Optimal Running Posture
Currently, there’s plenty of debate in the running community regarding what should be happening with the trunk when running. Generally, The argument falls into two camps:
(1) Keep your trunk “up tall”.
(2) Lean forward.
When I first came into coaching, I was influenced by my early reading around the subject, which was running ‘schools’ such as POSE running and Chi running. Both of these theories advocated a forward lean when running, and very persuasively explained the physics behind this, so naturally, I used to teach the forward lean. As time has progressed, and so to my knowledge, I’ve come away from coaching the forward lean.
What I find interesting about the argument, is when you look at both sides, you realise that there actually isn’t an argument at all. They’re just looking at the problem from different viewpoints. Camp 2 (The Forward Lean Gang (from here on know as FLG)) are looking at trunk position from a purely scientific, observational view point, whereas those in camp 1 (The Keep Up Tall Crew (from here on known as KUTC)) are looking at the problem from a coaching and practical application point of view. Personally, If if my goal is to improve someones running, I’m firmly in camp number 1 with the coaches.
In my opinion, the LFG are not necessarily wrong, but I do think they are being a little misleading. Below is an excerpt from Chi running by Danny Dreyer, he’s a bit of an icon of the LFG. The book describes the desired trunk posture as a full body tilt from the ankles. He continues:
“The main reason leaning plays a big role in the Chi running technique is because it puts gravity in your favour. Leaning allows gravity to pull you forward, instead of your legs having to push you, which we all know can be tiring. Here’s the scientific explanation: when you stand upright, gravity is pulling straight down on your body along your centre line. As soon as you allow your body to fall forwards, your centre of gravity moves in front of your point of contact with the ground. This engages gravity to pull you in more of a horizontal forward direction. (I love having gravity do the work.)
This is another important attribute of leaning. Your lean is your gas pedal. If you want to go faster, you simply lean more, and if you want to run slower, you lean less…This increase in lean allows gravity to pull you forward at a faster rate, and voila – your speed is no longer dictated by your leg strength but your abdominal (core muscle) strength”
Now the first thing I don’t like here, and why I began to change my mind when coaching posture, was this idea that the more you lean forwards the faster you go. If that was the case, then why don’t the fastest humans in the world, the 100m sprinters, lean forwards when they run? If, to run faster, you just need more forward lean then why don’t all sprinters look like Michael Jackson in smooth criminal?
We don’t have to be great coaches or biomechanists to see this isn’t true. Watch any great sprinter, in fact any sprinter, and you will see their torso being held upright during the fastest part of the race. This idea that the forward lean is key to running faster completely overlooks the contribution of the elastic energy system. When it comes to running fast the key is accessing and co-ordinating your elastic energy system not leaning forward.
But hang on, I did say that the LFG weren’t completely wrong, so what is the deal with this forward lean? Where did it come from? Do we have a forward lean when we run or not? …If you are watching someone run in the saggital plane (side on) you will see that as they plant their foot, their foot stays planted in that position and the body begins to rotate over the foot. At mid-stance their body is directly over the ankle (let’s call this point A). The body then continues further over the ankle until their centre of mass is ahead of the ankle joint (let’s call this point B). To get from point A to point B is all about gravity, essentially allowing us to fall forwards from point A to point B. If you take a photo of the runner at point B and draw a line up from the ankle through her centre of mass you will see that, technically, there is a forward lean from the ankle. Exactly as the LFG say.
This forward lean body position is put forward as a very energy efficient way to run because they say that gravity is doing the hard work. All the runner need do is lean forward, pick their legs up underneath them and off they go. Where I think it gets a bit misleading is they suggest that gravity propels you down the road. Gravity does act on the body as we rotate over the ankle, but propel us down the road? I don’t think so. It is misleading to suggest there is a way to run that takes all the effort out of running. But it’s very appealing to a runner. It’s very easy to get suckered in. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t want to be able to run further and faster without getting tired? but like most things that seem too good to be true, this is also.
We need to remember that gravity is just pushing down towards the centre of the earth. This doesn’t change and the direction of the force doesn’t change. Always just pushing down. So if you just left the work to gravity as you rotated over your ankle, you would definitely accelerate … but into a very rapid face plant! gravity cannot propel us down the road, it can only push down!
