Running: its all in the hips ….
When going for a run, whether it’s a casual jog or a 10km race, you should always consider the following two thoughts; efficiency and injury prevention. For most novice runners, the knees and feet get most of the attention and more often than not, the hips are forgotten. A common misconception about how to run is exactly where does the power come from. Most are under the assumption that the motion, like when walking, is generated by stepping one foot out in front of your body and then pushing off the ground by straightening your knee using your quadricep muscles. However, when you drive hard through your quad muscles, you’re inevitably going to be overstriding.
While it’s true that the power created from straightening your knee while running does contribute, it is not the principle driver. In fact, an over-emphasis on this is often root cause of many running injuries such as hamstring issues, IT band pain, achilles tendinopathy or patellofemoral pain. So how do you generate power to run, if not by overstriding?
The answer is to focus on hip drive. This means to use your hip/rear muscles to extend your leg into the ground, which will provide the necessary focus without causing you to overstride. Hip extension is supposed to be where the body generates most of its forward force while running. Contraction of the gluteus maximus muscle provides the most force and a weakness in this muscle is quite clear, typically presenting with the runner’s torso leaning forward with minimal hip extension.
So we now know that working on our gluteal strength can help our hip extension, but is that enough? Research has shown many runners learn to use their hips in exercises but then revert back to old habits once running. Therefore focus needs to put on changes to technique as well as strength. So how can we work on extending our legs backwards while running? The answer is to work on our hip flexion during our swing phase.
It is important to visualise that hip drive is linked to knee lift. When running, the higher you lift your knee during the swing phase of your stride, the opposite hip will extend back further during its stance phase. Hip flexion is the movement that causes you to lift your knees higher. So by flexing your hip and bringing your knee higher, you will will have a greater range to extend your hip into and thus generating more power. This is not to be confused with overstriding, which is extending your knee out from your body. Below I have added pictures of two very recognisable runners; Usain Bolt and Mo Farah.
The obvious difference between these two athletes are the distances they are running and also their speeds. But looking at the pictures, you can see there a number of similarities between them. Both have upright posture, both have fully extended hips and knees in their back leg and both have high levels of hip flexion in their front leg. You may notice that Bolt is flexing his hip higher than Farah, but if we go back to the concept that hip drive hip is linked to knee lift, that makes sense as Bolt requires more power for the type of race he is running.
A delicate balance therefore exists between the length and strength of your hip flexors and your hip extensions. Studies have shown that we can generate forces between 2.5 and 5 times our body-weight with each running stride. Therefore identifying subtle imbalances and deficiencies in our running technique is pivotal for injury prevention. The rehabilitation for a running injury can vary in length due to either the severity of the injury, the runners baseline fitness or where the injury is. The rehabilitation model however doesn’t change and it has three components: 1) identifying the cause of your
pain and reducing it, 2) assessing your running technique and providing your with specific exercises for your specific deficiencies and 3) correcting your running technique by applying the exercises from 2) into your running and giving you running coaching tips.
This blog was aimed to inform you about the role of the hips in generating power in running. In part 2, I will discuss the role of the hips as stabilizers while running.