In the three previous posts I have discussed strengthening the glute and outer hips muscles and activation of these muscles to significantly improve running performance and minimize the risk of injury.
However, it is difficult to fully engage the glutes and other muscles of the hips if they are significantly tight. There are different approaches to reducing this muscle tightness, including active isolated stretching and foam rolling. Click on the links to access videos to use these techniques.
Another useful technique, which can also be relaxing, is to use yoga poses. In fact, I use some of the poses, which I will discuss, on a daily basis. When performing yoga poses it is important to breathe naturally and not hold your breath. You should only progress to as far as comfortable, using props such as blocks as necessary to support your knees, hips, or arms. Also, you should hold poses only as long as comfortable. Don’t worry about holding for 30 or 60 seconds, for example. You may only be able to hold a pose for a few seconds when beginning. That’s okay. It’s more important that you are performing the pose properly.
So, here are a few yoga poses you can use to reduce tightness in the hips. Discontinue any of these poses that cause significant discomfort or pain.
- From a seated position, straighten your right leg out, and place your left ankle under your right knee
- Bend the right leg (without moving the left and place the right foot in front of or on top of the left knee
- Fold forward from the hips and allow your spine to round
- Place your hands down, or rest on your elbows
- Hold the pose for as long as feels comfortable
- You are looking for sensations in the outer parts of the thighs, buttocks, hips and around the sacrum
- To come out of the pose, lean back on your hands and straighten your legs
- Repeat on the other side
- Beginner tips:
- If your knees stay high up, try sitting up on a cushion and place blocks or blankets under your knees.
- Make sure you avoid any discomfort in your knees. If this occurs, try separating your knees further apart and supporting with blocks.
- Place a bolster across your legs to support your chest while folding over.
- If the neck is sensitive, support your head with your hands by placing the elbows down. Use blocks or a bolster under the elbows if needed.
- For deeper sensations, stack ankles and knees over each other. However, if your knees lift up, bring the shins back in front of each other.
- You can bend sideways instead of folding forward to target the side body.
- You can incorporate a gentle twist before coming out of the pose. Use your hands to slowly roll up, ground your sitting bones to find length in your spine and gently twist towards the side of your upper leg.
- Here is a video demonstrating square pose:
Pigeon or deer pose
- Pigeon pose
- To begin, come onto your back with your knees bent and your thighs parallel and hip-distance apart. Next, cross your left ankle over your right thigh, making sure that your anklebone clears your thigh. Actively flex your front foot by pulling your toes back. When you do this, the center of your foot will line up with your kneecap rather than curving into a sickle shape, which can stress the ligaments of the ankle and the knee.
- Maintaining this alignment, pull your right knee in toward your chest, thread your left arm through the triangle between your legs and clasp your hands around the back of your right leg. If you can hold in front of your shin without lifting your shoulders off the floor or rounding the upper back, do so; otherwise, keep your hands clasped around your hamstring or use a strap. The goal is to avoid creating tension in the neck and shoulders as you open the hips, so choose a position that keeps your upper body relaxed. As you draw your right leg in toward you (making sure to aim it toward your right shoulder and not the center of your chest), simultaneously press your left knee away from you. This combination of actions should provide ample sensation, but if you don’t feel much, try releasing your pubic bone down away from your navel toward the floor. This will bring a bit more curve into your lumbar and should deepen the hip stretch.
- Boost Your Bird
- This variation moves more in the direction of the final shape but uses blankets to help maintain alignment. Come onto all fours with your hands shoulder-distance apart and about a hand span in front of your shoulders. Bring your left knee forward and place it on the floor just behind and slightly to the left of your left wrist, with your shin on a diagonal and your left heel pointing toward your right frontal hipbone. Now bring your attention to your back leg: Your right quadriceps should squarely face the floor so that your leg is in a “neutral” position—you want to avoid the common pitfall of externally rotating the back leg. Establish this neutral leg by tucking your right toes under and straightening your right leg so that the thigh and knee come off the floor. Lift your right inner thigh up toward the ceiling and move your right frontal hipbone forward so that it is parallel to your left frontal hipbone. You want to have your hipbones square toward the front of the mat. As you roll your right hipbone forward, draw your left outer hip back and in toward the midline of your body. Its natural tendency will be to swing forward and out away from you.
- When the hipbones are parallel in Pigeon, the sacrum is less likely to be torqued, and you can practice the pose without straining your low back. Maintaining this hip alignment, shimmy your right toes back slightly and then point them so that your right thigh releases to the floor. Move your left foot and shin toward the front of your mat, aiming for your shin to be parallel to the front edge, and flex your foot to protect your knee.
