The Hard-Boiled Runner (posture and stress)
Common sense tells us that the great majority of running injuries affect the lower half of the body. Statistics confirm this, but they also reveal that a certain percentage of running-related problems are found above the waist, affecting the neck and shoulders primarily. A while back we looked at some of these and saw that postural stresses to the muscles, ligaments and tendons are the main cause of these pain syndromes.
Other forms of stress can be the source of such problems. Emotional tension, for example, often “finds a home” in the muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle, producing sustained contractions of the muscles which eventually results in fatigue and strain. The eventual result is what we call the “pain cycle,” a vicious circle of contraction, decreased circulation, inflammation, pain, contraction, etc…
You don’t need emotional stress, however, to produce this chronic problem. You can create this yourself by simply holding your shoulders in a hunched position for a period of time; say, an hour or more. But who would do this, and why?
Next time you’re running a race, take a look at some of your fellow runners. You’ll notice a fairly large percentage carry their arms in a rigid manner, some with shoulders up high enough to be causing earlobe blisters. Look at their hands; many of these runners will have their fists clenched tightly and will often carry the hands across the front of the body as they swing their arms. Now look at yourself: are you one of them?
Holding your fists tight and your shoulders high may, in the worst case, cause chronic strain and pain in your neck and/or shoulders. But even if it never gets to that point, this running posture is clearly not an efficient one and can be detrimental to your performance. How you swing your arms affects your gait pattern, which of course determines things such as speed, endurance, energy-efficiency, etc. And most importantly, a poor gait pattern can lead to biomechanical problems that…. well, you already know the rest.
Changing this postural problem can be difficult. You can tell yourself “Relax!” while you run, and usually your shoulders will settle down — for a while. But, as many of you who have raced extensively know, when you start out too fast and try to cut back the pace, your body soon gets you back to that initial pace despite your best efforts. The same will happen with your shoulders and hands unless you completely concentrate on relaxing throughout your run, a difficult task.
A better way to retrain yourself (or a test to see if you’re running “tense” to begin with) may be to use an external device, and one that’s pretty simple and cost-efficient. Invest less than a quarter in two hard-boiled eggs. Carry one in each hand during your runs. If you can make it back with the shells intact, you’ll have at least managed to keep your hands relaxed, and this often transfers a similar effect to your shoulders. If you know you have this type of problem, use this technique for a few weeks until you feel confident that you can keep your hands and shoulders loose without them.
If the eggs break, go ahead and eat them — then try two new ones the next day. Keep doing this until you either stop breaking them or develop some form of cardiovascular disease from cholesterol overload — whichever comes first!