Hey Muscles, Mind Your Own Business!

Ah, the joys of running! Getting out for some fresh air, feeling your heart pumping hard, clearing your head of your usual rambles, and rising on that runner’s high- unbeatable! Until your hips start feeling tired, tight, and achy and you wonder: I know I’m strong. I run. I stretch. Why do I feel so tight?

When athletes come into my studio, I often hear reports of feeling tight and achy in the front of the hips and back of the legs. They tell me they stretch before and after after they run- and even use the foam roller- but the tight muscles never seem to fully let up. It’s true: while stretching may feel good in the moment, the benefits can seem fleeting. The hips become tight again, and it’s as if they were never stretched.

When I hear this, I start to wonder: do these tight muscles ever turn off, or are they always holding some level of tension? Can these tight muscles relax while other muscles are engaged around the hip, or are they being bullies and taking over for underused muscle groups? Are you following your stretching with proper strengthening? Stretching alone isn’t the solution to your tight hips. And if your muscle groups aren’t firing appropriately and working together, balancing front and back of the body, inside and outside of the hip and leg, and left and right, dysfunction will find you!

Let’s explore further. The first potential pain and tightness tyrants: the hip flexors. These muscles are very active during a run, working to lift the leg and move it forward in the swing phase of the running gait cycle. During the day, hip flexors often get tight and shortened due to increased time sitting at work, on the couch, or in the car. So it’s not altogether surprising that you might feel tightness in the front of the hips and down the sides of the legs. However, your hip flexors should not be active ALL the time.

Detective hat on! There’s a rather simple yet telling test to check for over-active hip flexors. In my studio, I’ll have you lie on your back with your knees bent. You’ll place a small ball between your knees and squeeze the ball with the knees, while checking for hip flexor activity with your hands. When the inner thighs squeeze against the ball, there should be no tension felt in the hip flexors. Only the inner thighs (adductors) should be at work. If the hip flexors turn on, this is likely (a) limiting the function of the inner thigh musculature, and/or (b) working to maintain tension or tightness in the hip flexors when they should be soft and relaxed. No wonder they get fatigued when they are used in a run and when exercising. They’ve been busy taking over for other muscles and not getting rest they need to lengthen. This not only leaves your hip flexors feeling tight, but it also leads to other hip and core muscles being underused or underdeveloped. If you are always keeping tension in the hip flexors due to the hip flexors taking over for the adductors (or even the abdominals), they are much less likely to perform well when they are actually flexing the hip. Therefore, they may actually be functionally weak when a task that relies on hip flexor strength, such as running, is attempted.

Next potential contributors to pain and tightness: the hip extensors. The gluteus maximus is the main hip extender, responsible for pulling the leg back and moving the thigh bone behind you. The hamstrings assist the gluteus maximus. However, the hamstrings not only extend the hip (move the thigh bone behind you) but they also flex the knee. The bad news for the glutes, though, is that the hamstrings like to take over for the glute max.

But, bullies beware! With some simple tests, it’s easy to determine if you’re hamstring dominant and underusing your glutes. In my studio, I check for proper hamstring and glute firing by having you lie on your stomach and lift one leg at a time. If there is more hamstring work going on and the hamstrings fire first (working before the glutes), this indicates the hamstrings may be doing more than their share with hip extension. This glute/hamstring imbalance can lead to injury, pain, and malalignment of the hips, sacro-iliac joints (SIJ), and pelvic floor, in addition to the feeling of constant tension in the hamstrings.

Once we’ve identified these imbalances and stretched or foam rolled the tight, overactive culprits, it’s important to follow up with proper strengthening for muscle balance. This means actively working the muscles on the opposite side of the joints (since muscles pull one way on one side, others pull the other way on the other side) and all around the hips and core. When muscles are able to relax fully and lengthen, they are then better equipped to work optimally and meet the tasks that are theirs to do. Once these imbalances and firing patterns are uncovered, we’ll first train these muscle in isolation and then integrate them functionally so that they fire at the right time to perform the task at hand. For our bodies to function well as a complete system, each specific group of muscles must do its job appropriately so the body can maintain balanced muscles, prevent injury, and perform well.

If you’ve been experiencing tight or achy hips, pain in your SIJ, or pelvic floor issues, a little special guidance can get you back on track! I’d love to help you learn to enjoy your running and fitness activities without the pain and tightness. Reach out to me and join me in my studio or in one of my classes... I’m here for you!