5 Ways to Alleviate Hip Flexor Pain from Running

Apr 13, 2023
hip flexor stretch for runners

Acute strains and tears to the hip flexor muscles are common in activities like soccer and ice hockey where explosive knee drive is part of the sport. When you slow things down, however, and get into the sport of running itself, feeling general hip flexor pain while running becomes a familiar phenomenon.

Running for distance has an entirely different movement science than walking or sprinting. The speed at which you move has a dramatic effect on the muscles involved and how much force they have to produce and absorb. This is one of the reasons why, as runners, hip flexor pain tends to be a gradual onset injury as opposed to a sudden strain.

In this article we’ll talk about some of the reasons why runners develop hip flexor pain, how to treat it, and what you can do to avoid it from showing up again in the future.

What Are Hip Flexors?

Several different muscles contribute to hip flexion, but some have more influence than others. The adductors, sartorius, and tensor fascia latae all have a hip flexing function, but are eclipsed by the strength and power of the rectus femoris and iliopsoas when it comes to running. For simplicity, we will focus on these two major hip flexors.

Rectus Femoris

The rectus femoris is a muscle in your quadriceps group, and is in fact the only quad muscle that crosses the hip joint, giving it its hip flexing function. It’s a large mass of muscle tissue that actually stretches all the way down the front of the thigh, merging onto the patella (kneecap) through the quad tendon.

Rectus femoris is shown on the left leg of this animated model. Notice the connection to the hip and the way it traverses all the way down to the knee cap. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

Iliopsoas

Iliopsoas is actually a group of muscles, iliacus and psoas major/minor, that work together to perform the same function. This muscle complex is the body’s strongest hip flexor. Your psoas muscle is also the only muscle that attaches your upper and lower body, attaching at the femur and all five lumbar (lower back) vertebrae.

Psoas major/minor are often just referred to as the ‘psoas’ muscle, due to the psoas minor not being present in a large percentage of the population. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

How Does Running Cause Hip Flexor Pain?

While jogging or distance running doesn’t require a person to flex the hip as powerfully as somebody who is sprinting, it does require them to flex the hip far more repetitively. This leaves us runners open to what is called an overuse injury; when a muscle is overburdened without enough time for recovery.

Usain Bolt (100 meter world record holder) for example can run 100 meters with only 41 strides. Those are 41 of the most powerful strides ever taken. On the other hand, the average recreational runner takes approximately 1,500 steps every mile depending on how fast they’re running. They’re far less powerful, but exponentially more multiplied.

Who do you think is more likely to tear a hip flexor muscle? And who do you think is more likely to develop an overuse injury?

Phases of Running Gait

A man going through one gait cycle with his right leg; from when his right foot makes contact with the ground to when it makes contact with the ground again. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

In the picture above you can see a man going through what is called a gait cycle. From the moment his (in this case, right) foot touches the ground to the moment that same foot touches the ground again while running is one gait cycle. There are two main phases of the gait cycle, stance phase and swing phase.

Stance phase is the period when one foot is in contact with the ground and bearing body weight while the other foot is in the air.

Swing phase is the period during which the foot is off the ground and moving forward in preparation for the next contact with the ground.

The muscles that primarily drive the leg forward through swing phase are the hip flexors, and it’s this motion that is literally being repeated thousands of times everytime we go out for a run. Our hip flexors could potentially become overworked as a result, which can often be accompanied by inflammation, tenderness, tightness, ache, and pain.

Tight Hip Flexors From Running

The hip flexors are already likely to become tight as a result of our modern lifestyles. When we sit it puts the hip into a flexed position. This includes working at a desk, sitting in school, driving a car, or sitting on the couch. Unfortunately, research shows that children, adults, and senior citizens alike spend up to eight hours a day being sedentary.

While running is a wonderful and indeed the most accessible form of physical activity, it can sometimes make things worse by overworking an already compromised hip. Because of its attachment to the lumbar spine, your psoas can actually start to pull on your low back if it becomes too tight, bowing you into an excessive lumbar curve known as lordosis.

 

A tilted pelvis makes it harder for the core muscles to contract because they are now in a stretched position. Lack of core strength forces the hips to work harder than they should. (Image credit: Adobe Stock)

Excessive arching in the low back will tip the pelvis forward, so your hip will now be working at a suboptimal angle, increasing the likelihood of conditions like hip impingement syndrome. This position also causes the core to lose its stability, making it unable to produce isometric (non-moving) strength while running.

How to Fix Hip Flexor Pain From Running

While there can be many causes of this issue, there are a few common starting points that will help get you on the right track and back to running pain-free.

Strengthen the Core & Hip Flexors

By properly engaging the abdominal muscles during core exercises, whether you're lifting the torso (as in a sit-up) or your legs (as in a leg raise), you teach the hip flexors and abdominals to work in concert with one another. This is extremely important for an activity like running, where you need the core to be stable while the legs move dynamically beneath you.

Lengthen the Hip Flexors

This can be done dynamically pre-run or passively post-run and on recovery days. Gently stretching the hip flexors can help them to relax back to their normal length, releasing some of the tension they’ve been taught to hold as a result of our running practice and modern lifestyles in general.

Have Your Running Form Assessed

Particularly your stride length. If you’re overstriding, i.e. your foot is landing too far out in front of you, you’re not only applying excessive braking forces to the body, you’re also carrying your leg farther than you have to or should be. This just means extra work for the hip flexors when they really don’t need it!

Strengthen the Glute Muscles

This is important for a number of reasons in runners, but certainly for those of us experiencing hip flexor pain. Your glutes (butt muscles) are antagonists to the hip flexors, and perform the opposite function (hip extension). When a muscle is tight it tends to inhibit its antagonist, so specifically targeting them in your workouts can help restore balance.

Avoid Flare-Ups

You may have to temporarily reduce your running intensity to give the hip flexors an opportunity to heal. If the pain is a result of some sort of overuse, the last thing that’s going to help it is trying to run even more. Be patient with your body, and trust that it is trying to help you the best it can. Give yourself rest, and slowly creep the mileage back up to where you were.

Protect Yourself From Hip Pain With Dynamic Runner

 

Looking for a program that will help you address the muscle imbalance that is likely causing your hip pain? At Dynamic Runner, we have hundreds of professionally programmed routines that help build strength and resilience in the body. Complete your regimen with an all-inclusive program that addresses mobility, flexibility, strength and injury prevention, all for a fraction of the cost of one physiotherapy appointment. All of the tips we mentioned today are built right into the workouts you’ll do, all in 30 minutes or less! Try out our 6 week Hip Function & Rehab program, free for 7-days by clicking here!

Written by Eric Lister – Certified Personal Trainer & Corrective Exercise Specialist

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