Option #2—your lower back arching—happens because the iliopsoas, your strongest and most important hip flexor, is attached to the inside of your lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. So if you run out of length in that muscle, you can end up just pulling your lower back forward as your leg moves backwards, with a result that you arch your back.
It’s not very comfortable, and leads not only to lower back pain but also potentially to upper back/shoulder pain or tension as you pull your upper body and head backwards to balance yourself against the forward pull on your lower back.
Runners with this situation often hit the ground with an exaggerated forefoot strike, which can lead to chronic calf tension and cause achilles tendon problems.
This also often leads to very bouncy running as you still don’t get very far past your foot as you push off, so you go up too much and forward too little.
Regardless of whether you’re experiencing #1 or #2, your stride length will be shorter than it should be because you just can’t get your pelvis far enough past your foot.
Although shortening your stride intentionally is currently a popular solution for these problems, since by deliberately taking shorter, more relaxed steps you don’t create the stress of yanking on your hip flexors, that doesn’t mean you’ll run your best that way. In fact, the faster you want to run the longer a stride length you’ll need.
So whether you’re an injured or suffering runner looking to solve your hip flexor problem to get rid of your pain, or you’re a healthy runner with goals that you’ll need longer hip flexors to attain, this is something you need to be working on…and working on it correctly!
A few months ago I wrote another blog post explaining how to do this most effectively, going beyond the simple hip flexor stretches that you’ll usually get from your physio or find online. Read it here.
Here’s where you can get my two best Feldenkrais lessons for learning how to lengthen your hip flexors and extend your hips:
And definitely read my next post on this topic, Activating Your Glutes Fixes Tight Hip Flexors... or does it?
I expanded on this blog post and the subsequent one on the Great North Run 2017 on Facebook Live. Here's the replay: