When it comes to which elements of your stride you can improve, your hips don’t lie. That’s because hip flexors—the muscles that allow flexion at the hip joint—play a huge role in fluid running, and a set of tight ones can really mess with your mechanics. That’s where incorporating hip stretches designed for runners into your routine can be beneficial.
“The iliopsoas is the strongest group of muscles in the hip flexors, connecting the spine to the femur, and it’s what helps contract and pull the thigh toward the torso, allowing you to bring your knee toward your chest as you run,” explains Amanda Nurse, an elite marathoner and running coach in Boston.
When running, you’re regularly shortening that muscle, never lengthening it; this can lead to imbalances. Sitting all day (think: desk job, Netflix marathons) can make matters worse, all leading to tight hips for runners. “The more time we spend sitting, the more the iliopsoas shortens,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and CEO and founder of TeamHolland LLC.
“The shorter that muscle, the shorter your stride becomes—and that throws off your natural gait, which can create compensations that lead to weaknesses, imbalances, and injury in the muscles that work to move us forward and stabilize us as we run.” That’s why it’s crucial, now more than ever, to give your hips some TLC.
“Never before has strength-training, stretching, and mobility work been more important for runners,” Holland says. “All day, we do the unnatural—sitting—and then we try to do the natural—running—and our bodies aren’t ready for it.”
In order to run more efficiently (and without pain), strategically opening and strengthening your hip flexors needs to be part of your running routine. The easiest place to start relieving hip pain that can be caused by running is with active warmup drills that are often underrated and underutilized, Holland says.
“Two to three minutes of high knees, butt kicks, skipping, and running backward will open up the hips in the front, side, and back planes of motion,” he explains.
Holland also suggests doing strength work in different planes of motion to keep all the muscles in and around your hip flexors, especially your glutes, firing correctly.“You can’t have good hip flexion if your glutes are tight or weak,” Nurse says, “so it’s super important that you’re always stretching and strengthening the front of your hip flexor and the back, which are the glute muscles.”
Unilateral exercises like step-ups and single-leg toe touches are particularly effective at strengthening the glutes, while walking lunges, lateral lunges, air squats, and jump squats will zero in on all the muscles surrounding the hips. Whether you’re strength-training at home or heading out for (or back from!) a run, these five moves will strengthen and open your hips, keep them loose long-term, and not only make you a better runner, but make running feel better to you.
Below, Nurse shares her five favorite hip stretches for runners. Do them after a run or on an off day.
Crescent Lunge Knee-Up
Start in high lunge with left foot forward, knee bent at 90 degrees, hips square, and toes facing forward. Lift arms straight up as you stand and draw right knee toward chest. Return to starting position. Complete 10 reps, then repeat on opposite leg.
What it does: Strengthens glutes (especially the gluteus medius) and hip flexors.
Full-Range Figure Four
Sit upright with knees bent, hands resting behind you. Cross left ankle over right knee. Let right knee travel out to the right, then back to center. Slowly move right knee through a full range of motion, then hold for five breaths when you feel a good stretch. Repeat on the opposite leg.
What it does: Opens hip joints and stretches glutes.
One-Legged Bridge Lift and Lower
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, arms resting at sides. Press into heels and engage glutes to lift hips. Transfer weight to left leg and extend right leg straight out for five breaths. Inhale as you lower right leg to hover over floor for five breaths, then exhale as you lift it back up. Perform 8 reps, then repeat on opposite leg.
What it does: Activates glutes and lengthens and strengthens hip flexors.
Stand with legs just wider than hip-width apart. Send hips back and bend at knees to lower into a squat. Shift weight to right leg as you rise up to standing and extend left leg back (like you’re gliding on skates) while tightening your glutes. Return to squat and repeat on opposite leg. Continue alternating for 60 seconds.
What it does: Strengthens glutes and strengthened hip flexors.