Hip Strength and Control for Better Running

Stay the CourseStrong, mobile hips that move in a controlled way can help us run well. Last month, we presented non-traditional strategies for improving hip mobility in the running motion. These involve performing soft-tissue mobility techniques to the medial and lateral hips and pelvis to improve key hip motions such as flexion and extension.

But once those motions are restored, how do we keep them? And how do we keep from losing them in the first place? To these questions, we offer two answers:

  • Strengthen the hip in its full range of motion.
  • Create efficient, coordinated hip ball-and-socket control.

In this article, we’ll show you how to use hip-strength exercises to reinforce your hips’ range of motion and improve ball-and-socket joint coordination. We also discuss how such strategies may improve your running speed, endurance, and enjoyment.

The Four Dimensions of Hip Strength

It’s easy to look at biomechanical strength in a simple way. At a basic level, strength is an output of force produced by a muscle to accelerate (push or pull) a bone in space or against an object, such as the ground in running or water, a bike pedal, or a ball in other sports.

In distance running, hip strength also has an endurance dimension. It’s not just how hard can you push/pull at a certain intensity, it’s also a matter of how long you can maintain that movement. Thus, in endurance sports, your strength is only as good as your body’s ability to replicate it for hours on end.

Even still, hip strength has two other dimensional meanings, and both of them have substantial impact on movement efficiency, endurance, and injury prevention. First, there is the ability to move a body part through its full range of motion. This is a dynamic measure, where a muscle must have a minimal strength at all parts of a functional movement. For example, a hip flexor may be quite strong at the bottom of the range (say, lifting the foot off the ground), but does it have strength to achieve end-range hip flexion (say, when the knee approaches the chest)?

Runners with good strength at slower speeds and a lower hip-flexion angle may have terrific endurance. But if they lack strength at higher angles, their top speed is compromised. They simply cannot wholly or repetitively flex their hips high enough to achieve fast speeds.

The fourth and final dimension of hip strength is the ability to maintain a spinning femoral head centered in the hip socket. Wait, what?! This is a mind-blowing idea! Remember, the hip is a ball-in-socket joint. A key factor for range of motion, peak strength at any point in that range, and endurance is the hip’s ability to stay centered in its socket, while the leg swings forward and backward through a wide range every three-quarters of a second. It’s the hip stabilizing muscles–the deep rotators–that keep that ball centered in the socket, with small slide, glide, and roll motions.

Hip flexion mechanics

The yellow, 125-degree arrow indicates the upward flexion of the hip. The green “Roll” and Red “Glide” represent the athrokinematic motions that counterbalance the movement and keep the ball centered in the socket. Image: O.quizlet.com/4tCgcJ7WMJJq6sbPDm58HQ.png

Hip Control for Performance and Injury Prevention

A hip ball that stays centered in its socket can move:

  • Farther (higher upward flexion, farther hip extension);
  • With more ease (less resistance, less energy/movement); and
  • Faster and/or with more force.

You can also think of it like this:

  • Farther x ease = endurance.
  • Farther x ease x force = top speed.

Additionally, coordinated control of the femoral head in the socket is crucial for injury prevention. Balanced movement keeps the ball in the socket. Conversely, imbalanced mobility or muscle activation can cause that ball to move off-centered. Effects this include muscle strains resulting from tug-of-war-style matches between counterbalancing hip muscles, where some over-active muscles overpower and strain weaker reciprocal muscles. Also, poor femoral head control causes the ball to bang into, or impinge, the rim edge of the socket.

Thus, strength is far more than just force. It is also control and efficiency. Mobility is the start. But to keep it, we must teach the hip muscles to move:

  • Through their full range of motion; and
  • While keeping the ball centered in the socket with smooth, isolated hip motion.

Exercise Strategies: Efficient, Full-Range Strengthening

In this section, we outline the foundational movements to reinforce full hip motion and efficient ball-in-socket control:

Hip Flexion and Extension

Note: The full exercise program for hip flexion can be found in this post.

Hip Abduction, Adduction, and Rotations

Hip Loading: The Role of the Pelvis in Hip Efficiency

Once ground-level hip strength can be performed in full range of motion and with good coordination, it is time to move it to standing.

Running with optimal hip utilization requires “hip loading.” This means utilizing a hip-hinge position that places the work (our body weight) effectively into the hip joint, so that when we impact the ground the hip muscles do the work to forward propel.

However, while the overall body posture of hip hinge is important, the precise position of the pelvis plays a major role in just how well the hip does that work. The pelvis must truly engage with the hip by placing its socket atop the femoral head for effective hip-muscle engagement. Failure to do so often causes the issues listed above, including imbalanced muscle activation, poor ball-in-socket control, and with it weakness, stiffness, and pain.

Using the step-up exercise, we identify the strategy of “pelvis down and back” for the most efficient hip utilization:

Conclusion

Because of the substantial stress that endurance running places on our hips, mobility strategies will always be a crucial part of a runner’s wellness routine.

But the most important factor in maintaining a mobile, healthy, and fast-moving hip is working its full range of motion, with utmost coordination, and on a stable pelvic base!

So, massage and stretch your hip, but don’t forget to strengthen your hip through its full range and in a smooth, coordinated, and stable way. Then get back on your feet and work on efficient hip and pelvic loading to keep the hip–and your stride–in tip-top condition.

Call for Comments

  • Does it feel like you have full hip range of motion, or do you need to restore some of it?
  • Do you feel like your hip is stronger in parts of its range of motion than others?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 3 comments

  1. GR

    Joe, thank you for all this… my pelvis, hips, glute medius have been my chronic pain-points for the last couple of years. I will attack these drills and make them part of a routine. I can already feel progress. You are the best. Thank you.

  2. Kim Alexander

    Thank you Sir Joe, and I Run Far for this article and especially your 3 videos. I will save them, and implement some in my routine.. As a teenager I had what I think was SCFE being obese then. The 3 pins were in a year then removed, and I even played HS football. At age 21 I lost the weigh, kept it off and began running which I continue to this day, I am 65 now. Occasionally that hip aches, so I have done some massage and stretches, but this will help alot….Thank you

  3. Joe Uhan

    Thanks for the kind feedback!

    It’s been a mental “game-changer” to consider hip “strength” as an “athletic coordination of ball in the socket”. Thinking this way, doing these subtle exercises with good control is so much more important!

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