Great Edinburgh Cross Country 2014: Forget Footstrike, Look at their Necks

Head carriage is the other end of footstrike, and even in a cross country race where footstrike isn’t much of an issue head carriage can still make a big difference to a runner’s performance. You may have heard that you should keep your chin from sticking out when you run, but that movement is actually necessary for a healthy forward lean, the essential movements of the trunk, and agility on rough terrain, so you shouldn’t interfere with it. If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to do it, pucker up and pretend you’re giving someone a kiss, complete with smooching sound, and you’ll begin to get it. Read on for a fuller explanation with photos and video.

My current hometown hosts a cross country race in early January that draws some big names and is always great to watch… as long as you wear your wellies and bundle up! I did okay on the bundling part but made do with some old Soft Star shoes with a hole in the sole and a few pairs of socks – not the thing for running back and forth across a muddy field to watch the race. If anyone knows of any minimalist wellies, please let me know!

However my feet weren’t as wet or muddy as the runners’ feet, and that’s the starting point for this post. Cross country racing is done in shoes that are by their nature minimalist, on tremendously uneven, often slippery ground with puddles and obstacles. This pretty much eliminates footstrike issues – no one overstrides and does a hard heelstrike on muddy ground without landing on their rear end instantly. The slipperiness and the variability of the terrain teach runners that magic combination of optimal footstrike and flexible footstrike. In other words, knowing what’s best and also being able to adapt easily to a wide range of circumstances that make the “best” footstrike mean a different thing each time the foot hits the ground. These are the conditions that, over time, produce mastery of a skill.

So the senior runners (if not the junior ones) were beautifully free of footstrike problems; does this mean their biomechanics were in every way perfect? Of course not. I saw many runners whose form didn’t allow them to fulfill their potential in the race, and where I saw it show the most was in their necks. Let me share a bit of my Great Edinburgh XC running form analysis with you.

Take a look at this picture of the upper bodies of the men in the 8k just after the start of the race. Can you see the differences in the shapes of the back of their necks?

Great Edinburgh XC 2014 running form analysis

The human spine has four curves: sacral, lumbar, thoracic, and cervical. The neck is supposed to have a bit of an inward curve – the cervical curve — when seen from the side. Here’s some more detail on that if you wish:

Some of these runners have a visible cervical curve and others don’t. Of course their heads are shaped differently, some are rounder at the back than others, but if you don’t look at the heads but just the necks you can still see that some are nearly straight and others are curved.

The ability to run with a healthy cervical curve and to lean from the ankles and slide the skull forward on the top vertebra as if giving someone a kiss (a move I call “face forward”) is crucial to maintaining freedom of the spine and the ability to shift the weight precisely over each foot. It matters for every runner but it’s especially key when the terrain is uneven, and to the extent I’ve been able to observe and experiment, it makes a big difference in the amount of energy a runner needs to expend.

Here’s the best animation I can find of this movement of the skull. Skip forward to 2:42 and watch till about 2:57 to see what I’m talking about. (I have no idea what the method is that this video is made to advertise and am not endorsing it, I’m just taking advantage of the nice job they did depicting this movement.) The atlas, or top vertebra, is shown in blue, and if you want to know more about the anatomy, watch the video from the beginning rather than from the point I’ve suggested.

You can imagine that as the jaw moves away from the throat, the spine could angle forward (due to the person leaning forward as in running) and the head would remain upright, looking forwards rather than down.

It also doesn’t happen in isolation. When the spine is supporting the head in a suboptimal position the whole balance of weight is thrown off. Runners who tuck their chins or retract their heads create an imbalance of activity in the flexors or extensors throughout the body, either tightening their low backs, gripping their abs, pushing their chests either down or up depending on how exactly they’re holding their heads. This creates a lot of extra muscular effort and interferes with the ability to create support and direct force through the foot into every clump of grass or clod of mud underfoot. The less optimally you hold your head the more your feet slip, and the more work you have to do to keep them from slipping, the less confidently you can stride out, so to speak. Head carriage is the other end of footstrike.

I’ve numbered the runners in the picture to make discussion easier. You can look at neck shape and also at the distance between chin and throat (roughly the adam’s apple) to see the head carriage.

#1 Looks good. Visible cervical curve and reasonable distance between chin and throat. Could be a little more and probably was later in the race when he was running faster and presumably leaning more. (Incidentally, this Chris Derrick, who will win. That’s incidental and not key because as we all know, the best form doesn’t win the race, it’s just one asset a runner may have.)

