Running: How to make gravity your friend
Preparing well and paying attention to how you run can help prevent many common injuries
Ethiopian distance runner Kenenisa Bekele, centre, always stands in good balance and alignment. Photograph: AP Photo/Scott Heppell
Allyson Felix of the US also follows the Alexander Technique: Photograph: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
“Sitting is the new smoking,” is a catchphrase designed to strike fear into the hearts of office workers everywhere – and with good reason.
Accumulating research shows that sitting in front of computers or television screens or hours on end can raise the risk of developing conditions, such as type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Little wonder, then, that ever increasing numbers of people in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere are taking up running as a means of combating the negative consequences of their sedentary lifestyles.
Yet studies suggest that between 30 and 80 per cent of runners in the developed world incur running-related injuries each year. These include anything from Achilles tendinitis and patellofemoral pain syndrome, so-called runner’s knee, to bunions and stress fractures of the heel and shin bones. Lower back pain is also a very common complaint (something, interestingly, unknown amongst contemporary African hunter-gatherers).
Rest, compression bandages and ice packs will often work wonders for minor injuries, but sometimes surgical intervention, including bone grafts, or total knee or hip replacements, is required to sort out more serious long-term problems. Run inefficiently and heavily for many miles over time (hard surfaces such as pavement will amplify the effect) and, despite the improvement in your mood brought about by the release of feel-good endorphins, it’s likely that sooner or later something will give in your musculoskeletal system.
Preparing well and paying attention to how you run can help prevent many common injuries. And this really starts from the top. FM Alexander, an Australian actor and founder of the Alexander Technique, highlighted the importance of the way your head, which weighs from 10-14lbs, sits on your topmost neck vertebrae. If the muscles that attach to the back of your skull (trapezius or sternocleidomastoids) are unnecessarily shortening, not only does it pull your head down on to your neck, but it also compresses your neck and the rest of your spine as well as distorting the working of hip, knee and ankle joints. In turn, that will adversely affect the elasticity and mobility of your feet, including how they make contact with the ground (forefoot, midfoot or heel) as you run. Also, because you are distorting your spine you are narrowing your rib cage, with the result that your breathing will be laboured.
Alexander, although not directly working on running, found that his voice and breathing worked well while reciting Shakespeare once his head was poised delicately on top of the spine in such a way that his spine lengthened upwards and his back widened. That pattern of good co-ordination allowed him to achieve an additional upward release through his ankles, knees and hip joints, while his feet received good support from the ground, irrespective of whether he was standing still or in motion.
In fact, that same pattern of good head balance and general co-ordination, so useful in dramatic recitation, also helps us to run efficiently and lightly. Observe athletes such as Ethiopian distance runners Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba or US sprinter Allyson Felix at the start line and you can see that they always stand in good balance and alignment. They do not, for example, lock their knees, push their pelvis forward or lean backwards or forwards from their waists. Nor do they push their necks forward and down from the base of the neck (seventh cervical vertebrae), raise their shoulders or stiffen their fingers and thumbs. When they run they don’t pound heavily into the ground, instead they appear as if they are floating over the track or road, using the minimum amount of effort.
So what should we do? One of the best exercises before (and after) running is to lie on a (draft-free) carpeted floor in a semi-supine position, your feet flat on the floor, toes pointing out slightly, knees bent and pointing up to the ceiling, and, very importantly, the back of your head supported by a sufficient number of paperback books that your forehead is slightly higher than your chin (see photo). Your arms can rest by your sides, elbows turned slightly out and wrists slightly turned in. You can also tell your fingers and thumbs to relax.
In addition, keep your eyes open and try to stay present while consciously thinking of allowing the floor to support your body weight. Remain in this quiet position for between 10 and 20 minutes. The result will be that your spine will decompress, back muscles will widen and there will be tension relief in your legs and arms. Now that you are in better shape it’s time to roll over on to all fours and stand up.
