Is Bad Posture Holding Back Your Running?

Runners should not neglect anatomy and kinesiology when striving to improve performance. In particular, the basic biomechanics of exercise dictate that posture plays a crucial role in running, not just for increasing speed but in alleviating aches and pains and avoiding injury. When the proper application of mechanical forces is disrupted, performance becomes less than optimal.

Pelvic tilt
In running, an overly frontward-tilted pelvis results in overlengthened hamstrings while the quadriceps and hip flexors are short and tight. In this scenario the hip flexors and knee extensors become overworked while the knee flexors and hip extensors become limited in their actions.

Abdominal/oblique exercises are crucial here to strengthen the core and stabilize the pelvis in a neutral position. Many researchers believe pelvic position to be the single most important factor influencing the knee and patellofemoral joints. The relationship between pelvic position and stress on the knees is made abundantly clear in instances when other than neutral pelvic position is called for.

For example, in extreme terrain, pelvic tilt can be your best friend. Recall the feeling of hiking down a very steep hill: By adjusting pelvic tilt to account for the slope of the mountain, you can discover a center-of-gravity "sweet spot" within which pressure and discomfort on the knees and quadriceps suddenly dissipates, providing a weightless feeling. This phenomenon was discussed in “Reflections on an All-Day Walk” in 2015’s July/August issue.

Posture for less pain and better breathing
Where running is concerned, in one case study published in the AMAA Journal, an 18-year-old track athlete experiencing a performance plateau also complained of right groin soreness, occasional pain in both knees, tightness in the lumbar spine, hamstring tenderness and extreme difficulty breathing after running long distance.

After five weeks of postural repositioning and breathing exercises, combined with gluteal, hamstring, and abdominal exercises, the patient set five personal best records, including shaving 14 seconds off his mile run, and six seconds off his 800 meters.

This athlete’s prescribed breathing technique included “belly breathing” through the nose and into the diaphragm, and then exhaling by “sighing,” as opposed to forceful exhales through pursed lips. He was instructed to lower his rib cage during exhalation as well. In effect, these techniques reduce the energy required to inhale and exhale.

The postural exercises this runner was prescribed involved contracting the gluteals and hamstrings while relaxing the muscles of the back and performing a posterior pelvic tilt. Exercises designed to also recruit the stabilizing abdominal and oblique muscles in simultaneous contraction are then employed to further restore neutral posture. Like the muscles of the lower back, the quadriceps muscles are relaxed during these exercises.

Marathon posture
Marathoning can offer its own set of postural challenges because runners are typically out there so long that the slightest gait irregularity can amplify, causing significant injury over many miles. In marathoning, try to keep your feet low to the ground. Excessive knee lift only proves inefficient. Try to stay upright but relaxed, with head over shoulders over hips. It may help to imagine that you are a puppet on a single string, suspended from directly on top of your head. This creates the image of “upright but relaxed” from which your form will most benefit. For faster race times, aim to increase turnover rather than stride length. You’re better off light on your feet than extending and stomping your legs out in front of you with each push.

Try to land each footstrike directly under your hip. Your lead leg should never lock at the knee. By monitoring your cadence on a regular basis, you’ll intuitively begin to increase your turnover and minimize any overstriding, likely with faster results.

Other postural pitfalls include over-rotating the shoulders, swinging your arms too high and hunching; that is, flexing the shoulders up toward the neck. Remember, tensing up takes valuable energy in distance running away from the body systems that really need it.

Often, runners focus on sport-specific training techniques, strength and flexibility training and aerobic conditioning—neglecting biomechanics and human physiology. There is a best posture for any given running situation, and by paying attention to yours and making slight adjustments along the way, you can learn to address the underlying causes of injury, rather than getting caught trying to treat the symptoms after the fact.

AMAA Journal, 2004, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 8-10

The Beginning Runner’s Handbook, 2005, Greystone, Vancouver, BC, pp. 39-40, 92-96

Marathon!, 2000, Phidippides, Atlanta, GA, pp. 167-172

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