The popular running form recommendation to avoid letting your chin stick out, but instead to run tall and keep your head in line with your spine, doesn’t work for people who need to look at the ground or run on uneven terrain, or for athletes who play sports that involve running.
For them, as well as for regular distance runners, allowing the skull to slide forward on the atlanto-occipital joint so they can lean from their ankles while keeping their head upright allows for the essential freedom to look around while maintaining optimal form. This means the chin moves away from the throat. Read on for a fuller explanation with photos and video.
I received a great followup question from a reader of my post on the action of the head, specifically the atlanto-occipital joint, in running. I wrote about the importance of “face forward,” or letting your skull slide forward on your atlas vertebra so you can keep your head upright as you lean forward from the ankles.
The question was from a runner who told me she has fallen a number of times when running and therefore feels she needs to look at the ground to avoid the risk of future falls. How is she to do “face forward” and still look at the ground?
This is a situation I’m very familiar with myself as a barefoot runner. Depending on the terrain, I might be looking at the ground with great attention. Athletes who play sports that involve running also have the very similar challenge of maintaining good form and coordination while looking around and engaging in the game.
Looking down and around yourself is not at all incompatible with “face forward.” In fact, using the available movement at the very top of the neck, just below the skull is the only way you can run with a forward lean and keep a free and supple spine while also looking around. Football (both kinds), rugby, and field hockey players tend to have much better running form than pure runners precisely because of the need to look around while running, as well as to do more varied and complex movements. These demands of their sports require them to figure out how to keep their heads mobile – if they aren’t able to do it, they certainly never become pros.
Take a look again at this video I included in my earlier post. This time start watching from 1:00 in to get a wider sense of the anatomy. At 2:27 you’ll see the role of the atlanto-axial joint in turning the head – the joint movement you use to shake your head “no.” Then at 2:43 you’ll see how the joint above it, the atlanto-occipital joint, allows the whole head to slide forward – the same joint movement you use to nod “yes.”
As you can see, freedom of movement in these two joints allows for all kinds of looking around, not just straight forward. Restricting the “yes” movement of the atlanto-occipital joint by retracting the head also reduces the freedom of the atlanto-axial joint to turn the head (as in saying “no”) and of course intereferes with the possibility of combining the two movements to look around in more comprehensive ways.
Try it for yourself. Scoot to the front edge of the chair you’re sitting in and sit up tall (without getting rigid, please!). Then initiate a forward lean by moving your face forward in space. If you’re at all confused about this movement, imagine you’re reaching your face forward to kiss someone across a cafe table. You can even pucker up to encourage your neck to perform this movement. Now keeping your face oriented forward, shake your head no. Do it slowly and see how far you can turn your head in each direction without feeling any restriction or moving the rest of your body.
Then, while maintaining your forward lean, pull your chin back. (This kind of movement may make you look like you have a double chin – yet another reason not to do it 🙂 ). Still avoid moving the rest of your body. Now try shaking your head “no” and see how far you can turn your head each direction without feeling any tension or restriction.
It’s pretty hard to turn your head more than a little side-to-side with your head retracted, isn’t it? Whereas with your face reaching forwards as if to give a kiss you can easily turn it about ninety degrees each direction.
Take a look at this clip of football/soccer players and you’ll see these free heads in action:
It is really remarkable how steadily they orient their heads wherever they need to look, no matter what direction they’re running. There is not a single retracted head on that field. And even when they do need to look down at the area around their feet, they don’t tuck their chins (which would stiffen the spine and make it impossible to be so quick and agile) but instead keep their faces forward, oriented to the ball, and bend their backs instead.
[In fact, Lionel Messi, the focus of the video, has the habit of keeping his upper back flexed forward nearly all the time and doesn’t actually run quite as well as nearly everyone around him (from a pure running form perspective) but then again this isn’t a race and running isn’t the only skill that counts. Bending his back like this puts his feet in front of his head very easily, and he may be more able to see what he’s doing with them, decelerate and change direction more quickly. I haven’t looked extensively at soccer so I don’t know for sure this is an advantage. In any case, this was the clearest footage I could find for my purposes that involved enough close-ups that didn’t cut out the heads altogether, so that’s why I picked it even though he’s not as perfect a runner as those around him on the field.]
If you’re a runner concerned about the safety of the terrain (either worried about falling or sharp stones underfoot) the only kind of looking down that’s of any use is looking down a little distance in front of you. Retracting your head and looking down just in front of your feet, as if you were looking through reading glasses, tells you about the ground when it’s nearly too late to change course! It also sends your feet out in front of you, creating excessive braking forces we commonly call “overstriding.” And furthermore, in stiffening your whole spine, it makes you less responsive to the terrain and in fact more likely to fall.
Looking down with a mobile head and a forward lean allows you to choose a path farther in advance as well as to scrutinze the ground just before your feet when necessary. It also makes you agile and able to shift your weight in response to the terrain so you’re less likely to fall, just as those soccer players so gorgeously do.
Updated May 2021