If you’re a runner, you’re probably no stranger to tight hips or maybe even hip pain after running.
That’s because running requires your hip flexors to constantly be working, stretching and contracting to pull your leg forward or extend it backward each time you take a step. And, for my long-distance runners, you’re asking your hips to keep doing that work for extended periods of time.
But, even if you are doing everything right when it comes to stretching, maintaining good form, and ensuring you never miss your cool-down routine, it’s not uncommon to still feel lingering tightness or soreness around your hips.
What causes hip pain after running?
The culprit behind your discomfort - whether a dull ache or a debilitating pain - could be your iliopsoas muscle.
If you aren’t familiar with this one, don’t worry.
You see, when most people talk about tight hip flexors, they are usually referring to what’s known as the iliopsoas muscle. This is a name for two muscles that live side by side, the iliacus and the psoas muscles.
These muscles act a bit like rubber bands, expanding and contracting to propel you forward while you’re running. But, when you are mid-stride, with one leg forward and the other extended backward, you are causing your iliopsoas muscles to work double time. They need to have the flexibility to move your leg behind you and contract to bring your leg in front of you, while, at the same time, stabilizing your pelvis and core.
As you can imagine, this is a very taxing job. Your iliopsoas can become fatigued and may tense up - causing knots, hip tightness and/or hip pain while running.
Additionally, if there is an asymmetry somewhere along the chain, it’s unlikely that each iliopsoas muscle is exerting the exact same amount of energy, which leaves room for one to pull a little more on your pelvis or thigh bones than the other side.
This is what I refer to as Tight Hips, Twisted Core (which is the name I used for my book to describe this extremely common phenomenon). In my practice, I’ve seen clients’ whose iliopsoas muscles are pulling so tightly that they’ve developed an unnatural curvature in their back or cannot fully extend their legs when lying down.
It’s not surprising then, that a tight iliopsoas can lead to a whole plethora of other issues.
The most common injuries for runners
Unfortunately, most runners will experience an injury. From minor tendinitis to serious tears that require surgery, an estimated 79% of runners will sustain at least one injury. That’s almost 8 out of 10!
And this isn’t limited to serious athletes or fitness fanatics. Honestly, many of the people that I have treated were non-competitive runners suffering from such bad hip flexor pain, knee pain, or foot pain, that it stopped them from enjoying one of their favorite activities. When running is your go to activity for stress management and exercise, this can be a significant bummer for most.
Many of the most common injuries have nothing to do with the hip - or so it seems. Here are some of the most common injuries for runners:
- Plantar fasciitis
- Sore ankles
- Shin splints or fractures
- Runner’s knee
- Achilles tendinitis
- Outer hip pain
- Pulled hamstrings
- Iliotibial (IT) band syndrome
- Back pain
But research shows that there is a very strong correlation between hip strength and running injuries. And, once injured, your abductor and hip flexor muscles are much more likely to be weakened, making them more susceptible to subsequent injuries. Also, hip tightness development, common in runners, affects the mechanics of the entire leg as it hits the ground, setting the stage for injury from the back to the tips of the toes.
So, hip strength and - because your iliopsoas connects at your core - core strength may help mitigate future injuries and hip pain while running. Similarly, a relaxed hip flexor allows for proper alignment of the pelvis/hip area and therefore, allows the rest of the leg to be efficient and aligned. Joints don’t like to be out of place, then they rub the wrong way and protest with pain.
The point is, getting your hip muscles to release their tense grip on your body will not only allow for the rest of your leg to be in alignment and the joints not irritated, but the muscles around the hip, leg and core will work more effectively.
How to release your iliopsoas muscles
Some strength-building exercises may only strain already-fatigued muscles even more. So, it’s really important to get your hip flexors to relax before moving forward with training.
As I mentioned, the iliopsoas is made up of two smaller muscles. Your psoas muscles are a bit easier to work and massage with your hands. But, due to their location on your body, your iliacus muscles are much more difficult to reach. And, when people come to me with mysterious pain, it’s the iliacus that is often at the root of the problem.
There are three potential ways to release this muscle: with your fingers and the right applied pressure, a trained professional, or the Hip Hook, which is a tool created to locate the point where your iliacus attaches to your core with extreme precision.
The truth is, it’s very difficult to find the right angle and be able to apply enough pressure with your own hands. And a good physical therapist may not always be an option - or easy to find. The Hip Hook helps make hip pain after running a thing of the past, helping you effectively release your iliacus at home.
After doing so a couple of times a week for a few weeks, it will be time to build that strength back up. The muscles will actually start to work more efficiently automatically when the hip flexor is relaxed and your pelvis is in alignment, you’ll be amazed. And you can prevent hip tightness from becoming hip pain in the future.
How to strengthen your hips for running
Once you have happy hip flexors again, you can follow these tips to help strengthen your core and prevent future injuries:
Do functional workouts for your entire core
You don’t need to start lifting weights at the gym or do tons of sit-ups. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Instead, opt for workouts that strengthen your entire core and are low impact, such as the classic plank and box squat.
Don’t rush into a lot of new milage
Build up to your running goals slowly. Pushing your body to do more miles than it’s ready for will do more harm than good.
Review your form
Never lose sight of proper running form - or how you are distributing your weight as you take strides. It’s extremely common for runners to have one leg that’s slightly shorter than the other and/or to have a strong leg. You can still overcome these imbalances by being intentional with your form, but even more effective is making sure your pelvis is aligned and you don’t have tightness around the hip that is pulling you out of place. Then your form will naturally improve.
Train for your specific type of run
Sprinting and endurance running are going to put two very different types of strain on your body and iliopsoas muscles. It’s important to follow a training routine that is made for the specific type of run you are training for, including the surface you’ll be running on.
Warm up your hip flexors and help reduce hip pain after running by doing active stretches specifically targeted toward that area, such as lunge stretches. Adding in a sidebend to the opposite side you are stretching is magic.
Never forget a cooldown
Just as you’d never start a run cold, you should always take the time to let your muscles relax afterward. Stretching and self-myofascial release (foam rolling) are great ways to ease the tension that may build up during a run.
Practice slow yoga poses
Yoga poses such as bridge, fire hydrant, and downward dog can help build core strength stability when you really focus on slowing down and holding proper form. You may be surprised at how hard these “simple” poses can be!
Strengthening your hips and core is all about giving your body more stability - especially if you’ve already suffered from an injury. Being strong, relaxed, and aligned in your hips is the golden ticket to running long-term. While you can never fully relieve your iliopsoas muscles of the constant stress that is running, you should be able to enjoy running without hip pain or injuries.
To learn more about how I helped runners reduce their back, knee, and hip pain with iliacus release, you can read my book Tight Hip, Twisted Core. Want to experience the world’s first tool designed specifically to release the iliacus? Get Hip Hooked.