Have you ever gotten a photo from a race or had a friend snap an Instagram during a run and looked at it in disbelief? You likely have an image in your head of you running gracefully, practically floating above the ground, posture perfect and looking extremely competent. In reality, most of us probably look a little more like Frankenstein than Swan Lake, but the good news is there are a few simple cues to think about to improve your posture when you’re running.
Working on your running posture doesn’t just lead to better race day photos, though: It leads to more efficient, faster running, according to Jay Dicharry, physical therapist, biomechanist and author of “Running Rewired,” who has some recommendations for improving your posture on the run.
RESEARCHING POOR POSTURE
Dicharry wasn’t always a believer in running posture, and when he first started thinking about it, he couldn’t find much research telling him whether or not it mattered for speed or efficiency. So, like any good researcher, he took matters into his own hands (or his own treadmill, in this case).
“I had runners come into the lab and told them to just run. I measured a bunch of things in terms of body stress and economy to get a baseline,” he explains. “Then, I said, ‘Now I want you to run with an arched back.’ I would let the runner do that and then asked him to lean forward, like he was collapsing toward the floor and run again. That gave me three reference points: a neutral position, a backseat position and a forward position.”
The result? “We found that when you tend to go in the backseat with that arch, you’re working about 8% harder to run, and it actually costs more effort to run the same speed,” he says. “People are talking about how shoes can drop by a percent or two, but just by having poor posture, you can cause a 10% worse running economy. And in terms of body stress, the loads and impact can prevent or cause injury depending on posture. You can make some pretty profound changes in your running economy and your body stress just by making sure you can hold your body in a better position.”
KEEP YOUR EYES UP
Trail runners, in particular, are guilty of looking down during a run, but road runners do it, too. “You want to be looking about 15–20 feet in front of you most times,” says Dicharry. “Not directly at the ground and at the next rock, but not off into the horizon either. On the trail, don’t panic: Your brain is pretty smart, right, and when you see rocks coming, you will pre-plan for them even if you don’t consciously know it.”
If you lead with a slumped, head-forward position, it’s going to cause your torso to round forward, which wreaks havoc on your running form, he notes. “Trust yourself, and you will learn to handle rocks or roots or potholes without staring at the ground.”
GET OUT OF THE BACK SEAT
As Dicharry alluded to in his testing, the worst thing a runner can do is stay ‘in the backseat.’ If you notice that your back is arched while you run, and your pelvis is shifted forward, you’re running in the backseat, which also causes our hips to swing forward.
Massage therapist and kinesiologist Mandy Dreyer explains that this tends to happen especially as runners fatigue. “If you’re running with an anterior pelvic tilt, you stick your butt out when you run,” she says. “Then, you can’t access your glutes to drive backward. You’ll feel a stretch happen in your abdomen and your ab muscles won’t be able to work efficiently. You’re taking a lot of pressure to your low back. You’re just losing the ability to utilize the awesome strength that you already have.”
Not sure if you’re doing it? Stand in front of a mirror and drop the arches of your feet inward and let your body settle into that position. Dreyer explains that you’ll notice your thighs will become internally rotated, your back will be arched, and your hips will have an anterior tilt. You may also notice your shoulders and head are dropped forward. From there, it’s time to find your neutral, happy posture position.
PRESS PAUSE MID-RUN
Dicharry has his athletes do a mid-run drill. (Yes, he knows exactly how annoying it is to stop during a run.) “But it is one of the most important things to do,” he says. “If you try this and it feels awkward, please do me a favor and stop every half a mile of your run for the next two weeks. You’ll build this habit of understanding where you are in space, where your body is falling as you run. Once you start to pay attention to this, it’s easy to run with good posture, but you just have to know what that position is.”
Here’s how to do it:
- Come to a stop mid-run. Just relax and think about where your weight is landing on your feet. Is it on the forefoot? Is it evenly split between the forefoot and the heel? Or is it mostly back on the heel? Most of us are going to feel a lot of weight on our heels.
- Take your right hand and place it on your belly button. Put your left hand on your breastbone. Keeping your hands in place, let your rib cage flare up and let your hand go up with it. As you do this, you’ll feel more weight go back to your heels and your back will arch.
- Keeping your hands in place, drop your ribcage so your weight feels evenly split between your heels and the balls of your feet. This is your new “zero point” for your weight distribution.
- Drop your chest down past that point and feel your weight go more toward the ball of the foot, feel your heels start to come off the ground. Come back to that middle point again.
- Stand on one leg and take your hands off your belly button and your chest and shine your palms forward. That opens your shoulder blades to avoid that hunched position most of us are in throughout the day.
- For your entire run, do this same check-in drill every half mile or so and find that zero point and check your shoulder position. Keep doing this, and you’ll build a conscious awareness of where you are in space, and it is easier to maintain better postural alignment, leaving you with less biomechanical stress and better running economy.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.