3D Ankle, Hip, & Spine Mobility Exercises for Runners
Eight mobility exercises to ensure your joints can move freely for efficient, healthy running.
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Running occurs in three planes: sagittal (front/back), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (left/right rotation.) Efficient, healthy running happens when your joints are able to move freely through these three planes. For runners, full-range movement at the ankles, hips, and thoracic spine (t-spine) is crucial. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle may be an impediment to good running. Sitting, hunched forward for work and travel promotes rigid, poorly moving joints.
Running requires you to generate force for propulsion and absorb impact forces. Optimally, those forces are distributed efficiently through all of your joints, muscles, connective tissue, and bones. If a joint is restricted, then forces are distributed inefficiently and certain tissues may receive more stress than they can withstand. The consequences of poor joint mobility may include tendinopathies, and pain in your knees, hips, low-back, shoulders, and/or neck. You can guard against these problems by addressing mobility in your ankles, hips, and trunk.
The following exercises are dynamic drills, not static stretches. You’ll drive in and out of the position of stretch. Hold the stretch no more than about a second.
3D Ankle Mobility Exercises
1) Ankle Rolls
There are several cues that work to roll your ankles in the transverse plane. Any of the following three should result in the same motion. You may find one of the cues to work better than the others:
- Roll your ankles outward, lifting the arch of the foot. Reverse the motion and collapse the arch.
- Turn the kneecaps outward. This will raise the arch of the foot. Reverse and turn the kneecaps in, collapsing the arch of the foot.
- Using the glutes, turn the legs outward, lifting the arch of the foot. Feel the glutes contract. Reverse the motion, turn the legs inward, collapse the arch of the foot.
Repeat for about 20 reps. It’s helpful to turn the feet in with the toes pointing toward each other slightly. Notice that the glutes and feet work closely together during this drill—as they do while running too. You’ll probably feel a stretch on the outside of the ankles as you roll the ankles out. Keep the big toe and ball-of-the-big-toe pressed hard to the ground during this drill.
2) Straight-leg Ankle Matrix
This is similar to a traditional calf stretch with the rear planted leg receiving the stretch. In this description, the left leg and foot are the limbs receiving the mobility drill. The right leg and foot will drive motion. You’ll probably feel a stretch high in the calf on these drills. Watch this video for a demonstration.
- Stand with your hands on a wall or other solid support.
- Plant your left foot behind you, heel down, foot aimed straight ahead. Note: The rear foot tends to turn out. Check and make sure it’s straight. You may need to reposition the foot as you move through this drill.
- Drive your right leg forward, tapping the ground lightly with your foot then reverse back to the start. This should feel like a pendulum going back and forth. Drive in and out of the stretch for 5–10 reps.
- Now using a similar motion, drive the right foot about 45 degrees right. This should feel a little different from the prior drill. Drive in and out of the stretch 5–10 times.
- Move similar to steps two and three but now drive the right foot and leg about 45 degrees to your left, crossing the midline of your body.
- Now you’ll rotate the ankle. Flex your right hip, knee, ankle as if you’re about to stomp the ground. This is your swing leg. Relax and swing your right leg right and left. This should create a twisting motion from your trunk down to your left ankle. Keep the left foot flat with the big toe pressed to the ground. Relax and allow the ankle to twist as you swing the leg.
- Switch the feet and repeat the sequence.
3) Bent-knee Ankle Matrix
The left leg is the working leg in this description. Back off a little if you feel a pinch in the front of the ankle. Your motion may be limited in these drills. That’s okay. Keep working at them and you’ll improve. Watch these videos for a demonstration.
- Stagger your left foot back a few inches. Keep both feet flat and pointed straight.
- Stand tall and bend both knees slightly then stand back up. You’ll probably feel a stretch low in the calf. Repeat 5–10 times.
- Proceed to a rotational drill: Assume the same position described above with feet staggered and both knees bent slightly.
- Imagine there’s a laser beam coming out of the left kneecap. Sweep the laser as far right and left as you can 10–20 reps
- Keep the entire body still while moving the left knee. Don’t move the hips or trunk.
