Distance running: What to do when your hip flexors try to abandon ship.

Yesterday, I had the first big trail run of the year. It ended up being around 26 km, over rolling hills. I don’t consider myself a running. Running has always been more of a cross training method to make my other outdoor pursuits less painful (or at least painful at a slightly faster rate.)

26 km is the furthest I have ever run. The first 21 km were great! I felt strong, I kept up a decent tempo, walked when there were steep uphills and ran pretty much everything else. However, at the 21 km mark, both hip flexors seized up and my left knee developed a stabbing pain on the lateral side. Bending and unbending my knee became a serious issue and the last 5 km of the trail were something of a test in pain endurance. Suffice to say, I was quite happy I had my hiking poles to use as crutches. Not a fun way to end a run.

After hobbling home and lying around on the couch in pain with an ice pack, I got an encouraging email from my favorite Ultra marathon runner (read: my Dad.) He had a few tips to make my next epic run a little less painful.

  1. Break up the run differently, try running 5 min on, 1 min off: This recruits different muscle fibre types. In this case, 5 on 1 off would recruit mainly fast oxidative-glycolytic fibres which have a mid range endurance capacity but are stronger than the slow oxidative fibres that are used for long endurance activities. Being able to recruit these midrange oxidative-glycolytic fibres means that you will have more fibres to work from giving you a longer period ofgood strong running before your muscles are fatigued.
  2. Use the couch stretch to free up hip flexors forever: For those unfamiliar with the couch stretch, it’s the number one tool for loosening up tight hip flexors. This should be done for about 2 mins on each side, held at the angle where you are tighest. Remember, humans are escape artists. Do not let your body escape the stretch. It should hurt
  3. See what Kstar has to say about knee and hip mobility. Kelly Starrett is a physiotherapist that runs a phenomenal blog at www.mobilitywod.com which posts information and demonstrations of how to perform basic maintenance on yourself. His videos have some really good information about most common problems that athletes run into. Just be forewarned: it will hurt (and it should, if you’re that tight, you probably deserve it.) This video in particular was quite helpful for my hip/knee issue.
  4. Full range of motion air squats: Learn to love them. They are a stretch as much as they are a strength exercise. I was told that “caveman squats” (full ROM squats) were a lifesaver for ultra runners. It makes a lot of sense, as a full ROM squat stretches out the lower quads, hip extensors, and calves, all areas that have a tendency to tighten up during long runs.

Don’t let injury get the best of you. Stay on top of your body maintenance and take charge of your physical wellbeing.  As Kstar says, don’t hide in the pain cave.

Keep on running.