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Strength Training

3D Hip Mobility and Strength for Trail Runners

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Hip Function and Running

The hips are the crossroad of our body and they are our power engines. Three-dimensional, or triplane hip movement, is critical for any and all human movement whether you are lower- or upper-body dominant.

The hips incorporate the pelvis and femurs and the joints they create; the muscles attached to the area including the glutes, flexors, hamstrings, adductors and other muscles as well as all of the tendons and ligaments in the area.

It’s easy to see hip flexion and extension (forward and backward motion of the legs) in a runner. Other hip motions are harder to see. The hips must also internally and externally rotate (left/right rotation of the legs) and the hips must move side-to-side (left/right tilting of the legs also known as abduction/adduction). Effective, pain-free running comes from a fluid coordination of all the above movements. If the hips move the right amount at the right time, then all is well and we have fun on the trail. In contrast, if the hips are restricted in one or more planes, there may be problems.

The body is an interconnected through the hips. The knees sit below and the lower back sits above. As such, it’s common for pain in one region (knees, for example) to be a symptom of a problem that’s rooted elsewhere (hips and/or ankles).

Mobility Killers

The modern, seated lifestyle limits our hip mobility. Running and exercises like squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, leg presses and jumping do a decent job of dealing with hip flexion/extension, but unfortunately none of these exercises do much to facilitate frontal (transverse) plane movement. Few gym exercises offer much in the way of hip internal/external rotation or adduction/abduction. (In case you’re wondering, the seated adduction/abduction machine is nearly useless in helping you run or move in real-life. Don’t waste time on it.)

3D Hip Mobility Drills

The following series of drills address all of the hip motions discussed above. Several of these drills are done in a kneeling position. They can be modified and performed in standing. 

Frequent practice is the best way to advance in any skill. Pick just one drill and spend a few minutes doing it. Later in the day, do another drill. Repeat throughout the day. That way you can get your work done without taking up a big block of time. Other good times to work mobility drills:

  • Before a run.
  • Before a gym workout.
  • Between sets of gym exercises.
  • Any or all of these drills are great to do on rest days.

It’s likely that you’ll find that you’re far more limited in one or a few of these movements than you are in others. If that’s the case, then you can spend a little more time improving those restricted areas and you can spend less time on the freely moving areas.

These drills may not be as exciting as a run in the wilderness but they’re important. If you want to run better, do them!

3D Hip Strength

The best way to take advantage of your new hip mobility is to use it and strengthen it. One of the best ways to strengthen the hips is with lunges done in several directions, or a lunge matrix. Variables you may want to play with include:

  • Load (body weight, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight vest).
  • Range (short-, medium-, long-range).
  • Environment (lunge up to a step or lunge down from a step).
  • Speed (from slow to fast).
  • Stability (try holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand only to create an offset load).
  • Duration (low to high reps or for time).
  • Use that brain! Get creative!

I suggest you start with just body weight. Start slow and simple. Familiarize yourself with the easiest versions of these lunges. You may find some of them to be awkward and challenging to your sense of balance.

Easy Now

Don’t turn mobility work into a competition with yourself. Don’t stretch to the point of extreme discomfort. You’ll only tighten up more. Also, don’t rush. Stay in control, be precise and be mindful as you move. If you’re in bad pain and you suspect a serious injury then seek medical care.

Some people may experience significant improvements in mobility with just one drill and a few minutes of work. Other times progress is slower. Much like adding distance to your long runs, it may take time and consistent work to see noticeable improvement. Be patient and give these drills a chance to work.

Kyle Norman, MS, is a Denver, Colorado-based personal trainer, strength coach and running coach with 20 years of experience. He specializes in helping people move well, get strong and get out of pain. You can follow his blog at