Give It a Brake: Form Fundamentals for Healthy, Efficient Running

Stay the CourseEureka, I’ve done it!

After 18 years of competitive running, two USATF coaching certifications, a doctorate degree in Physical Therapy, and three-plus years of clinical experience.

…I finally know how to run.

No, really.

Okay, more specifically: I finally know the fundamental concepts of an efficient, healthy running stride:

  1. Leaning forward.
  2. Flexing and extending the extremities.

Too simple? Maybe, but the primary issue with teaching and learning running mechanics is that we – as runners, coaches, and sports med folks – make it enormously complicated: innumerable drills, stretches, strengtheners, and cues. As a result, most of us are neurotically averse to the mere mention of changing our strides.

A sport that is so blissfully simple deserves an equally simple mechanical concept. And it really is that simple, but allow me to elaborate further on efficient running:

  1. Leaning forward with a neutral-aligned trunk – head to tailbone – such that the foot lands precisely beneath it.
  2. Flexing and extending the extremities in synergistic neuromuscular movement patterns – where the end result is more powerful and efficient than the sum of its moving parts.

In essence, running is a controlled fall – forward momentum of the trunk propelled along with flexing and extending of the limbs.

But what happens if you quit “falling?”

The Role of Trunk Alignment in the Running Stride

This month’s column will discuss the concept of trunk alignment (stayed tuned for Part II next month on the extremities). Since the object of running is to move the trunk using the arms and legs, shape and direction of the trunk is the most important element of the running stride.

Without proper trunk alignment, your fall becomes a bounce, or a brake-and-push. Without proper trunk alignment, it does not matter what your legs do – when the trunk is behind the foot, you will run slower and more painfully.

The Concept of Braking

Most runners have an idea about braking: It’s when you land on your heel in front of you.

That’s half right. Braking occurs any time any part of the foot strikes the ground ahead of the center of mass, as defined as the central point where the average mass lies – normally found in the central trunk of a runner.

That said, a mid- or forefoot striker can also brake if they land in front of their body. The part of the foot that strikes first simply helps determine what will hurt. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with a heel strike, so long as the heel (and the rest of the foot) lands directly beneath the center of mass.

That said, foot strike ultimately doesn’t matter. Where the foot lands with respect to your body, does. Ultimately, if your trunk is not going forward, it does not matter what your legs will do: if your trunk is going back, your foot will land out front.

Trunk Alignment and Running

Trunk neutral is defined as a “plumb-line” straight alignment from ear to tailbone (allowing for the natural curvatures of the thoracic and lumbar spine). In essence, are all the “blocks” of the trunk stacked on top of one another?

Neutral torso position

The author, demonstrating a (pretty good) neutral standing posture.

This neutral stacking results in predictable, consistent forward engagement in the run stride. Using information from the eyes and inner ear, our brain – assuming the trunk is a straight-aligned block – can determine a consistent forward position.

More importantly, emerging research is beginning to demonstrate that when the spinal segments are in a relaxed, neutral position, the deepest core stabilizers will automatically fire in support of that position. All we have to do is get there!

Common Postural Dysfunctions in Runners

There are several causes or justifications of losing ideal, neutral trunk posture when we run:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Weakness: e.g., running beyond our ability to maintain ideal neutral
  • Structural limitation: being too stiff to assume a neutral position
  • Poor non-running posture: work, school, sleeping, etc.
  • Lack of awareness: who knows what good posture is, anyway?

Whatever the reason, these common dysfunctions frequently result in braking issues:

“The Sit Back”

This is a common run posture for ultramarathoners: we get tired in the trunk and hips, so we sit back. Moreover, the constant ups and downs of a trail race can put us in this posture, and the relatively slow pace of a long ultra makes it easy to stay here.

The "sitting back" torso position.

A slightly exaggerated backward “sitting” trunk. Note that in standing, the center of the trunk lies behind the hip-knee-foot.

With the center of mass so far behind the legs, braking is almost a given.

The Solution: Shift forward, relax downward. The “Sit Back” runner needs to do two things: shift their trunk forward until it is over the feet, then relax the sternum downward. I will commonly cue runners to put their hand on their sternum, take a big inhale, then feel their sternum sink downward. For many, the new position will feel like nearly falling forward.

“Too Tall”

This is the most common posture I see in the clinic – with both runners and non – who present with spine or leg pain. Most people have the idea that good posture is being really tall with an arched back. As a result, they go too far, resulting in a backward-arched alignment.

The "too tall" torso position

“Too Tall” alignment. Note the sharp angle between the low back and ribs. Although the author shows forward lean through the leg, the trunk momentum continues to go backward, making a sustained forward engagement difficult.

Maintaining a forward engagement with the upper trunk trending so far back is very difficult with fatigue, and typically results in a full-body backward lean and bouncing inefficiency. Additionally, these folks have a hard time with maximal efforts, as the thoracic spine is locked into extension, making full lung inflation more difficult.

The Solution: Relax the sternum down! This is an easy, but very awkward, adjustment to normalize alignment and promote forward engagement. Too Tall folks are so used to having a backward-pointing thorax that, when corrected, the head, neck and shoulder blades are now significantly forward.

The second correction, then, is to “get tall through the head”: imagine having a pony-tail, or a string attached to the crown of your head, then pulling it straight up in the air. The result is a tall head, oriented directly over the trunk, with a level chin.

“The Old Guy Curve”

This is a rough one, and among the more common postures seen in long ultras. Heck, even I’ve sported it far more often than I care to admit (including at the end of the 2012 Western States).

 

The "old guy curve" torso position.

“The Old Guy Curve”, demonstrated with a flexed spine, back-tilted pelvis, and forward head.

Extreme fatigue and the demand of steep up and down hills is a primary cause of the “Old Guy Curve.” Steep uphills warp our positional sense; they also make a strong forward engagement difficult, because it is more taxing on the hips and quads. Downhills also promote this position, as a back-sitting trunk aids in controlled descent, especially when the legs are fatigued.

For many younger runners, this is a fatigue or habit position (in both running and life). However, for many true older runners, this fatigue position can become a structural deformity, where one simply cannot run (or stand) fully upright.

The Solution: Be tall, open up the hips and pelvis. Be tall: think of the pony-tail/string idea. Moreover, “Old Guy” runners also need to allow their hips and pelvis to open or extend backward. Their sensation of new normal might include feeling more forward, with more stretch to the anterior trunk and hips.

Forward Engagement = Neutral Trunk + Forward Lean

The ultimate goal with running is to take the neutral trunk alignment and…lean forward!

To lean is different than to bend. Leaning simply implies forward momentum, a trend in forward direction. In standing true forward engagement occurs with an ankle bend, but in the act of running no such distinction needs to be made – just lean forward and go!

The "Neutral and Forward" torso position

Neutral trunk and forward engagement (via ankles in standing, slightly compensated with hip extension in this depiction) desired for running.

How much lean? The degree of engagement depends on running speed: the more you engage, the faster you run.

The Art of Maintenance and Self-Check

Now that neutral and ideal have been identified, how do you successfully achieve and maintain it?

To achieve, use a mirror, and practice finding neutral, then practice that forward position in standing: simple take one step forward, and put your chest-over-knee-over foot. Hold the position for up to a minute, and monitor ear-to-tail neutral. To self-check on the run, utilize any mirror or window reflection you can find!

To help maintain, take any static core stability exercise – namely the prone plank – and be sure that you are truly in spinal neutral, including the chin.

* * * * *

Posture counts! And as I tell my patients, the best way to practice running all day is to stand and walk well! Sit and stand with posture excellence and make it a part of your best stride!

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.