Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
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.
Train for better posture
1. Shoulder Opener and Scapular Stabilizer
What: Chest, shoulders
How: Take a five-foot piece of PVC pipe or similar object. Start with an awareness of how you are standing: gently lift your toes and rock your weight back, activating your quads, glutes and abdominals. Then, gripping the pipe close to the ends, lift it to chest height. Straighten your arms, pushing the pipe away from your chest. Pinch your shoulder blades and lift your chest. Now lift the pipe above your head, keeping your arms straight, and then lower the pipe until it touches the lower back, changing your grip as needed. Then reverse the movement, bringing the pipe back above your head and to chest height. Repeat two to three sets of eight to ten reps.
2. Cuban Press.
What: Upper back
How: Stand straight, with arms at your side. Pinch an imaginary pencil between your shoulder blades. Keeping your shoulder blades pinched, draw your arms up until your biceps are in line with your shoulders, with the elbow hinged and hands dangling towards the floor (your side, biceps and forearms should form three sides of a square). Rotate your forearms, so that your hands are pointing toward the ceiling (your biceps should still be in line with your shoulder). Slowly press your palms towards the ceiling, continuing until your shoulders start to lose their grip on the imaginary pencil. Then reverse, bringing your arms back down to your side, pinching your shoulder blades the entire time. Start with two sets of five reps. Perform each rep slowly. Don’t use weights.
3. Reverse Wall Squat
What: Core, hips
How: Stand facing a wall, with your nose, knees and toes as close to the wall as possible. Your feet should be hip or shoulder length apart, your shoulder blades pinched, your chest thrust out and chin tucked slightly.
Spread your arms to either side for stability, and then slowly squat. Your nose, toes and knees should touch the wall the whole time. Squat until your quads are parallel to the ground, then come back up. Start with three sets of five reps. Don’t use weights until you can get your quads parallel to the floor without falling over.
How: Fish calls the plank the best all-around exercise for runners. Start with three sets of 10 seconds each. While holding the plank, keep your entire core clenched. What’s important is not necessarily how long you hold it, but how intensely you activate your back, abs and hips. Allow several minutes to fully recovery between each set.