Posture Essentials For Running and Cross-training

Running is about heart and soul, about perseverance and drive, about the will to forge ahead and the insatiable curiosity for what is just over the horizon. It is also a skill, and some technical points will make it easier to soldier on when you are just trying to keep breathing and stay upright. These four checkpoints will help keep you running breeze-easy and make sure your cross-training is effective.

How to Use These Tips

First, read about these basic considerations for posture and the example exercises that emphasize them. If you already have exercises you are doing in training, these tips can be incorporated into any movement, so go for it. During your runs, go through each postural cue in a diagnostic every once and a while, or when you feel something is amiss in your form.

Though there are finer points of posture worth considering depending on your situation, these are the four big ones that everyone should know about, and will prevent unnecessary pain as well as help you get through the rough spots.

Activate Glutes

Every kid knows that the gluteus maximus is your tush. Runners need to know that gluteus maximus is the prime mover at the hip joint, and should be the main muscle you run with. You could think this one would be a no-brainer, but if your posture is off, it is entirely possible to produce movement with the auxiliary muscles in the thighs and lower back, leading to a tight IT band, knee pain, and lower back pain. Making sure to activate your glutes during running and in training can save you a major pain in the butt.

Skater with glutes activated

Example Exercise: Deadlift

The deadlift is part of my morning routine, part of my warm-up for running, and part of the mini-workout I use to interrupt sitting at a desk. Basically, pick something up, put it down again, and repeat. I use two 25-pound dumbbells (I know, I know, weak), though you can use a backpack of books, toolbox, or anything, including just your own body weight.

For an extra-special glute-locating quasi-spiritual journey, try the single-leg cross-arm deadlift recommended by Tim Ferriss in his best-seller The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. For any deadlift, square your feet at shoulder-width, keep your knees relatively straight, and your spine neutral as you lower yourself to the bottom position, then make sure it’s your glutes that are doing the lifting and not your hamstrings and lower back. Make sure it’s  your glutes doing the work on the way down, too. Paying close attention to lowering the load smoothly, and activating the glutes when you initially reach for the weight, increases the caloric expenditure, and when you are running, how you land is every ounce as important as how you take off again, so don’t skimp on the eccentric phase of the exercise.

Activate Core Stabilizers

There are two groups of muscles in the core, one for movement, and one for stabilization but a lot of people miss training the muscles that will keep you balanced and optimally efficient during a run. If you draw your navel in towards your spine, called the drawing-in maneuver or abdominal hollowing, your core stabilizers are significantly more activated. Running is basically a series of one-legged bounces, and being able to keep your core stabilized continually will save you a lot of energy expenditure.

Abdominals on mannequin torsos.
Photo from Folkert Gorter

Example Exercise: Push-up

The push-up is a wonderful exercise that can be regressed to a modified push-up and progressed as far as you want to go and in any direction. There is a lot of benefit from just 5 or 10 of them, there is a version that trains the hamstrings that is particularly good for runners, and being able to fall into a push-up from standing can be a great party trick!

For training the abdominal hollowing technique, get into push-up position and draw your navel in towards your spine, and you should instantly know exactly what activating your core stabilizers feels like. Even just holding the push-up position and keeping your navel drawn in for 30 seconds is a great drill, as the core stabilization muscles are primarily slow-twitch, type 1 muscles that respond best to longer periods of contraction. Adding movement in after the core stabilizers are activated is a good step forward, and the push-up also trains your pectoral muscles and triceps, which aren’t prime movers when you are running, but are utilized, and you will be able to catch yourself if you trip, anyway. Make sure you don’t lose your form while lowering yourself to the ground, for maximal benefit.

Pull Shoulder Blades Together

Your rhomboids, the muscles between your shoulder blades, help you hold your shoulders steady and keep your chest expanded. This lets your lats counter rotation and your diaphragm be used for abdominal breathing. Think of the shoulder blades together, or simply activate rhomboids to pull your shoulder blades together, steady your shoulder, and expand your chest. The muscles in front, in and around your ribcage and between the sternum and neck can expand your chest, but without support from the back, it can lead to cramping and stress-breathing while you are running. This tip and the next one will totally prevent that, though, so no worries.

obliques shoulder blades

Example Exercise: Rhomboid Pull

This doesn’t so much emphasize the shoulder blades being pulled together as much as it is entirety pulling the shoulder blades together. You need a piece of equipment for it, though it is possible to improvise with bungee cords or anything elastic if need be, or you can do the reverse fly with weights or even your arms if you are trying to just locate the rhomboids.

I do prefer the standing exercise for training because it’s more similar to what you are doing when you run. A resistance band can be used in a huge variety of ways, it’s a small, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive, and the rhomboid pull will save you a lot of discomfort if you include it in your morning routine and warm-up, so I really recommend getting one. The rhomboid pull is a simple, but powerful exercise. Hold the elastic in front of you, keeping your shoulders from scrunching up, and pull your hands apart, making sure it’s the muscles between your shoulder blades that are doing most of the work. Then, return to the starting position, making sure your rhomboids are actively resisting the force as your muscles lengthen again.

Tuck Your Chin

A lot of people ask about breathing while running, and this is the information they are probably missing. It’s totally possible to breathe with the chest and neck while scrunching the shoulders up, and if something really intense is about to happen, this is what the body does instinctually. Unfortunately, this is also what happens to me every time a motorcycle or bus goes by, or I see a dog (weird, I know), or when I catch a root on the trail. Those, along with sitting at a desk, and using a phone probably more than I should, make it easy to slip into stress-breathing as the default mode. Focus on tucking your chin during training movements and while running, and your abdominal breathing should kick in, which translates to smooth sailing.

To be clear, the goal is a neutral spine, and tucking your chin is not flexing your neck. Figure out what tucking the chin feels like by doing the opposite. Jut out your chin, then tuck it back in, all the while breathing through the nose. When breathing through the nose is easiest, remember that position, and try to maintain it during exercises and on runs.

Pro-tip: Start your run with water held in your mouth … for real! This is from the Apache tradition, and forces a runner to breathe through their nose and keep their head stable. Try it out!

Example Exercise: Pull-ups

Pull-ups are great, though can be a challenge to do correctly. If there isn’t a convenient study beam, you can use dumbbell rows, or use a toolbox with a handle or backpack of books, or you can search for a tree limb or door frame. In any exercise, keeping your chin tucked is essential technique. In the pull-up, start from stillness, tuck your chin, and make sure it’s mostly your lats that are doing the work on the way up. If you are still working on doing pull-ups, just holding yourself on a beam is a good opportunity to train proper posture in the neck and upper spine, and grip strength is important, too.

That combined with dumbbell rows and curls will get you to a full pull-up in no time, and then it’s off to the races! After skipping pull-ups for a while, I have just gotten back to being able to do six good ones.

two hikers looking out over a landscape

If you are a super-human who busts out fifty pull-ups before breakfast, feel free to brag a little and inspire us all to keep improving! I hope focusing on your posture helps you get the most out of your running and training, and best wishes, everybody!

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