Why runners need to pay attention to body posture and alignment

by | Nov 2, 2018

Running form is a hot topic these days. And I think it should be. Your running posture defines how your body will absorb the impact of each running stride: will the impact flow freely through your body and exit through the head, or will it hit your weakest link in the body and create overuse and stiffness in certain parts of your body?

In this blog post I will explain good running posture, it’s importance and how to find out which compensation tendencies you have.

Tension and stress define your running posture

Now, most people carry tension in their backs. Stressful situations and unconscious habitual movements patterns tend to push and pull our spine in different directions. If we don’t neutralize stress and habitual patterns on a regular basis, we become prone to stiffness in movement muscles and immobility in even a deeper level: the spine. It is this inelasticity, which eventually leads to compensations and weakness in other parts of the spine. Just imagine a paperclip: if you bend it over and over at exact the same spot (so you excessively impact it on the same spot), the paperclip will eventually become weak, and then break. Now, you might not feel all of this initially, but over time, excessive impact will take its toll on our posture alignment, and thus also on our running form.

Your running posture defines the impact of each stride

Each time the foot touches the ground, the body absorbs about 2-3 times the body weight. I’ll just give you a minute to calculate your personal weight of the impact… pretty heavy huh? The fact is, that the impact will directly hit the area where you tend to be weak or stiff, as the movement through your body will stop just there. An accumulation of these impacts, like in running, will thus make you prone to pain and injuries. Yikes.

The discussion about running form is pointless if we don’t talk about good posture, and how good posture is defined. It may be clear, that your posture is the foundation for all your movements in life; it defines how you sit, walk and run. The strength of your foundation is totally dependent on the flexibility and strength of your spine and how well you’re able to activate your inner core. And let me tell you, this is more than your mother telling you to sit up tall and straight.

Which running alignment has your preference?

The following test might help you to figure out what your preferred habitual posture is, and can therefor show you how your posture is affecting your running form.

Place yourself in front of a mirror. Then move towards plank position without looking into the mirror. Do the plank the way you always used to do them.
Then look into the mirror and check the alignment of your back. There are three options in your posture, which each have an effect on your running form:

Preferred posture: collapsed lower back

Pelvis sinks towards the floor: this means you are not able to extend the lower back and fully activate your inner core to help stabilize the lower back.

Your lower back is collapsed, when your parts of your spine become stiff and other parts start to compensate. In this posture your lower back is carrying all the weight and is being overused. Most people experience soreness in muscles, and unstable lower back, and there is a higher risk of disc compression and damage. If this is your preferred posture, each stride of your run will most likely end up in the lower back, specifically the part where you are compensating. With this preferred posture you are more likely prone to injuries in your lower back and beneath, so pelvis/hips and parts your legs.

Consequence 1: Weak and unstable core

It is impossible to have a strong and stable core (the foundation of all your movements) when you have a collapsed lower back.

Consequence 2: short hamstrings and stiff hip flexors

A flattened lower back will rotate the upper part of your pelvis backward, and thus your sit bones will move towards the back of your knees. This overturn of your pelvis will shorten your hamstrings, which will make them prone to hamstring injuries. It will also stiffen and shorten your hip flexors, which will lead to a limited leg rotation during your run.

Consequence 3: impaired functionality of your diaphragm

Last but not least, it will affect the functionality of your diaphragm, your most important breathing muscle. This weak diaphragm will create shallow breathing, and thus less oxygen flow and energy for your muscles during your run.

Do you recognize yourself as a ‘lower backer’?

Exercises that will help to mobilise the stiff areas in your back, and strengthen postural muscles around the lower back will help!

Preferred posture: curved upper back

Pelvis is too high and you have a curve in your upper back: Your tending to move away from your lower back and are curving the upper back which gives you to much tension in the shoulder area.

The curved upper back is often directly related to an unstable and stiff lower back, in which the whole spine will form a curve. Almost always, the source is a long curved sitting or standing position, e.g. when you are sitting behind a computer or driving wheel, or when you have long standing work to do and are bend over a work space. As the upper back will over time not be able to fully straighten anymore, this leads to compensations in other parts of the body: the neck or lower back.

If this is your preferred posture, you are most likely to carry a lot of weight and stiffness in the upper back and shoulders, and each stride of your run will most likely end up in your neck. This can lead to neck pain, headaches and sometimes even migraines after your run.

Consequence 1: Head in front of spine and collapse in neck

The rounding of your upper back will push your head in front of your spine, which gives an intense strain to your shoulder and neck. Because you don’t want to bump into a car or tree while running, you will lift up your head. But as your upper back is stiff, you need to collapsing in your neck to lift up your head, thus creating extra pressure in this area, which will become prone to pain and neck injuries.

Consequence 2: limited space for sternum and shallow breath

A collapsed upper back will also push your sternum inward, creating stiffness in the muscles in between your ribs, and leaving little space to breath (as said before, this has a huge impact to the oxygen level in your blood and the energy being given to your muscles).

Consequence 3: Overuse of arm sway

As your shoulders will move to the front of your body too, it will affect the arm swing and lead for your hands to cross your midline in the front of your body. This excessive sway will waste a lot of energy and create even more tension in your shoulders and back.

Do you recognize yourself as a ‘upper backer’?

Exercises that will help to mobilize the upper back and strengthen postural muscles around the upper back and neck will help! Check out my blog post on neck pain for specific exercises.

Preferred posture: J-shaped aka straight spine

Are you straight (that means you spine has it’s natural J-shaped form: a little curve in the lower back, ribs lowered to the belly and upper back straight).

This is the ideal running alignment, as each stride will move through the body and will leave no specific rest tension.

I’d like to hear from you!

Do you recognize yourself as a lower backer or an upper backer? And what do you do to create a proper running posture? I’m curious! Share your insights below in the comments section.

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