#2 Flattened cervical curve, chin very close to throat, indicating he’s retracted his skull. (Retracting is when you pull your head backwards but keep it upright. Tucking is when you look down and pull just your chin backwards.) Notice how upright this requires him to run.

#3 Pretty good. His head could be more forward but because he’s got a cervical curve and good distance between chin and throat I would guess he’s able to move his head forward when he wants to run faster. There’s no tension getting in the way.

#4 Head slightly retracted, just enough to potentially interfere with the freedom of his upper body but probably not enough to interfere with his ability to lean when he wants to. Compare the chests of #2 and #4 – the significant retraction of #2’s head is lifting his chest compared to #4 as well as bringing him more upright. Lifting the chest is not productive for any runner.

#5 Very retracted and somewhat tucked head, causing his chest to lift. The angle of this picture – taken slightly from the front – prevents us from really seeing the relationship between each runner’s head and pelvis, as we’d be able to do in exact profile, but my recollection from watching him run is that his head was quite far back, nearly over his pelvis.

#6 Chin lowered as if to look downwards very slightly, causing his upper body to be slightly flexed forward and down as well, reducing his ability to rotate and lean and causing him to have to work harder. (This is Andy Vernon – he managed to do that work and came in second.)

#7 Looking at the shape of his chest you might thing he was lifting it and retracting his head, but unless his goatee is creating an illusion there’s a nice amount of space between his chin and throat, and his cervical curve looks good. Some people just have a very large ribcage, making it look as if they’re lifting their chest even when they’re not, and I think he fits into that category.

Now the faster a runner goes (not including sprinting… I’m never talking about sprinting, it’s a whole different ballgame) the more they lean and the more the head needs to slide to move the jaw away from the throat. Here’s a pic from the 4k earlier that day, with the three runners who will go on to podium leaning a great deal and all of them moving their faces forward beautifully (though the last one, Heath, could actually let that chin go a little more, I think).

Men's 4k: Kahsay, Kiprop, Heath

My discussion may sound technical and focused on small details, but you may be able to get a sense from looking at this last picture that being able to do this movement with your head makes a great deal of speed and freedom possible.

6 thoughts on “Great Edinburgh Cross Country 2014: Forget Footstrike, Look at their Necks”

  1. Jae, I love reading your posts , great job. I have struggled with the precise details of the use of my spine for quite a while. While you concentrated on the head and mentioned how that affected the whole spine, I have lately thought about this from the other end, that is how the tilt of the pelvis affects the comfort of the head and neck and the ease of movement in the head and after run upper back tension and soreness. A very slight anterior pelvic tilt that is more than optimal creates a stuck head and neck and lessens the ability to move the head freely unless a pronounce adjustment if made in the lower and mid back. a slight re- alignment of the spine causes better head carriage, no need to lift the chest so high and more freedom in the head and neck. It is the little things. It is one spine I was just looking at it from the other end. Keep up the good articles.

    • Thanks Scott.

      It’s always worth asking, in any given situation such as the ones we’re talking about, which came first, the chicken or the egg. Usually impossible to answer with certainty but it determines how you address it as the practitioner, and getting it right makes a difference.


  2. Really interesting. Your observations sit well with what I’ve learned from the Alexander Technique – it all starts with the head and neck! I’m intrigued to check myself out on video now! My strength (skill) as a runner always vanishes on rough slippery ground and I wonder if this is a factor.
    By the way VivoBarefoot do – or at least, did – wellies with zero heel and a lovely flexible sole. Lightweight, too. They are called Waterloo.
    Best, Sam

    • Thanks for your comments, Sam. Yes, there is so much about how we move that’s determined by the organization of the head and neck, and working on this should help with your slipping. However, every time I’ve mentioned this particular movement of the atlanto-occipital joint to an Alexander teacher they’ve reacted with horror, and I get the impression that Alexander teachers don’t necessarily consider context, but believe good organization of the head and neck to be identical no matter what movement you’re trying to do. However, I’ve never talked with an Alexander teacher who specializes in running, and I know there are some who do and thus who might have a very different response.

      Regarding wellies, alas I went into a Vivobarefoot shop in November and was told they’ve discontinued their wellies for adults, they now make them only for children. So disappointing!


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