I’d intended to move on to more running-related issues involving forward head and stress today, but so many people responded to last week’s blog post on “Forward Head Posture” with practical questions about how to avoid it that I thought it was worth spending one more week on the topic to give you some solutions.
Lots of people try to fix this by “just having better posture:” trying to sit and stand up straighter, and trying to pull their shoulders back. First, forget the shoulder thing. Pulling your shoulders back creates a great deal of tension and disturbs the balance of weight in your upper body, shifting the weight of your shoulders and arms backwards and forcing you to counterbalance it by, yes, moving your head forward.
That’s right, pulling your shoulders back actually causes forward head posture.
When you’re upright your shoulders rest below your ears, and if they tend to be in front of your ears then relax and expand your chest rather than tensing up your back, and that will make you much more comfortable.
Second the main reason we all (including yours truly) seem to adopt a forward head so often is that our environment demands it of us. Laptops keep our hands and faces so close together it’s almost impossible not to hunch. Your chair with its seat that slopes backwards makes you stick your head forward. Amy Cuddy and Maarten Bos even found in this study that the smaller your mobile device is, the more you hunch and the more it impacts your behavior.
And, as I said last week, this started with books, or even more likely with those cunieform tablets holding the first writing — just try to hold a big hunk of clay up before your eyes for any amount of time and you’ll eventually find you’ve set it down and hunched over it instead.
So don’t try to have better posture and then flagellate yourself when you find you’ve failed. Change your envinronment so it elicits better posture.
For sitting, that means a completely flat, level seat that’s about the height of the center of your kneecap in socks (or I suppose whatever shoes you wear when you sit in it, but those hopefully are minimalist!). Forget the ergonomic chair, that’s money you can save for something you’d enjoy more and that’s more likely to work. Ergonomic chairs are like big, squishy, over-engineered and overpriced running shoes without a shred of scientific evidence to support their design. Go to Ikea instead and spend $10 on a stool.
For your computer, that means the keyboard in a place where your arms can hang straight down from your shoulders and your elbows can bend 90 degrees. And for your screen it means having it in front of your eyes when you’re sitting up straight.
If you have to look down at all to see your screen you’ll be slouching within minutes.
That is actually the heart of the matter. Either bring things up in front of your eyes or you’ll end up bringing your eyes and head down to the things. Phones, books, whatever. You can even get book holders to sit on your desk, or use a music stand if you want to do a bunch of reading.
If your arms get tired (which they will), prop your elbows on something. My favorite trick for reading on a train/subway/Straßenbahn/bus is to sit in a corner turned 45 degrees so my back is in the corner rather than against the seat back. Then I rest my upper arms against the seat back and the wall/window. My book is right in front of my eyes and I don’t get tired.
Another approach to this is to keep mixing things up — here’s a whole slew of ideas. Much better for you even than the most perfect sitting position held for 8 hours, which will kill you after all, since we now know the amount of time each day spent sitting is a risk factor for all kinds of chronic disease even if you’re a marathon runner.
And remember, when you’re dealing with the world and not just the thing you’re reading or your desk setup, that hip joints bend a lot more than your spine. Move your whole body around, don’t just bend your neck and your head.
I recorded a brief Feldenkrais lesson you can do right now, wherever you’re reading this, to feel how lifting your head up really works. Give it a try, and then share it around!
And if you want to go really deep into the sensory basis for the reading/forward head posture connection and its high price, I recommend The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter filled with analysis, information, insights, and tips you can apply to your own running!
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.