By Melissa Thomas and Chad Yonkus
The hip flexors are the main powerhouse of any bicyclist or runner, as they are the muscle group largely responsible for pulling the knee to the chest. Whether you are on a mountain, road, or time-trial bike, the muscles responsible for returning the pedal to the top power position are part of the hip flexor complex. Additionally, the running stride is incomplete without the hip flexors to cycle the foot through. Psoas major/minor, Iliacus, and Rectus Femoris exert a high-level of work during these activities so maintaining healthy hips is crucial in order to avoid postural dysfunction and chronic pain. The hip flexors must be cared for with the utmost of attention.
Sitting can be the most detrimental of postures to our hip flexor tissue and health. Flexing the hip in the seated position keeps the hip flexor complex in a constant state of “shortened contraction”. Because of this, the tissue starts to learn that the shortened position is more common than the lengthened (or “open”) position that it is capable of. Over time, the tissue returns to this shortened state naturally and this will negatively affect the mechanics of the hip and the lower lumbar vertebrae, potentially leading to many painful and debilitating ailments.
To optimize your hip flexor health, be sure to open the tissue with some simple self-care after your run or ride. This applies to the general population as well, not exclusively runners or bicyclists. An hour-long commute is enough to create detrimental tissue contraction over time. Our culture is in a state of perpetual hip flexion so most of us have some work to do here – myself included. Yoga, stretching, foam rolling, bodywork/massage, and concentrated weight work will assist in the elongation of this tissue and will release the tension on the hips and lower back.
The smaller (more acute) the angle at the hip joint, the more stretching of the hips is needed. For example, a tri-athlete training in the aero bars requires either a greater opening angle, or a longer duration of the stretch. A mountain biker in contrast, may need less duration of stretch because of the greater (more obtuse) angle at the hip. A simple formula of (10)-minutes of yoga or stretching per every hour seated is an excellent way to keep the hip flexors balanced. For example, 2 hours in the saddle would equate to 20-minutes of stretching to facilitate balance.
A standing desk option can also keep the tissue lengthened, which will assist recovery in the optimal lengthened position after a lunchtime workout. Standing stimulates your body to open the tissue of the hip flexors and activates the posterior muscles of the body by making us support our body weight for longer periods of time. While not as easy as sitting, standing has been shown to burn more calories than sitting, and it is better for overall posture. Standing is a great way to optimize the time at work by keeping the hip flexors open and healthy. It is very important, however, to slightly lean back into the heels, without locking out your knees, so that the posterior muscles are engaged and the hip flexors will not be fatigued. The old adage, “Everything in moderation…” certainly does apply here as well, so alternate sitting and standing to keep the body adapting to different stimuli. Alternating also gives us permission to rest as needed. A rubber standing mat is also another helpful tool to incorporate to the standing desk configuration.
As Summer approaches, remember these simple tips to keep your activity level elevated without increasing dysfunction and pain. Educating our clients on self-care is an important element to our bodywork/massage & personal training practice so please come prepared to learn important stretching techniques that will empower you to care for yourself and elevate your performance!
Check out our blog on stretching this very important muscle group here.