Remember we have muscles and tendons? Why have we evolved these things if gravity is all we need to move around the earth? Why does a runners centre of mass go up (against gravity) after every toe off? See for yourself. Watch someone running and, if you placed a dot around the belly button, you would see that dot go up during the flight phase and down during the stance phase. So it doesn’t make sense that the vertical downward force of gravity can produce horizontal motion. It can help rotate us about 10-20 degrees from point A to point B and if you were being really generous you could argue that gravity’s downward force is used by the human body to store elastic energy and therefore plays a part in propelling us down the road but the fact is that human locomotion has always been about overcoming gravity. We have developed tendons, huge ones like the Achilles to overcome gravity. It is the release of stored elastic energy into the ground (and therefore the resultant ground reaction force) that propels us down the road, not gravity.
So, we can see there is a forward lean when running but I think the real question is not, does a forward lean happen when we run? because we’ve just shown that technically it does, but should we coach it? Just because something is seen to occur, does it mean it is helpful for the runner to actively think about it?
My belief is no. We should not coach a forward lean.
My main argument against the forward lean is not that it doesn’t exist but that it’s a bad coaching cue and we do not need to actively think about it.
It is very important to differentiate between a coaching cue and a desirable kinematic variable. For example, last week I was coaching a runner and we were working on posture, I wanted to get a more upright posture when she was running. But it didn’t matter what I said, I just couldn’t get the position I was after. So I asked her to think about leaning backwards by a few degrees. Now, this is the important part, I didn’t actually want her to lean backwards by a few degrees, I just wanted her to get up taller. By asking her to think about this cue I managed to get her into a more desirable upright posture. So the coaching cue of “lean back by a few degrees when you’re running” was used to get a more upright torso (which is the desirable kinematic change I was after).
The problem with the “forward lean” coaching cue is that most people overthink it and end up leaning forwards way too much and generally leaning forwards from the waist. To be fair to the LFG this is never what they coached. It was always a forward lean from the ankles, not the waist. But as a coaching cue I generally find that people end up leaning from the waist, which is an undesirable position when running = bad coaching cue.
The key to coaching posture when running is getting a relaxed but upright posture. This position is beneficial for the runner for 2 main reasons: 1 is to get the right muscles working, at the right amplitude and in the right co-ordination. The most important muscles for running are around the trunk, hips and pelvis. These are the muscles that drive running. Making sure that when those muscles fire they are in a position to fire optimally is of vital importance. For example, when you lean forward the glute. max. (one of the most important generators of horizontal force) has a smaller moment arm. This means that it cannot generate as much force = decreased performance.
It’s also very difficult to get pre-stretch on the hip flexors, such as illopsoas, rectus femoris and the abdominals. When you pre-stretch a muscle/tendon unit, it stores elastic energy that can then be used in the subsequent muscle contraction. It is a very efficient way to move because the stored energy is free energy! If you cannot get the pre-stretch on the hip flexors it means that the hip flexion that is required for the knee drive part of the swing phase will need to be wholly generated concentrically by the muscles themselves and at a much greater energy cost. If you’re up tall, with a relatively stable pelvis, then as your leg comes back into hip extension the hip flexors will be pre-stretched and elastic energy will be stored for the knee drive part of the swing phase. 2, Being up tall as opposed to leaning forwards also means a greater lung capacity which helps get more fuel (oxygen) to the working muscles.
In summary my main point is that although there is an element of a forward lead in the gait cycle, it does not move us down the road, and just because it is there doesn’t mean you have to consciously think about it.
If you are up tall and still moving forwards, you have enough forward lean!
Although the above may seem quite complicated at first read (and I suppose it is) the practical application is very simple. You don’t necessarily have to understand any of this to run well. It is my belief that you SHOULD NOT think about or coach the forward lean. Therefore, the cues I use for posture, are the simplest in my toolbox.
Optimal Running Posture – COACHING CUES FOR TRUNK POSTURE WHEN RUNNING
- Just simply “get up tall’. It really is that simple.
- “Imagine you have a helium balloon attached to the crown of your head, and it’s gently pulling you up as you run”.
- “Imagine your spine is like a slinky toy and you want to open it up as much as you can”.
The above is an excerpt from my upcoming e-book on running technique. Put your e-mail in the box below to be one of the first to hear when it launches:
mastering running technique – new e-book out soon