Performance Flexibility: Trunk Mobility And The Foam Roll

Stay the CourseLast month’s column discussed the importance of mobility, not simply for injury prevention but for optimal performance. Flexibility is more than muscle and tendon mobility. It is the ability of all tissues–muscles and tendons, but also joints and nerves–to move efficiently.

Trail running is kinder to the body than the roads and track, but long, rugged runs and races take their toll. Soft tissues, joints, and nerves are stressed inside and out over the many hours on the trail. And while balanced, hard-and-easy, short-and-long running cycles are helpful, additional flexibility work is crucial in maintaining functional mobility for fast, enjoyable running.

Over the next several months, Stay the Course will outline various strategies to improve and maintain performance flexibility. This month’s column will focus on trunk mobility using the foam roll.

Trunk Mobility: The Keystone to Efficient Running

The trunk–the thoracic spine and ribcage–does a lot more than protect our insides. It contains the engine (heart, lungs, and digestive system) and supports the controls (brain) and electrical system (nerves) that power sustained, efficient running. On top of that, trunk position and motion greatly impacts stride mechanics.

That said, efficient trunk mobility is extremely important for runners for several reasons:

Efficient Footstrike
A neutral, tall trunk is required for efficient forward momentum. If the trunk is either too tall or too rounded, the foot may land too far in front of the body, creating a braking force.

Hip Power
A neutral–or slightly arched–trunk directs the hip and pelvis in a rearward direction. This automatically optimizes hip power, maximizing both forward drive and rearward push off. Loss of trunk neutral in either direction can decrease hip efficiency.

Arm Swing
In a previous column, we discussed the importance of arm swing for efficient running. With a neutral trunk, the shoulder blade moves powerfully and efficiently to drive arm swing. When the trunk slumps forward, the shoulder blades are blocked, and arm swing is severely diminished.

“Short, Long and Twist”
In the efficient state, a neutral trunk contains subtle but powerful motions–including shortening, lengthening, and rotation–that add both power and natural cushioning to our stride. Trunk stiffness robs us of this efficiency multiplier.

Lung Expansion and Oxygen Uptake
Runners like to brag about (or fret over) their VO2 Max: the volume of oxygen that the body can consume (per unit weight and time), often used as an indicator of running fitness.

But few runners realize that in order to absorb the oxygen, a whole bunch of it must get inside the lungs first! To maximize oxygen uptake, the ribcage must remain in neutral for the lungs to fully expand. Being stiff in the thorax–or positioned either too flexed, or too extended–limits ribcage expansion and, ultimately, results in less oxygen uptake. As if they’re running at altitude, many runners are severely handicapping performance by limiting their breath, simply by being stiff and slouched.

Optimal Organ Function
The vast majority of the nervous system travels through the spine, and nerves that power all the vital organs and legs course through the trunk. Indeed, the basis of chiropractic medicine is that the loss of spine and nerve mobility affects whole-body health, and may cause disease.

Efficient trunk mobility is crucial for optimal function of all these nerves. Stiffness in thoracic-spine vertebrae can impact the legs, creating pain and/or weakness. Moreover, because the trunk also houses important homeostatic nerves, a stiff trunk can actually impair blood flow to vital organs and extremities!

For all these reasons, having a mobile, supple trunk is absolutely critical to efficient running and good health!

Trunk Mobility and the Foam Roll

By nature, the thoracic spine is strong, yet stiff, in order to protect its contents. As such, it requires a lot of force to mobilize. That is where a foam roll is useful.  Most runners use the roller–a long, foam cylinder–to mobilize sore muscles. But it also has great utility to mobilize the trunk by rolling and arching across it.

To promote trunk flexibility, the following sequence is best done daily: either pre-run, or at the end of the day, especially after periods of prolonged sitting.

Side to Side
Begin on your back on the roll, sitting on the very edge, then lying back so that the head is supported on the roll.  Balancing with hands and feet, slowly roll side to side across the spine and ribcage.  Perform this mobilization for 1 to 2 minutes.

1.SidetoSide

2.SidetoSide.OH

Up and Down
Next, position the roll horizontally across the back. With hands supporting your head, boost up and roll up and down, from the bottom of the neck, to the bottom of the rib cage. Perform this mobilization for 1 minute.

3.Up&Down

4.Up&Down.OH

Arch-Overs
The key mobilization on the foam roller is the arch-over. This involves picking a stiff spot–often either between the shoulder blades or at the bottom of the rib cage, at the junction of the lumbar spine–and allowing the head and shoulders to sink down toward the floor.  Then, the pelvis is allowed to sink down, creating an arching effect, with the roll as fulcrum.

Breathing deeply, hold the arched-over position for 2 to 10 breaths, then rise up and roll again. Pick multiple areas, or repeat the same stiff area. Perform this mobilization for 1 to 5 minutes.

5.ArchOver

6.ArchOver.OH

Diagonals
Lastly, adjust the roll so that it is at a 30-degree diagonal with the trunk. Keep the feet pointed in a straight line and roll at a diagonal. While this direction is awkward, this technique facilitates trunk rotation.  Perform this mobilization for 30 seconds, then reverse the diagonal.

7.Diagonal

8.Diagonal.OH

Ideal Trunk Mobility: The Breath Test

Once you’ve improved trunk mobility using the foam roll, determine your optimal trunk position while running by comparing the following three positions:

  • Old Man Slump”: shoulders slumped forward, trunk rounded, and head forward;
  • Too Tall”: trunk and low back fully arched, with shoulders back; and
  • Neutral: the middle ground between the two.

Take as deep of a breath as possible in each position and note the difference in breath volume in the slump and tall, versus midway between those extremes. Optimal individual trunk posture is a fine-tuned, midway position where you feel the greatest ribcage expansion and lung filling. Try this in standing, pre-run, or even while running, to find and maintain optimal trunk posture.

Look Fast, Run Fast

Most of the time (but not always), elite athletes are models of the ideal, and perhaps no other place is this more true that trunk mobility and posture. Without exception, the very best runners have excellent trunk posture. It is an absolute requirement for maximal oxygen update, cardiovascular and GI function, and mechanical efficiency. Indeed, the most noticeable difference between the very best and the also-rans is trunk efficiency: the fastest run tall, exhibiting strength, power, and confidence, while the chase pack is often stiff, slumped, and wheezing for breath in their wake.

The first step in being faster is looking faster. If you’re stiff, get mobile, then get neutral and stay there! Your top speed and efficiency will surely follow.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How is your trunk mobility? Have you noticed any changes to it as your running progresses and as you age?
  • What sort of trunk posture do you think you have while running? How about while standing in a line, or cooking dinner, or walking?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 4 comments

  1. almondine3

    Thanks, Joe! Any tips on piriformis overuse- hip and ankle mobility?

    Also, do you recommend any brand/type of foam roller?

    1. 00joeuhan

      Both hip extension and ankle dorsiflexion are important in treating/avoiding posterior pelvic (e.g. piriformis) pain.

      Foam rolls: generally the stiffer, the better. The black foam rolls are among the stiffest out there.

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