Thoracic Spine Exercises for Trail Runners

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The thoracic spine, or t-spine, consists of 12 bones. It sits below the seven bones of the cervical spine that make up the neck and above the five bones of the lumbar spine that comprise the low-back. A runner’s spine should have three-dimensional movement: the capacity to flex forward, extend backward, flex right and left, and rotate.

Why You Need 3D Thoracic Motion as a Trail Runner

Running is clearly lower-body dominant but it’s important to not think of it as lower-body exclusive. Movement in one area of the body involves and affects the entire system. Good running depends on proper movement everywhere. Dysfunction in one area will cause trouble elsewhere.

Mobility allows the body to absorb and create force efficiently. If everything from the toes to the neck moves well, then impact distributes evenly through the tissues as we run. If joints and tissues don’t move well then other joints and tissues may suffer as they struggle to cope with excessive force. This may give rise to aches, pains and poor performance.

Think of how the spine moves while a runner is running. There is a continuous counter-rotation, or twisting, between the upper and lower portions of the body, particularly from the hips through the head. Spinal rotation includes flexion, extension and side-to-side flexion as well. The t-spine is smack in the middle of this action. Thus, three-dimensional movement of the spine can be crucial to healthy running.

T-Spine Mobility Drills

There are numerous ways to move your t-spine. The following drills address sagittal (front/back) plane, frontal (side-to-side) plane, and transverse (rotation) plane movement. Don’t crank too hard on any of these. If the stretch is too intense then you’ll only tighten up. If anything hurts, back off a little. Only move as far as you can in a pain-free range-of-motion. Click the name of each drill to see a video demonstration.

Corner Stretch

The corner stretch creates t-spine extension in the sagittal plane. Head and hip movements create additional mobility. Do 6-20 reps.

Side Flexion

Side flexion creates frontal plane movement. Rotated side flexion combines frontal and transverse plane movement. The tall kneeling position stretches hip flexors. Do 6-20 reps in each position.

Lying Side Rotation

The side-lying upper body rotation fixes the lower body and moves the upper body. Gravity assists with rotation. Do 6-20 reps.

Lying Lower Body Rotation

The upper body is fixed while the lower body moves. Gravity assists with rotation. Keep shoulders in contact with the ground at all times. Rotate the arms and drop the legs toward the up-facing palm. Gravity assists with rotation.

When to do the drills

  • You’ll see the quickest results if you’ll take a few minutes throughout the day and do one or two of these drills.
  • Do these drills before a run or a gym workout.
  • Between sets of exercises at the gym is a great time to perform a mobility drill.

You may find that you’re more limited in one capacity than another. You may want to spend extra time working on your more limited movements.

If you encounter pain then back off. Don’t grind into pain. If you’re in severe, persistent pain or if you’ve fallen and sustained an acute injury then seek medical care.

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