Someone recently asked me how I relax my hips while running. At the time, I found that although I could relax my legs, including hips and knees by simply making a decision to, I couldn’t explain how I was doing this. So, I spent the next few runs analyzing what my body was doing to respond to this cognitive demand or what I intuitively changed to make it happen, in hopes that my description of this might make it easier for other runners to do the same thing. Since I am predominantly a barefoot runner, only donning the most minimal of shoes in harsh conditions, all of this is unavoidably intertwined with being able to have full use of all my foot and lower leg muscles.
These factors are not listed in any particular order. Like learning to work on a swimming stroke, it is often just a matter of needing to think about one thing at a time, but it all comes together in the actual stroke.
1. Think of the fact that the hip joint is actually a ball and socket joint. Sure, it has its limits, but with running we can tend to think of only the forward movement and let ourselves become stiff doing this. Just a moment to picture the swiveling possibilities of the joint can help me run loosely.
2. Letting the legs swing some, even for an infinitesimal time while in the air, can also help. Too many times, I find myself thinking so hard about making myself run, that I am tensing every leg muscle through every part of the running motion. If, instead, I let most of the lower leg relax quite a bit until impact, but envision a swing to the forward step, the hips take up this action a bit more loosely. On contact with the ground, the muscles in the lower leg will automatically respond, but read below for details about that.
3. As mentioned, and many barefoot runners already know, thinking about bending the knees can help with shock absorption and gently running. I help myself do this more by thinking of sinking down some into each step. This does not mean that I am slowing down between strides or in some sort of weird slo-mo world, because I am always thinking about taking the next step, too. It is more like a spring loading for the next step.
4. Another well known attribute of efficient running is keeping up a quick cadence. If I am working on this, it is much more comfortable if my leg muscles are not constantly tense. So, I think about being springy with this quickness. Notice, I’m not saying I am a fast runner. I am just saying that I am working on a fast turnover in my stride.
5. This next suggestion may be a little harder for the male runner. I think of allowing a slight sideways swing to my hips. I know, very girlie of me. But I discovered a while ago that it made walking more comfortable. Then, I added the “thought of it” to my attempts to be loose while I run. I don’t think anyone can tell or would think I am “swinging my hips” while running.
6. When I am having particular trouble getting myself to relax, I often find that switching up the speed a little helps. Usually it is just a few steps slower, followed by a few steps faster than I was going. Then, I can settle loosely into a pace that I think I want to and can run for a while. Sometimes the speed play is more like fartleks or pace adjustments due to a hill or wind. It all seems to help.
7. Playing with debris, like it is a miniature obstacle course, creates sideways movement, too. Like with trail running, I have experienced that this sort of motion naturally helps me feel the range of motion in my hips, as well and keep the muscles active that help with overall balance.
It is a bit harder to stay loose when I am tired, but not impossible. If I am adding distance to my long run, I usually have to let my self go a bit slower for the last bit in order to stay loose. I can feel my perceived ability to continue running go higher with both of these actions, which I have to think about distinctly at this point.
There are other things that I do not do when I am not running, that may or may not make a difference, but you might as well know all the variables. I don’t stretch regularly. Not before the run and not afterward. I do several other things that could affect my overall flexibility and muscle strength:
- Swim 2-3 times a week
- Ride the spinning bike during the winter, and regular bicycles outside during the warmer months, 2-3 times a week.
- Go dancing 1-2 times a month, which involves everything from high kicks to twirling.
- Work in my acre yard regularly, which means working in many positions that remind me of yoga.
- Occasional long run in the wilderness with the family.
- Take a hot bath and massage my legs almost nightly.
As I have mentioned before, running more loosely tends to help me run at a faster pace with less effort. I also have much less trouble with muscle strain. I have more fun since it is more like I am floating along.