A Runner's Secret to Maximum Force Production: The Organized Spine

STACK Expert T.J. Murphy reports on the benefits to distance runners of a properly organized spine, as set forth by DPT Kelly Starrett.


A properly braced spine is the key to athletic power. So asserts Doctor of Physical Therapy Kelly Starrett, author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Starrett says that if you want to fulfill your potential as a runner or triathlete, you should start by organizing your spine with proper midline stabilization. Make it a daily habit.

According to Starrett, coaches often misinterpret problems that actually have do to with spinal mechanics. For instance, an athlete with hamstring problems who is told to stretch more might temporarily lengthen his or her hamstrings, but that won't get to the root of the trouble, which Starrett says usually has to do with basic positioning.

"What we've found is that if we simply organize an athlete's spine into a braced, stable position, range of motion improves by upward of 50 percent," he writes.

Starrett says a properly positioned spine looks like this:

  • Pelvis is set in a neutral position. The simplest and most effective way to put your pelvis into the correct position is by contracting your glutes. "Squeeze your butt," he advises.
  • Ribcage is drawn down. With your glute muscles 100 percent engaged, tilt your lower ribcage down into a balanced alignment with your pelvis. Imagine that both your pelvis and your ribcage are bowls of water and you don't wish to spill a drop.
  • Glutes and abs are dialed down. With your pelvis and ribcage aligned, keep your abdominal and glute muscles turned on at 20 percent tension in order to lock things in place.
  • Head is in a neutral position. Your head should be centered over your shoulders—not down or back—and balanced in a neutral position with your gaze forward.
  • Shoulders are stabilized. Screw your shoulders into a stable position by extending the tips of your shoulder blades down toward your hips.

"This isn't just a matter of preventing injury," Starrett says. "It's about not leaking away power."

Set up this way, a braced spine becomes a conduit for power generated by the primary engines of the body—the hips and shoulders.

A runner who fails to maintain good spinal position is making what Starrett calls a "core-to-extremity violation." Power from the glutes and stabilizing force from the hips don't translate to the rest of the body. Smaller muscles like flexors have to do the hard work, and stress increases on the soft tissue of the knees.

In other words, you're not running as swiftly and efficiently as you can, and you're opening yourself up to greater risk of an overuse injury.

Here are some tips to neutralize your spine and improve your running.

  • Increase power by bracing throughout the day. Make the bracing sequence automatic. Get in the habit of doing it before you start running, sit down or start a Deadlift in the gym. It will go a long way toward increasing force production and reducing your risk of injury.
  • Avoid sitting. "Sitting is death," Starrett says. "When you sit, your glutes go on vacation." Your pelvis slips into a poor position, compromising your spine. This is why after long bouts of sitting—like in the window seat of an airplane—you feel utterly wrecked. If you're a student or have a desk job, Starrett advises you get into the habit of standing up and rebuilding your spinal position once every 15 minutes. If possible, really attack the problem by using a standing desk. Either way, make a point of frequently shifting position and maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Improve your midline stabilization through strength workouts. When you brace your spine and fully turn on your glutes and abdominal muscles, even the most basic exercises—like a Squat, a Push-Up or jumping rope—can become full-on core strength exercises. This kind of attention to developing a properly organized spine—and the muscular endurance to hold that spine for long periods—will pay off in good running form when it counts the most: the late stages of a long race.

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