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FIT Hips for Runners

By Anna Martin, Personal Trainer

Running is a powerful dynamic movement pattern, requiring many muscle systems to cooperate and behave at once. I’ve called myself a runner for the majority of my adult life. It's cathartic and meditative, at least for me, and an exercise I have found nary a comparison when it comes to feeling strong and tough. Plus, I like the idea of being self-propelled.

To run efficiently, we need to harness the large amount of power available in our hips, glutes, and legs. Being a skilled and happy runner takes more than just running. It takes cross training, diligence, and the ability to be patient and understand that a dynamic movement is not always going to be a predictable one and we as runners are bound to have off days. But, the more strength we develop in our hips, glutes and core, the more successful we can be - with more “on” days and fewer injuries.

Our thigh and core muscles are large and intended to work hard for us. They hoist us out of chairs multiple times a day. They birth babies. They can be trusted when trained properly. When adequately strengthened, the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and hips are trained to take the bulk of the load from running (and lifting). When these muscles are strong, the smaller muscles in our hips, lower legs, and feet get to work less and carry the appropriate amount of the load of running. Runners are not the only people for whom strong, stable hips are advantageous. We can all benefit from more efficient movement patterns in everyday activities.

Muscles can be strong and unstable. They can be strong but not flexible, pliable, or mobile, which can also increase the risk of injury. Ideally, muscles are strong, getting messages from the owner for when to perform, yet flexible enough to know when to relax. Strength training, mobility training, and stretching will increase communication and improve proprioception so this internal messaging system is efficient.

Image of Lauren leading a pre-race warm up on UNC Campus, 2014

Strength is force. Stability is that force applied with balance and control. It is the difference between screaming and singing. Creating hip stability allows us to have a relatively equal amount of strength balanced on all sides so the pelvis stays fairly even. There are over fifteen muscles in the hip area, working together to provide power and explosive movement for running as well as keeping the hips stable and the lower back healthy. Hip stabilizing exercises will give the runner a more equal distribution of the load in your stride, meaning less opportunity for other muscles to compensate, which often leads to strain and pain. At times of inefficiency, the smaller muscles are asked to take too much responsibility during training. They will typically alert the runner in the form of shin splints, IT band irritation, plantar fasciitis,...etc. For a seasoned runner, this may be a familiar list. These may also be signs of hip instability.

The IT band is talked about often with runners and cyclists and it usually elicits groans, especially when subjected to the foam roller! Made of a band of thick fascia (fibrous connective tissue), the iliotibial band runs from the lateral side of the iliac crest (outside of the hip) to the lateral aspect of the tibia (outside of lower leg/knee). This explains the IT abbreviation, and since it travels down the outside of the thigh it can get cranky with repetitive movement and little recovery time or stretching. Incorporating gentle massage and range of motion stretching can help increase circulation to the area and help the IT band gain some length by increasing flexibility in the muscles around it.

Studies show that increasing hip stability increases power and performance in running and sprinting up to 12.2%! (Effects of hip flexor training on sprint, shuttle run, and vertical jump performance. Because of this, beginning and maintaining a hip stability and strengthening program can keep these smaller muscles content and stave off injury. Maintaining this practice is equally important once you are comfortable with the movements. It is human nature to do these exercises when rehabilitating an injury, only to stop once the pain is alleviated. But, sticking with these movements once your body feels better is imperative!

Try these movements once a week and see how you feel after a few weeks. Ramp up to 2-3 times per week if you have the time. Maintain strength by incorporating them at least once per week into your strength and training schedule.


1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions each leg

0-5 seconds hold at the top

Begin lying on your side, propped up on your elbow or lying flat on the ground.

Bend your knees slightly in front of you.

Keeping feet together, raise the top leg, opening like a clam, as wide as you can go while keeping your hips still. Repeat!

Hip Bridge with Band

1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions

0-5 seconds hold at the top

Place a looped band around your thighs above your knees. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat, several inches away from your hips. Flatten your arms on the ground with shoulders down.

Lift your hips up until they make a straight line from knees to shoulders (as high as you can). Return to the ground and repeat.

Prone Hip Extension

1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions each leg

0-5 seconds hold at the top

Lie face down with chin on hands. Draw your bellybutton up away from the ground. Bend one knee to 90 degrees.

While pushing your front hip bones into the ground, lift your thigh up away from the ground. Think about stamping your foot on the ceiling. Don't let your hips leave the ground. For folks who have trouble lying flat - place a towel, mat, or bolster under the hips!

Hip Stretch - on Ground or on Foam Roller

1-2 sets of 30 seconds hold each leg

Lie on your back on the ground with one leg straight on the ground. Bring one knee up to your chest and hold behind or in front of the knee with your hands. Breathe deeply and relax your pelvis muscles. For deeper stretch, place foam roller under your hips.

Hip Flexor Stretch - Using Chair or Sofa

1-2 sets of 30 seconds hold each leg

Being careful to keep your balance, place one foot behind you up onto a surface such as a chair, sofa, or ottoman. Tuck your hips under, tighten your abs, and stand up tall.

Note: Lifting the foot up to the chair back makes this stretch feel more intense, as in the first photo.

Hip Flexor Knee Drive with Loop Band

1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions each leg

1 second hold at the top

Place a loop band around your thighs, above the knees. Stand up tall with hands on wall for support if you need it, and pull your bellybutton in. Press your weight into one foot as you lift your opposite knee forward and up as high as you can, while keeping your hips level. Repeat.

Single Leg Squat

1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions each leg

Using a chair and/or TRX Suspension Straps for support if you need them, place the majority of your weight into one leg.

Put your other heel on the ground, or lift that leg completely up off the ground. Lower down into a squat on the standing leg, going as low as you can, or lowering into a chair.

Use your thigh to come back up. If using straps, pull with your arms some to help you. Repeat.

Try this with no equipment and leg raised off the ground for the greatest challenge!

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