Running is like breathing. Just because you do it doesn’t mean you do it well. Whether you’re prepping for your first 5k or your next marathon, it’s critical to develop an understanding and appreciation of what’s going on under the hood. For runners this boils down to our ongoing relationship with gravity. Here’s the thing – gravity will win if you fight it. Far better to learn how to use it for your next race.
Your Body On Gravity
There are some fundamental physical truths that make more sense out of this paradigm of running, and movement in a broader sense. The skeletal structure is there to give us clarity of form and act as a compressive foundation, resisting the stress of gravity. The bones are a clever arrangement of mechanical levers.
These bones are held and moved in space by the meaty bits (muscles, tendons, ligaments), as governed by the nervous system. The soft tissues of the body form a web of tension that keeps those bony levers in their relative alignment. This complex interaction of tension and compression is called tensegrity.
“Play nicely with the nervous system through embodied visualization, and you’ll find huge improvement in efficiency of movement.”
Here’s where it gets tricky. We essentially have islands of compression (bones) in a sea of tension (soft tissue). Because of this unique arrangement, we can never find one single, rigid perfect posture. Our bodies are constantly shifting. You’ll feel this if you spend a long time standing. You’ll no doubt make subtle shifts in how you stand over time.
Because we’re constantly making these small shifts, proper alignment is inherently a dynamic experience. It isn’t rigid and held in place. We can think of good posture as any position in which the muscles are at neutral, resting length, and the bones are positioned for maximum leverage. You wouldn’t drive your car with the wheels out of alignment, right? Your body is no different. It is a machine, but a living one.
Fall. Catch. Press. Repeat.
When it comes to alignment, running is no different than lifting. We want to minimize deviations from the center in order to maximize our efficiency. For runners in particular it’s helpful to think of the whole spine as an integrated, supple column. You don’t want to hold your spine locked in place, but you want a continuous sense of length throughout it. If you maintain this image, you’ll be less likely to collapse at the neck and low back. This integrity reduces shearing forces on the spine and keeps you running with ease.
Running is essentially a horizontal displacement of your center of gravity. Think of what happens when you lean forward, moving your center of gravity in front of your feet. Gravity will take over, and your options are:
- Catch yourself
With a healthy base of reflexive movement, you’ll catch yourself by stepping your foot forward almost beneath your new center of gravity.
Thanks to a beauty of physics called ground reaction force each time you plant a foot, there’s a push back up in the opposite direction. The more force behind the step and push, the more oomph you get from each step. So you can think of running as a fall, a catch, and a press. Imagine repeating that process another 55,000 or so times and you’ve just run a marathon. Kudos.
However, most runners rarely maintain their optimal alignment and patterning over the course of a run. Somewhere along the chain from heel to head, something fatigues, form grows sloppy, and injuries pop up like weeds. No wonder there are so many former runners.
A Mindful Biped
It’s critical to reiterate how movement occurs in the body. We often think solely in terms of muscle, but every single movement begins with a cue from the nervous system. Think of this as movement software. Only then does the hardware (muscle and bone) get involved. If you can improve the software, you can improve the movement. We’ll explore some cues from the realm of ideokinesis, a field centered on thought as a facilitator of movement.
Let’s explore a way to boost your running efficiency through some Jedi mind tricks. We’ve known for some time now that visualization can have a powerful effect not just on performance, but also on musculoskeletal alignment.1,2 By bringing some mindful awareness to your run, you’ll find more ease in maintaining optimal posture and saving your joints.
Start with these gravitational awareness drills:
- Begin in a standing position. Notice where in your feet you feel your weight.
- Tune in to your sense of verticality. Do your joints feel “stacked” from feet to head?
- See if you can pinpoint where your center of gravity lies in standing.
- Shift that imagined point forward in front of where you feel your weight in the feet.
As you run let these cues enrich your sensory-motor experience:
- Let yourself be pulled up and slightly forward by a string attached to the topmost part of the breastbone.This will naturally help you maintain buoyancy and length in the spine.
- Lengthen each heel behind you as you press into the earth. You’ll find more engagement through the posterior chain.
- Imagine the shoulders and arms growing heavy and hanging from the sternum. In a skeletal sense they do just that.This will save you from the dread runner’s hunchback.
- Allow the jaw bone to sink into gravity, as if it could hang from the skull. Relieving excess tension in the neck works wonders to improve mechanical efficiency down the chain.
Remember all movement starts in the nervous system. Play nicely with the nervous system through embodied visualization, and you’ll find huge improvement in efficiency of movement.
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1. James E Driskell, et al. “Does Mental Practice Enhance Performance?” Journal of Applied Psychology (1994).
2. Lulu Sweigard. “Psychomotor Function As Correlated With Body Mechanics & Posture,” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences (1949)
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.