Fix Your Posture, Fix Your Running
Your chronic pain might be a sign of musculoskeletal imbalance resulting from poor posture. Here’s what to do about it.
Running with proper posture can help you stave off injury and become a more efficient runner. Photo by iStockPhoto
"Sit up straight!" "Don’t hunch!" At some point or another, we’ve all been berated to keep good posture. Whether it’s curling up in front of the TV or hunching over a desk, we spend a lot of time sitting and it’s easy to let things, well, slip.
But posture is about more than just looking proper. “Good posture is the foundation for efficient running form,” says Elinor Fish, a mindful-running coach and owner of Run Wild Retreats in Carbondale, Colorado. “If our posture is chronically out of alignment, whether sitting, standing, walking or running, then we're at risk for developing muscular weaknesses or imbalances that can lead to poor running form. "
For example, she says, too much sitting can lead to weakened gluteus muscles, forcing other muscle groups, like the quadriceps, to compensate. That can cause common injuries like knee pain, iliotibial band syndrome, hip-flexor pain and lower-back pain. Carolyn Parker, a certified trainer and the owner of the Ripple Effect gym in Carbondale, adds Achilles and calf pain and hamstring injury to the list.
“Poor posture correlates with an overall weakness in the body’s kinetic chain,” says Parker. “It causes a collapsed chest, which inhibits breathing. It also shortens our stride, because the larger muscles of our lower limbs take over for the ineffective postural muscles of the torso."
How it works
Posture is a whole-body affair, involving everything from our feet to our core. Though “core” is often taken to indicate the abdominal muscles, it in fact refers to all of the muscles that stabilize our torso, including the glutes and muscles in the lower back, upper back, chest and shoulders. The core is responsible for maintaining pelvic stability, and is thus at the heart of proper (or improper) body position. The pelvis, meanwhile, acts as a supportive base for the upper body, and is the key to properly transferring weight through the lower body to the knees, ankles and feet.
Spending just a few minutes a day focusing on certain typically weak muscles in the upper and lower back, shoulders, chest and hips can prevent injury and make for a more efficient and powerful stride.
How to maintain proper running posture
1. Keep an expansive upper body. One of the most common injuries from poor posture is called upper cross syndrome. The lower trapezius in the back and deep cervical flexors in the neck weaken, while the upper trapezius muscles and the chest's pectoral muscles tighten, drawing the shoulders forward and down.
How does this relate to running? Simply, it makes it hard to breath. Explains Fish, “Any forward flexion in the torso increases the chance of getting a cramp, because the diaphragm is pinched.”
When running, practice rolling the shoulders back and down and standing tall. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Ultimately, they should dangle from the torso, but it may take some time to develop the strength to hold them back. Until then, make it a conscious effort. The Cuban Press exercise (see below) will help strengthen the upper back and draw the shoulders back into a normal position.
2. Lift legs from the core. The biggest legs are not necessarily the fastest. In running, speed comes from efficiency, and efficiency starts with engaging the core. According to Fish, that means the gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus, the body’s strongest running muscles.
To activate the glutes during a run, Fish recommends tilting the pelvis backwards. “When your belly is tipped forward, your abs are not engaged, your back is swayed and you're in a less powerful position,” she says. “It's actually more mechanical work to lift your leg."
When the pelvis is tilted back, though, the abs engage and less mechanical effort is needed to lift the leg. Fish likens it to throwing a baseball: try to throw using only your arm, and the ball won’t go very far. Engage your trunk, and the ball will travel much farther.
3. Work with gravity, not against it. Stand up straight, with your body in proper alignment, and flex forward at the ankles. When you are about to fall on your face, step forward to catch yourself.
The motion should be reflexive. Running is simply falling and catching yourself, over and over again. The ankles should be flexed, the hips slightly forward and the glutes engaged. That way, gravity works for you, making the gait cycle more fluid and less strenuous. Note, though, that this forward-fall sort of gait will only be possible with shorter strides, and may take some adjustment.
Next page: 4 posture-promoting exercises for runners