- Now observe your left outer hip. If, after you square your hips, the area where your thigh and buttock meet doesn’t rest on the floor, you need to add a blanket or two underneath. This is crucial to practicing the pose safely. If the outer hip doesn’t have support, the body will fall to the left, making the hips uneven and distorting the sacrum. Or, if the hips stay square but your left hip is free floating, you’ll put too much weight and pressure on the front knee. Neither scenario is good!
- Get Even
- Instead, use your arms for support as you organize your lower body. Adjust so that your hipbones are parallel to the wall you’re facing and your sacrum is even (meaning one side hasn’t dipped closer to the floor than the other) and place however many blankets are necessary to maintain this alignment beneath your left outer hip.
- Place your hands in front of your left shin and use your arms to keep your torso upright. For the final version, keep moving your left foot forward, working to make your left shin parallel to the front edge of your mat. Make sure that in doing so you maintain the alignment in your hips and sacrum, continuing to use blankets if necessary. The left leg will be in external rotation, the right leg in neutral—each position giving access to a different type of hip opening. The right leg will stretch the psoas and other hip flexors, and the left side will get into the group of rotators in the buttocks and outer hip
- It’s common to experience intense sensations in the left hip as the femur rotates outward in the hip socket. (For many people, this is in the fleshy part of the buttock; for others, it’s along the inner thigh.) Some feel a stretch along the front of the right hip as the psoas lengthens. You do not, however, want to feel any sensations in your left knee. If you do, this variation is not for you! Return to Eye of the Needle, where you can safely open your hips without strain.
- If your knee is sensation free (hooray!), extend your torso forward across your left shin, walking your arms out in front of you and releasing your forehead toward the floor. Fold forward only after you’ve spent time checking your alignment and paying attention to your body. Your left knee will be to the left of your torso (with the left thigh on a bit of a diagonal), and your flexed left foot will be just alongside the right side of your rib cage. As you fold forward, turn your attention inward. We tend to hold this version of Pigeon longer than more active postures, so see if part of your practice in this pose can be to stay mentally focused once you have settled in. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines practice as “effort toward steadiness.” In these extended, quieter holds, you get to explore this idea, tethering your sometimes scattered attention by following the breath as it moves in and out, finding stillness as you open and expand.
- Deer pose (less intense alternative to pigeon pose)
- Foundation-Begin seated with your legs in front of you.
- Action- Bend you right knee into half butterfly with the heel about a foot away from the pelvis, then place your left knee into the arch of the right foot. Bend the left knee until the foot is closer to ninety degrees from the knee towards the bottom. (The legs will look a bit like a pinwheel) Rotate the torso in the direction of the right knee and walk thee torso forward until it rests on a bolster, blanket, or your mat. The arms can relax out to the side like goalposts. Turn your head to the side.
- Boundary- Keep upright in the seated twist if there are hip issues. Adjust the bend of the knees to your own degree of comfort.
- While You are There: Relax the front of the torso towards the ground. Remain for as long as comfortable on each side
- Modify- The easiest option is to stay seated as you twist. The level of bolster/ blanket height can be adjusted to the degree of flexibility. Turning your head in the same direction as the knees will be the more gentle option for the neck.
- Deepen- Take the chest all the way to the floor to increase the rotation and lower hip compression/ upper hip stretch. Send your arm that is on the same side as your knees up overhead and stretch from the hip all the way through the fingers to add shoulder opening. Turning the head in the direction away from the knees will increase the stretch on the neck.
- Transition out of the Pose: Place your hands on the ground and use that support to slowly return to seated. Then unwind the twist. It is nice sometimes to lean back on the arms, place the feet in front of you and windshield wiper the knees before taking the second side.
- Start in Downward Facing Dog pose
- As you exhale, step your right foot forward, between your hands. Lower your left knee to the floor, sliding the foot back until you feel a nice stretch in the left hip and thigh.
- Keep the hips low and level with each other.
- As you inhale, engage your lower belly and lift your chest away from the thigh, sweeping the arms up alongside your ears.
- Look straight ahead or come into a gentle backbend with your gaze to your thumbs.
- As you exhale, lower your hands back down and step back to Downward Facing Dog.
- Beginner tips:
- You can keep your hands on the floor, blocks or your hips and work on the stretch in the front thigh.
- Scissor your hips together to keep them level with each other and find stability.
- Use a folded blanket to pad your back knee.
Be aware that there are several variations of each of these poses and that you can use the ones that work best for you. I recommend incorporating yoga poses at least 3-4 days per week.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.
Your friend and coach,