Posture, Pure and Simple
Sure as the most certain sure plumb in the uprights,
well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
- Walt Whitman
Like every good parent, my mother was always harping on me to straighten up and stop slouching. I don't know about you, but most of the time it went in one ear and out the other. I guess I didn't really understand the importance back then. But now that I'm older, and having wrestled with sporadic bouts of back spasms and come out the other side, I've learned that it is everything and preventing back pain is only a part of it. In running, posture plays a vital role in terms of energy efficiency and muscle usage. And if you want to take it a step farther, the flow of chi through your body is directly dependant on the correctness of your posture. So, I'm constantly reminded to maintain good posture as if my life depends on it because it does.
Walt Whitman understood the power of good posture and how to attain it..."plumb in the uprights...braced in the beams". He's talking about the strength of being centered in your body, "sure of the most certain sure".
One of the cornerstones of t'ai chi is aligning the body so that oneís chi (life force) can flow unobstructed. The first thing that my t'ai chi teacher taught me when I started, was posture, and he said that getting it right involves much more than just standing up straight. Having good posture means that your bones, ligaments and tendons not your muscles, are supporting your body weight. This allows your muscles to relax while doing the task of moving your body. Relaxed muscles allow energy to move freely through the body, while constricted muscles do not move freely or efficiently, causing pain and sometimes injury.
Most people do not realize how constricted and stiff their muscles are. It sometimes takes a good massage to tell you how much tension you're storing. Plain and simple the less tension you carry in your body, the less a massage will hurt. When people start running they feel tired, not from being out of shape, but from having muscles that are stiff and not used to moving. Learning to relax your muscles is more important than conditioning. So if you feel fatigue while running, straighten your posture, and relax the rest of your muscles as much as possible.
The best way to learn to feel your posture is to focus on your spine by holding your attention on the line that your spine makes as it runs from the top of your head to the end of your tailbone. Focus on this as often as possible all day long every day, no matter what you're doing. Let it become a daily practice. The Chi Running technique has you leaning forward and allowing gravity to pull your body forward. Your legs are not used for propulsion, but for momentary support between strides, so postural alignment plays an important "support" role whenever your foot hits the ground. If your muscles are supporting your body weight you'll tire more quickly as you run. If you're bent at the waist while running, your lower back, quadraceps and neck muscles will be carrying your body weight instead of your bones, ligaments and tendons. This makes for very inefficient movement and leaves you with tired and sore muscles after running.
Don't run bent at the waist. Where I see most runners losing efficiency is when they bend at the waist while running. Finishing a run with soreness in your lower back is usually an indicator that youíve been running bent at the waist. It happens because your back muscles are having to support your upper body weight when you run. This puts a lot of undue stress on your back.
In order to keep your posture correctly aligned while running, it is important to engage your abdominal muscles. Here's an exercise I affectionately call "the vertical crunch" which involves leveling your pelvis. What's that? It simply means that, as you stand or run, youíre lifting your pelvis up in front with your lower abdominal muscles so that instead of tilting down in front, your pelvis takes on a more level aspect. My t'ai chi master says that your pelvis is like a wok (a metal bowl-like item used for cooking food) and if itís tilted down in front, you'll spill all your food i.e. your energy. So itís best to keep your pelvis level while running.
Start by standing with your feet parallel and hip width apart. Now imagine that you have a string attached to the top of your head and it is pulling you up, making you tall and straight. Drop your chin slightly and look straight ahead. Next, pull up on your pubic bone with your lower abdominal muscles while relaxing your glutes. This will level your pelvis and feel like youíre doing a crunch. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Doing this motion repeatedly throughout your day will strengthen your abdominal muscles, allowing you to hold your posture straighter while running, swimming, sitting, standing even driving your car. Practice this simple exercise every day and you'll be surprised at the difference it makes in your running. Without your muscles doing all that extra work of having to support your body, they'll be freed up to move more freely and efficiently. Doing the vertical crunch makes it nearly impossible to bend at the waist. Try it when you're standing and you'll see. It also relaxes your lower back muscles and takes some of the curve out of your lower back which relieves compression on the discs in your spine.
Once you can maintain good alignment in your posture, think of your posture line as your center axis around which your body rotates. This is the basis of truly efficient movement because as you rotate your axis, your legs will be moved by your centerline which significantly increases your fluidity. In t'ai chi, your centerline is where your power lies, so it's important to keep your "pipeline" straight so that chi can flow through your body unhindered.
From observing the effects of good posture on runners of all abilities, I'm convinced that good body alignment is the cornerstone of good, efficient running techniqueand good health in general.
If you're interested in further information, I write about posture throughout my book ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-free Running, released by Simon and Schuster April 2004, with specific instructions on pages 63-70.