The topic of range of motion and flexibility has always been perceived as important for runners looking to reduce their likelihood of injury and improve performance. This is commonly addressed with yoga, static stretching, and other strategies to increase overall range of motion. But, does the sport of running require above average range of motion for this mindset to be warranted? This article will attempt to explain that!
Over the years, I have evaluated hundreds of runners who were either healthy and looking to improve performance, or injured and actively rehabilitating an injury. What’s common between them is most have this perception that increasing range of motion will get them to their end goal faster. This might be the case in activities which require large ranges of motion, such as: yoga, gymnastics, dance, etc., however, it is not such a priority in the world of long distance running.
First and foremost, for the sake of this article it’s important to understand the difference between range of motion and flexibility:
Range of motion: A measurement of motion around a specific joint or body part.
Flexibility: A measurement that describes the range of motion at a joint determined by the length of a given muscle, or muscles.
Oftentimes, these terms are used interchangeably despite being different. Because it’s easier to talk about range of motion without going deeper into a joint’s muscular contribution, this will be our focus.
In the following sections, I will touch on the joint range of motion required at the lower extremity (hip, knee, and ankle) throughout different phases of the running cycle. This will provide you with a better understanding of how much motion is needed to simply run in some capacity. To keep things simple, this article will not discuss running speed, uphill vs. downhill running, or foot strike pattern.
Range of Motion Requirements at the Hip Joint
The hip joint, despite being very popular in the stretching and yoga world, only goes through a small amount of it’s large range of motion while running. This includes approximately 60 degrees of total motion which is far less than people realize. At initial contact, the hip is in 50 degrees of flexion and it extends to -10 degrees of extension during push-off. Hip extension is the joint motion which becomes a priority during running due to occasional tightness in the hip flexors which can limit range of motion.
Range of Motion Requirements at the Knee Joint
The knee joint has a greater range of motion than the hip when analyzing joint kinematics. And, most of it occurs in a non-weight bearing fashion in the swing leg. During initial contact, the knee is at approximately 40 degrees of flexion. When the body travels over the foot during midstance, the knee begins to extend, and is at 15 degrees of flexion. This slightly flexed knee remains after push-off until early swing phase when it increases to 100 degrees of flexion and moves forward to prepare for the next foot strike.
Range of Motion Requirements at the Ankle Joint
During initial contact, the ankle is at approximately 10 degrees of dorsiflexion. But, as you enter midstance and the loading response phase, the ankle requires approximately 25 degrees of dorsiflexion. From here, and as the body moves over the foot to prepare for push-off, the ankle moves into 25 degrees of plantar flexion. The ankle joint is one area which can sometimes inhibit normal running mechanics when range of motion is limited in dorsiflexion.
In the end, besides ankle dorsiflexion and hip extension there isn’t a big demand on lower extremity range of motion while running as you can see from graphs above. So, why are runners spending so much time stretching in hopes of better running performance? If more range of motion isn’t required to successfully carry out this activity, it should be foregone for other strategies that increase strength, endurance, and stability.
With that being said, if you lack the range of motion mentioned above then by all means work to achieve the minimum requirement for that activity. If not, and you constantly feel tight, start to think of other reasons why that might be the case.
The feeling of tightness is quite subjective and could be anything from poor endurance, lack of recovery, muscular imbalance, or faulty mechanics. I often find that these areas are more commonly the issue than limited range of motion and thus require a more detailed look by a trained healthcare provider.
If you have any questions about this topic and want to talk more specifically about your situation, please don’t hesitate to reach out. The articles I used for reference were: A public dataset of running biomechanics and the effects of running speed on lower extremity kinematics and kinetics and The biomechanics of running. Thanks for reading!
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART