We need to develop range in the form of hip extension, but the flexibility and mobility itself won’t yield immediate results. We need to learn to submit power in that position, as our hips enter this position during the power phase of the gait cycle.
Whenever we begin to consider, or even experiment with, which position of the hips might be most optimal, we are heavily persuaded by what feels most comfortable. Our brain has a way of approving of everything that we are used to, and condemning anything different.
Excessive time spent seated means that we associate the flexed (or sitting) position of the hip with a neutral position. The problem faced by runners with desk jobs is that we need to engage in hip extension (leg behind body) during running. Extension is necessary in the toe-off phase to efficiently propel the body forward.
The angle of extension of the hip (also commonly referred to as leg extension) can be affected by the angle of forward lean. It’s important to have a forward lean of between 5° and 10°, but this is referring to lean from the hips through the shoulders. Any bend in the hips would result in flexion, which is counterproductive.
At a more relaxed pace you should be closer to 5° and at a more aggressive pace closer to 10°.
In 2015, I conducted a study that analysed 27 of the top 64 finishers at the FNB Cape Town 12 road race. At their 12km race pace, the average angle of forward lean was 9.9°.
What does 5-10° feel like? And how do we know if we are doing it correctly? Well, it’s likely to be less lean than you’re currently executing, as the forward lean of your upper body from the hips is only an accomplice in generating forward propulsion.
This propulsion is largely due to the position of the hips which should be driven forward, to a point where the hip reaches a fair degree of extension on toe-off.
This raises further questions. How much extension is desirable? How much is acceptable?
Again, the answer will need to be on some sort of scale as you will reach greater degrees of extension when running at harder efforts.
The angle of leg extension should be 18° or greater for marathon pace, and as the running intensity increases, so should the angle of extension.
Why do we want more extension? It’s simple! The greater the angle, the more we propel ourselves forward towards the finish line, and the less energy we waste bobbing up and down. The key to achieving a good angle of leg extension is in the forward driving of the hip.
Now to play devil’s advocate. How can we expect runners who sit in a flexed position all day to magically get up and run in this extended position? Especially considering that as we fatigue both mentally and physically over the course of our run we will lose a certain degree of control over how much we can extend the hip.
We can’t rely on cognitive focus to get the hips into a better position whenever we feel like it. We need to train it.
Leg extension needs to become automatic so that the body knows no other way to run.
Train your hips
Work on improving the range of your hip flexors. Place one knee on the ground and lunge forward with the other knee at 90°. Drive the hips forward.
Perform three times for 30 seconds on each side.
Place a theraband around a pole and your heel and face the pole. Keep your body upright and extend your leg back as far as it can go without compromising your upright position, as shown in the image alongside.
Perform three times, with 8-16 repetitions on each side.
Run eight to sixteen 100m strides slightly faster than 5km pace. Focus on driving your foot backwards when it makes contact with the ground.
Emphasise achieving the correct amount of forward lean. In the analysis of the Cape Town 12 elites, eight out of the nine that had a good angle of forward lean had a sufficient angle of leg extension, which suggests that if you get the one, you are probably going to get the other.
I seldom quote Shakira when writing running articles, but “the hips don’t lie” is something we’d do well to remember. Hip position tells us more about a runner’s efficiency than anything else.