What’s causing your tight hips and hamstrings?

Runners often assume that tight hips and hamstrings are simply an occupational hazard, and that if they ever want to touch their toes again they’ll have to reduce the mileage or spend hours on the yoga mat. But physiotherapist Trevor Rappa says that running isn’t necessarily to blame – poor posture is probably at fault. And stretching will only provide temporary relief until the root cause is addressed.

A lot of runners, and people in general, carry themselves with what Rappa and others call ‘extended posture’. In this type of stance, a person carries his lower ribs in front of his body, his glutes jut out behind, and there is a big curve in the lower back. It’s not just a bad look: this alignment impairs the functioning of the diaphragm.

Bad posture (extended)

‘Your diaphragm should be your primary muscle of respiration,’ says high-performance coach Mike Robertson. ‘If you get stuck in extended posture, the diaphragm flattens out and can no longer work effectively.’ When your diaphragm isn’t properly functioning, a cascade of problems results. Your brain, knowing that the body has to breathe, recruits help from other muscles – such as your hip flexors and lower back muscles. ‘If the diaphragm doesn’t work well, inefficiencies will result,’ says Jonathan Pierce, performance therapist to six-time world long-jump champion Brittney Reese and a consultant to the Bowerman Track Club in Oregon, US. When your hip flexors are tight from repetitive use, corresponding tension can be present in the diaphragm. Tight hip flexors can also extend the lumbar spine, pull the pelvis downward and cause your glutes to stick out. Experts call this an ‘anterior pelvic tilt’. Robertson explains: ‘When your pelvis tips forward, it is literally stretching your hamstrings on the back side, which can make them feel tight.’

But, wait, aren’t stretched-out hamstrings a good thing? Not if it’s your pelvis that’s doing the stretching, says Robertson. Working to lengthen and elongate your hamstrings can be good – if your hamstrings are actually shortened. However, Robertson says an anterior pelvic alignment is often putting tension on your hamstrings and it needs to be fixed if you’re going to get any lasting relief. Stretching your hamstrings in a downward-facing-dog pose feels good as you’re doing it – but it won’t stop chronic tightness, he says.

Good posture

Experts say the real solution starts with posture correction. Being conscious of good posture and working to adjust your stance throughout the day is important. Robertson also recommends a simple breathing drill to activate your diaphragm and exercises to strengthen your hamstrings. Master these and you’ll shut down those overactive hip flexors, restore proper posture and give your hamstrings long-term relief. Here’s the first step to standing taller, breathing deeper and running better.

Breathe right (activating diaphragm)

To develop better posture you must fully exhale, activating the diaphragm and restoring proper pelvic position. Do this drill daily to find the best alignment.

1/ Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor. Breathe in through your nose. Notice how your abdominals lift and your tailbone pushes into the floor.

2/ Exhale through your mouth. Push all the air out of your lungs. Your abs will move closer to the floor, your back’s curve will lessen and more of your pelvis will touch the floor.

3/ Hold the bottom of the exhale for 3-5 secs. Your ribcage will come down. Use your lower abs to pull the pelvis into neutral alignment, midback and upper glutes against the floor. On the next inhale, maintain this alignment, breathing into your belly and chest. Take 4-5 breaths this way.