Probably the biggest challenge for any runner is the movement from quiet standing into running. Get it right and you float along, aided by gravity, until your energy runs out; get it wrong and you waste precious effort by bobbing up and down or pounding the ground. Most of us think far too much of the forward movement and start by reaching out with our lead foot so that we end up over striding (the foot lands in front of the knee) and leaning backwards from our waist or hip joints. Alternatively, we bend forward from the waist or hip joints, stiffening the front of our body and narrowing our shoulders, or roll excessively from side to side.
Whatever your pattern of imbalance the essential work of supporting your body weight against gravity is transferred from the non-fatigable, slow-twitch muscle fibres of your back musculature to the highly fatigable, fast-twitch fibres of your leg muscles. That’s no good. You want your whole body to work as freely and elastically as possible. So now it’s time to carry out some detective work on your running style. However, rather than rely on what your alignment feels like (which is notoriously unreliable) get a friend to use a smartphone to video how you stand and how you start running. In that way you will have an objective measure.
The most important thing for you to understand is that the relaxation upwards of the back of your head, which will maintain the lengthening of the muscles of your neck and back, should be your primary concern, while the forward movement of your body is secondary. And that’s the case even if you’re chasing an Olympic medal or a world record time – which is why Bekele, Dibaba and Felix are such brilliantly efficient runners.
Like Alexander attempting to change the way he recited Shakespeare, you will find that old running habits die hard. When you review the video clips the likelihood is that you will observe that every time you go to run you will trigger the same inefficient pattern of body movement. So at all times keep in mind that the balance of your head on your neck acts as a master reflex in your body and that you don’t want to pull it down on your shoulders (or your shoulders up towards your head). Nor do you want to over stride or lean backwards.
However, you will only achieve good head balance if you’re not narrowing your field of awareness. So don’t concentrate or over-think but instead pay attention to what’s around you – what you can see, what you can hear, and the sensation of the sun, wind or rain on your exposed skin or clothing. Listed below are three ways of experimenting with starting your run:
One good way of making sure that you don’t over stride or bob up and down is to walk forward and then deliberately shorten your stride length while allowing your head to remain poised on top of your spine. After a few such micro-steps you will find that you are now falling forwards and upwards (rather than forwards and down) from your ankle joints. Because of the effects of gravity on your body you will soon be running, arms swinging slightly across the body, with your feet landing underneath or just behind your head.
If you want to move faster don’t do anything directly with your legs but first think and then allow yourself to lean forward and up from the pivot point of your ankle joints.
You can also experiment with running on the spot. However, instead of lifting your knees, which risks leaning backward from your waist, instead gently draw one heel at a time a few inches or more towards your sitting bone or gluteals, without stiffening your ankles or leaning forwards from the waist. (Incidentally, retracting the heels is how good dancers perform the jive as it generates good whole body springiness from the feet upwards.)
You will find that you’re now running on the balls of the feet. Once you’ve got a nice rhythm you can think and then allow yourself to lean forwards and up from the pivot point of your ankle joints.
Running this way might feel a little odd at first but that’s how distance runners like Bekele and Dibaba perform it. In fact, you will be astonished to find how much less effort you need to run because, as in the previous exercise, you are using gravity efficiently.
Another interesting way to initiate forward running is to first run backwards. So from quiet, aligned standing let your body lean slowly backwards as a unit from the pivot point of your ankle joints so that you start to walk and then run slowly backwards.
Don’t stiffen your neck, lift your chest or pull in your lower back and you will find that you are making contact with the ground with your forefoot. Keep going for a short while (without bumping into anything) and then decide to let your eyes look either to your left or right shoulder and then behind you while allowing, in sequence, your head, upper and then lower torso followed by your legs and feet to turn with a soft corkscrew movement.
You are now running lightly in a forward direction with your feet landing underneath your poised head, your spine lengthening and rib cage elastically opening and closing, and your heels releasing towards your gluteals.
Once again gravity is acting as your friend rather than your enemy.
Dr Seán Carey is honorary senior research fellow at the school of social sciences at the University of Manchester, and the author of Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity, published by Healthcare Integrated Training and Education.