Are you working harder than you need to while running?
Running feels like work because of the force required to propel the body upward and forward against gravity’s downward pull. So when we approach running as something requiring a great deal of mechanical effort, we’re likely to apply an unnecessary amount of muscular force to do it.
Humans are really good at developing the muscular strength to perform repetitive motions. Unfortunately, for runners, this may mean compensating for poor running form by overdeveloping certain muscles that were never intended to be used for running.
The quads are a good example of this. Over-reliance on the quadriceps leads to all kinds of biomechanical problems related to problems like back pain, piriformis pain, IT-band syndrome, sore knees and much more.
But over time, it gets harder to maintain this compensation. As we age, muscular strength starts to decrease, and it’s at this point that running starts to cause joint pain or an overuse injury. However, there is a better way to run. The Power Posture that I describe below reduces the muscular load required in the running gait and making gravity do more of the work for you. It not only makes running easier, but also decreases the chance of injury.
There are three aspects to the Power Posture:
1. An Expansive Upper Body
How you carry your upper body is just as important as what you do with your legs. It’s a lot easier to fully inflate the lungs when your chest is open. With the shoulders back, there’s room for the diaphragm to stretch as well. Any forward flexion in the torso increases the chance of getting a cramp here because the diaphragm is pinched.
Plus, just the expansive feeling you get from standing up straight, shoulders back, is a very powerful posture to hold. Try this now—whether you’re standing or sitting, it doesn’t matter. Raise your arms up, shoulders back and take a deep breath. Notice for a moment how it feels.
Studies that have shown that a posture that is expansive (shoulders back, arms raised) actually raises testosterone and lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
Those are both great things as runners, but it can help us anytime we want to perform our best. Next time you’re feeling nervous at the starting line of a race, take this pose and notice the shift as your nervousness eases and confidence soars.
While running, roll the shoulders back and stand tall without over-arching the back. If you feel tension in your shoulders, take a deep breath and let them relax. They should hang naturally from the torso, but until you have the strength to hold your shoulders back, it will take some conscious effort to hold them there (see photo above).
2. Lifting the Legs From the Core
When we hear “core” we naturally think of the abs. But when I talk about moving from the core, I’m referring to all the stabilizing muscles in your trunk (back, abdominals and hips).
If leg strength was indicative of running success, then people with the thickest, most muscular legs would be the best runners. But we all know that’s not the case. What’s more important is to engage the right muscles. And the strongest running muscles are not in the front of the body, but in the back.
One of the best ways to engage your most powerful running muscles in the gluteus maximum and gluteus minimus is pelvic tilt. When your belly is tipped forward, your abs are not engaged and your back is swayed, and you’re in a less powerful position. It’s actually more mechanical work to lift your leg in this position. Now when your pelvis is tilted back, your abs engage and there’s less mechanical effort involved in lifting your leg (as pictured above).
This applies to any sport that involves lifting, moving or exerting force with your limbs. You recruit far more power when that movement starts here at your center, rather than the limb itself. Try throwing a baseball using just your arm. It’s not going to go very far. This holds true as well in running.
3. A Controlled Forward Fall
Now that your body is in the proper alignment, you’re ready for the step that really puts gravity to work for you instead of against you. You can try this standing in your living room or wherever you are right now. Keeping the rest of your body upright, flex forward from the ankles until you start to fall and reflexively step forward to catch yourself. Think about that the next time you go running. If running is falling, then your hips are slightly forward of vertical, your glutes are engaged and gravity is pulling you forward.
In this case, you’re not muscling your way through the gait cycle. Rather, you are controlling gravity’s forward pull. You’ll soon find that you can’t do this if you take long running strides. It only works if you keep your stride length short. That doesn’t mean running slowly; rather, you can run just as fast—or even faster—than ever before because it requires less work on your part.
Here's a review the key steps to adopting the Power Posture and making gravity work for you:
- Straighten your back so that you’re standing tall.
- Pull the shoulders back until you feel a slight expansion in the front of your chest and lungs.
- Tilt your pelvis back to engage the core, the power center for any type of movement.
- Lean forward from your ankles while keeping the rest of your body straight.
- Run with a shorter stride such that you can maintain the forward lean and notice engagement of the glutes.