“Run tall” is a recommendation you see often in guidelines for good running form. It probably seems pretty uncontroversial to you – what could be bad about good posture when you run? We should all avoid slouching, right?
But there are a few problems with it. First, it’s vague. Vague running form recommendations are likely to do as much harm as good as runners try to figure out how to apply them.
Second, “run tall” seems to suggest that you should run upright, meaning that your spine should be perpendicular to the ground. If you do quite literally try to do it, you’ll probably lengthen yourself up vertically, lowering your chin towards your throat and lifting your chest. Maybe you’ll pull your belly in as well. As a result, the best case scenario is that you might not be happy with your performance, and you’ll believe you’re “losing your form” as you tire, feeling yourself lean forward, your shoulders roll forward a little, and your chin start to stick out. (This is the point when your form is actually getting better!) Worst case scenario – and this is particularly likely if you’re trying to transition into barefoot running or very minimalist shoes like Vibram Fivefingers – you’ll overstride (with a prancing-like action if you’re barefoot), suffer terrible calf soreness, and find yourself with a second metatarsal stress fracture in due time.
The reason why you’ll be unhappy with your performance is that by running upright you will miss out on the benefits of leaning for generating speed and efficiently directing force through your skeleton. The reason why you might get sore and hurt is that, as you move towards toe-off, your whole body needs to cooperate to release your weight from your foot. Leaning forward and keeping your torso mobile are crucial to that process, so by running upright and stiffening your torso you press your weight back on your foot at the moment it should be moving forward off your foot, and the result is stress to your calves and feet, including shearing stress at your second metatarsals, where you push off.
The third problem with the command to “run tall” is that it may cause you to overly lengthen your spine, reducing the important curves in your neck, thorax, and lower back. When you try too hard to lengthen yourself in running, whether by running truly upright or just trying to get a feeling of a string pulling your head upwards, you become less able to absorb the impact of your running through your spine, store it as elastic energy, and use it to propel you forward. It’s not just the feet and legs that do this, your torso participates too if you let it, as well as making important shifts of weight to maximize support and power from each leg and, as I mentioned above, to release your weight from your foot at toe-off. Overly lengthening your spine cuts into all of this, making your spine less like a spring or a gyroscope and more like a poker, increasing the amount of work your legs need to do and the stress they bear.
I have many ways of evaluating the runners who come to me for help with their form, and one of the most important is to feel the mobility of their head on their neck – can it slide forward or is it stuck in a retracted position, with the chin tucked? And when they stand and I put my hand on their head and press it down and forward, does the head slide forward, all the curves of the spine increase, and does the runner get altogether shorter for a moment and start to lean forward. A runner who does that is generally healthy and powerful, with a spine like a spring.
Your spine is part of your engine, part of your suspension… don’t stretch it out into rigidity! Instead, imagine your face is leading the way forward as you run and the rest of you is flowing along behind. You’ll feel your spine lengthen forward, you won’t be slouching at all, but you’ll still have the mobility needed to run well. If you have trouble letting your chin move away from your throat, pucker up your lips and reach them forward to give the air a kiss, and you’ll feel how your head can slide forward. You can see this in action here. You’ll feel when you get it right, it’ll feel smooth and a little bit faster than you’re used to. You can choose to run faster or slower by moving your face forward more or less.
If you feel like it makes you stick your butt out to do this, your calves may be too tight to allow you to really lean. Try this exercise from Kinetic Revolution and see if it’s easier immediately afterwards to let your pelvis pass your feet and lean without sticking your butt out. If so, do this exercise before every run!
When you get this right, and your trunk also performs its beautiful counterrotation the way it should, you’ll feel your running is much smoother and more flowing.
So the next time someone tells you to run tall, tell them that actually you’re going to lean forward and run supple!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.