- Switch feet and repeat the sequence.
3D Hip Mobility Exercises
1) Hip Flexor Matrix
The left leg is the working leg in this description. Stay tall and don’t lean over while doing these drills.
- Kneel on your left knee with your hands on a wall or other solid surface. Your right leg is forward. Tuck your rear toes against the ground and under the left foot.
- Pull your ribs down by bracing the abs. Tuck your tailbone by contracting your left glute. Both of these actions should initiate a stretch at the front of the left thigh.
- Stay tall and drive the body forward and back 5–10 reps.
- Now position the right leg about 45 degrees to your right. Drive the body in the direction of the foot 5–10 times. You’ll probably feel a groin stretch.
- Reposition the right foot to your left, crossing the midline of the body. Again, stay tall and drive the body forward and back 5–10 reps. You may feel a stretch on both sides of the hips.
- Go back to the first position and externally rotate the left leg by swiveling the left foot to the right. Drive forward and back 5–10 reps for a different groin stretch.
- Go back to the first position and internally rotate the left leg by swiveling the left foot to your left. You won’t be able to move very far in this position. Drive forward and back 5–10 reps and feel the stretch to front and outside of the left thigh.
- Switch legs and repeat the sequence.
2) Modified Pigeon
This is a modified version of the yoga pigeon pose. Describing this drill is difficult. Please watch the video to see how it’s done. The use of an adjustable bench makes this drill easy for anyone to do. The stretch should be felt in the glute of the leg that’s against the bench. Move in and out of the stretch for 10–20 reps.
3D T-Spine Mobility Exercises
1) Corner Stretch
This drill mobilizes not only the t-spine but also the neck, hips, shoulders, and ankles. You may use a doorway or squat rack if you can access a corner of a room.
- Stand in the corner of a room with one leg positioned behind you as in the straight-leg ankle matrix.
- Bring your arms up like you’re signaling a touchdown with shoulders and elbows flexed to 90 degrees. Keep the forearms in contact with the wall with the fingers straight up.
- Keep your head up and eyes forward.
- Drive the chest forward 5–10 reps.
- Turn the head left/right 5–10 reps.
- Drive the hips left/right 5–10 reps per side.
- Switch the feet and repeat the drill.
2) Side-lying Upper Body Rotation
This drill keeps the lower body in a fixed position while the upper body rotates.
- Lie on your right side.
- Pull your left knee up and hold the knee with your right (bottom) hand.
- Reach your left hand as far in front of you as you can, feeling a stretch in your shoulder blade.
- Reverse the motion by rotating the trunk back to your left, reaching your left hand back behind you toward the ground. Feel the stretch in your left pec and arm, left hip, and throughout your trunk. Keep your left hand at head level for the best stretch.
- Do 5–10 rotations
- Lie on your left side and repeat the drill.
3) Side Flexion and Rotation
This drill mobilizes the spine side to side and in rotation and opens front of the hips.
- Kneel on both knees in a tall position and contract your glutes and abs.
- Bend to one side, lifting the ribs toward the ceiling. Repeat on each side for 5–10 reps per side.
- Rotate to one side, hold that position and repeat the side bending for 5–10 reps. Repeat to the other side.
To be the strongest, most injury-free runner possible, combine these mobility drills with strength training. You can do these drills to prep for your gym workout and you can do them between sets of exercises.
You can use these drills independent of your strength program as well. Frequent use of these drills will yield the best results. You don’t have to do every drill every day but you should do some of them every day. Before a run, during breaks at work, and while watching TV are ideal times to do some mobility work.
Some of these drills may cause an intense stretch but do not push into pain. Stay relaxed as you move. If you find yourself tensing up or holding your breath then you’re pushing too hard. These drills may help you overcome some aches and pains but they are not a substitute for an accurate clinical injury diagnosis. Seek the help of a physical therapist or other clinician if you suspect an injury.
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 www.denverfitnessjournal.com.