Running is a complex movement involving coordinated action at many joints throughout the body. In addition to strength, endurance, and motor control; runners must have the prerequisite mobility.
While the average person may not be able to identify the specific nuances of faulty running mechanics, most can tell when someone has especially good running form. Why? Because they make it look easy. They run with a particular poise and fluidity that simply looks right. When any part of just one of those components gets out of whack, running loses some of its fluidity. If multiple components develop dysfunction, it becomes a chunky, uncomfortable mess.
In this article, I’ll take you through three of the most common mobility limitations I see in runners. I will also offer some tips on how to address these issues and improve your running form.
Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobility for Runners
Ankle dorsiflexion describes movement that closes the angle between the top of the foot and the shin. In standing (or running), it involves movement of the shin and knee forward over a fixed foot. To make up for limited ankle dorsiflexion mobility, runners often compensate in ways that place extra stress on the arch of the foot, the knee, and the lower back. Ankle dorsiflexion can be limited by the ankle joint, calf muscles, or both (it’s often both). Luckily, there’s a simple self-test to detect limited dorsiflexion mobility and determine its source.
Testing Ankle Dorsiflexion – The Knee to Wall Test
This test is the Knee-to-Wall Ankle Dorsiflexion test. All you need is a tape measure or ruler and a wall.
Place the ruler or tape measure on the floor so that the zero mark is touching the wall. Next, line up the tip of the longest toe on one foot with 5 inches from the wall. Then, push your knee forward toward the wall. The goal is to touch your knee to the wall without your heel lifting from the floor. The measurement listed above is considered normal.
If you are unable to touch your knee to the wall without your heel lifting up, your ankle dorsiflexion is limited enough to potentially prevent you from running with good form. Gradually scoot your foot forward until you are able to touch the wall with your knee while keeping your heel planted. Record the number at the tip of your longest toe. Repeat this test to track your progress over time. Check out the video linked below to see the test in action.
How to Address Limited Ankle Dorsiflexion
The measurement on this test only tells you if the motion is limited. In order to determine the necessary action, you must pay close attention to the location of restriction. If you feel restriction in the back of the calf, the restriction is primarily muscular and mobility efforts should focus on the calf muscles. Conversely, restriction in the front of the ankle indicates a joint mobility limitation that must be addressed. Please note that if you have ANY PAIN please see a physical therapist before attempting to address the mobility limitations on your own. Pushing through pain during mobility work is not only ineffective, it is counterproductive and often results in a reduction in mobility rather than an increase.
If the restriction is in the muscle, I recommend going through some PAILs and RAILs from the FRC system. If you’d like to learn a bit more about this mobility technique, check out my other article here. Follow these links for specific mobility exercises for both muscles in the back of the calf – the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Note that the Knee to Wall test does a better job of identifying tightness in the soleus muscle than in the gastrocnemius. However, if the soleus is tight there’s a good chance the gastroc is too, so go ahead and stretch both. I recommend going through a two-minute passive stretch at the start followed by twenty-second contractions for both the lengthened and shortened muscles and finally a thirty-second passive stretch to finish (this is slightly different from the timing in the videos).
If the restriction is in the front of the ankle, I recommend going through some banded ankle dorsiflexion mobilizations. This one requires some equipment and a bit of set-up, but it is the best way I’ve found to work on ankle dorsiflexion mobility at home. You’ll find a video here. The only change I recommend is that you place your back foot on the band, rather than on the floor as in the video. This ensures the band stays below the joint line to properly direct the force into the foot. Check out the picture below to see what I mean.
Hip Extension Mobility for Runners
Hip extension describes movement that opens up the angle between the front of the thigh and front of the torso. When one foot is behind you while running, that hip is in extension. In cases of limited hip extension mobility, runners often compensate in ways that place excess stress on the lower back and hips. Hip extension mobility is most often limited by muscular tension, so I will focus on that here.
Testing Hip Extension – The Self-Thomas Test
The Thomas Test is a clinical test that physical therapists use to assess hip extension mobility. You can also perform a version of this test on your own at home. You’ll just need a sturdy table to lay on.
Start laying on your back at the edge of the table (or your bed if you don’t have a table to use). Pull both knees into your chest so that your lower back lays completely flat against the table. Keep one knee pulled tightly into your chest while you slowly lower the other leg, keeping your lower back flat.
With your lower back flat, your thigh should rest fully on the table with your lower leg hanging off the edge and your knee at a 90° angle. If your thigh does not reach the table, your knee doesn’t bend to 90°, your leg drifts out to the side, or any combination of the above; you have a limitation in hip extension mobility. Each of these results indicates a slightly different limitation, but I won’t get into the specifics here. If you’re curious, check out this article for an explanation.
How to Address Limited Hip Extension
There are a few muscles that could limit your hip extension mobility. To address the limitation, though, we’ll go through two variations of one mobility exercise. The first is a basic lunge stretch, but with a few specific changes and performed with PAILs and RAILs. You’ll find the linked video below.
Over time, you may find that this stretch has gotten a lot easier and that when you do it you’re able to push your hips forward quite a bit past your knee. If that’s the case, you’re ready for the next level up. For this progression, just elevate the back foot while keeping everything else the same.
You can prop up the back foot on a block (as in the photo above), medicine ball, or the wall. Alternatively, you can use a stretching strap over your shoulder with your foot in a loop on one end and the other end in your hand.
Hip Internal Rotation Mobility for Runners
Hip internal rotation describes motion of the thigh/knee inward with relation to the center of the body – this will be clockwise when looking down at your own left thigh and counterclockwise if looking at your right. This can get confusing when the knee is bent, but just remember that movement at the hip is what matters, not the foot.
The roles of hip extension and ankle dorsiflexion in running are fairly straight-forward. Hip internal rotation can be a bit harder to visualize at first. When running, the hip that is in extension is also in relative hip internal rotation due to the movement of the pelvis. Limited hip internal rotation often produces compensations that stress the knees, hips, and lower back.
Testing Hip Internal Rotation – Z-Sit
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great way for you to accurately test hip internal rotation mobility at home. A quick imperfect test is to try a Z-Sit position on both sides. If you find that there is a lot of tightness in the hip that is in internal rotation in this position (in the image below that would be his right hip) or that you are unable to rest both butt cheeks on the floor, you likely have some limitation in hip internal rotation.
How to Address Limited Hip Internal Rotation
Addressing limited hip internal rotation starts in the exact same position we used for the test, the Z-Sit. If sitting up tall like in the picture is uncomfortable for you, feel free to lean back on your hands. Turning your body more toward the hip in internal rotation will increase the stretch, turning away from it will reduce the stretch. If this position is still uncomfortable while leaning back on your hands and turning away from the stretching hip, you can add a yoga block or firm cushion under your butt to take away some of the stretch.
Next, we’ll go through the same PAILs and RAILs sequence outlined above – a two-minute passive stretch followed by twenty-second contractions of both the lengthened and shortened muscles and finally a thirty-second passive stretch. Check out the video below to see how.
That’s it! Three of the most common hip mobility limitations I see in runners and a strategy to address each. This is not an exhaustive list of the mobility required for running by any means, but again these are a few of the most common issues that I see. Use the tools to asses your mobility in ankle dorsiflexion, hip extension, and internal rotation. If you find any limitations, follow the outlined exercises and monitor your progress over time.
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Health Advice Disclaimer
This article provides examples that are applicable to many, but not all people. They are based on typical presentations seen in my personal clinical practice. This information represents common findings in the population discussed, but can in no way take the place of professional evaluation and treatment by a licensed medical practitioner. It is impossible to provide 100% accurate diagnosis or prognosis without a thorough physical examination and likewise the advice given for management or prevention of any injury cannot be deemed fully accurate in the absence of this examination.
If you are currently experiencing any pain or injury, seek professional evaluation before undertaking this or any exercise program. Ensure that you are medically cleared for exercise before undertaking any exercise program. Significant injury risk may occur if you do not seek proper evaluation. No guarantees of specific outcome are expressly made or implied in this article.