Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tightness of the Upper Spine and Running Performance

Good mobility through our thoracic spine (upper back) is vital for good spine health. However, the thoracic spine is inherently stiff due to bony anatomy of the spine itself. The ribs, which serves to protect our heart and lungs, also limit thoracic spine mobility. Poor posture and prolong sitting are the typical causes of tightness in the thoracic spine. In my case (and all moms),  the increase demand of caring for JuJu has significantly increase the stiffness of my thoracic spine extremely.

My upper back flexed to play with JuJu.

What does it mean?

Stiffness in the thoracic spine can cause low back, neck and shoulder pain. Limited motion in the thoracic spine forces the adjacent joints to compensate. These joints move more in order to make up for the lack of motion. This can lead to numerous injuries ( we can save this for another post).

In runners, a tight thoracic spine can hinder taking a proper breath and loading the core.
Typically the thoracic spine is stuck in a forward position ( mostly form sitting all day) which limits the body from sitting in a proper upright posture. Proper posture allows the body to take a full inhalation. Try sitting slouched and taking a deep breathe. Now, sit up straight and take a deep breathe. Notice the difference between the two. Being in a slouched position while running will limit your ability to inhale which hinders performance.

L: Pre mobilizations in below video- It was more difficult turning with my upper back. More of my sports bra can be seen. It's also harder to turn my neck. R: Post mobilizations in below video- There is improve mobility in the thoracic spine. My spine is turned making it more difficult to see the back of my sports bra. It is also easier to turn my head.
***BONUS- Look at my left foot. In the left picture it is more flat. In the right picture there is a greater arch. Being able to rotate through the spine helps to transmit forces into the foot to support the arch. 

Having proper rotational mobility also helps to load the core. The arm swings backwards as the leg drives forward. A rotational stretch is then placed on the core. This stretch helps to provide energy to the opposite leg to help drive it forward. When the core is not properly loaded, it places an extra rotational stress to the low back leading to pain. Poor loading of the core can also lead to improper running mechanics contributing to different injuries throughout the body.

The Science

The spine has motions which are coupled. When the spine is straight, side bending one direction will cause a rotation to the same side ( Type 2 motion). When the spine is extended, side bending one direction will cause a rotation to the opposite side (Type 1). These movements are hardly noticeable  but necessary for proper mechanics. In running type 2 motion occurs. When you are landing on your left leg, gravity pushes down on the right shoulder. This will cause your head to be tilted. To get your head pointed straight, your body will have a slight lean to the left.  Side note-When the glutes are weak causing an extreme pelvic drop, the spine has to excessively lean to compensate which leads to injury.

When gravity pushes on the R shoulder
L: Shows the spine without a lean
R: Shows the spine with a lean 

At the same time, the right arm  swings forward to generate a left rotation. The left lean of the spine  and the right arm drive to the left causes a type 2 motion of the spine. Where you place your legs is also important. Mobilizations in a staggered stance verses a squat stance most replicates how the body is moving while running. When the right leg is forward, the right arm swings backwards while the left arm swings forward. The arms are used to drive rotation in the thoracic spine.


One of the exercises to loosen up the thoracic spine is to foam roll. However, this only mobilizes the joint in one dimension. Imagine a drawer which is stuck. Do you keep pulling it straight out or do you wiggle it all directions until the drawer opens. I don't know about you but the later has worked for me.
At 3DRunner we're going to mobilize the thoracic spine functionally in all 3 planes of motion.

Since the arm swing generates a rotation in the spine I decided to check rotational range of motion.
As you can see with my left hip forward, I have slightly less rotation. After the mobilizations, my spine has increase mobility.

Type 2 motion Stand with the right leg forward and left arm next to your ear. Use your right arm to swing backwards. The backwards arm swing will gently mobilize your spine. Try swinging at different angles. Keep the same posture, right arm slightly behind, reach left arm upward towards the ceiling.
Type 1 motion Stand with the left leg forward and left arm next to your ear. Use your right arm to reach forward. With this mobilization, it is more effective to reach as oppose to swing. Reach at different angles. Keep the same posture, right arm forward, reach left arm upwards towards the ceiling

Perform 10-20 of each then switch sides ( right leg forward, right arm next to ear and left leg forward. right arm next to ear)

Mobilizations for the thoracic spine will improve your posture resulting in better core recruitment and breathing to enhance running performance. Improve mobility will promote proper running mechanics to decrease injuries.


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Improving Hip Mobility using Strength

Stretching is overrated! There I said it!
Stretching helps to improve muscle length but most runners are looking to loosen up muscles by helping muscle fibers glide better. This is accomplished through rolling. If you are generally a stiff person by all means, stretch. BUT, if you're an athlete or a runner who had a muscle or a joint suddenly tighten up on you, you can probably benefit from strengthening. Strengthening will provide stability to the region which allow the muscles and connective tissue to relax.

In the past several days I noticed my right hip is acting up again only when I carry JuJu (14lbs) in her Ergobaby. Mostly, my hip feels sore and stiff. I figure once I return to a consistent core workout routine the hip tightness will go away. Side note- I have a tendency to skip my core exercises as my run milage goes up. The next day while I was rocking JuJu to sleep, I notice my right hip wasn't moving. My right hip felt stuck when I moved side to side with my feet turned out.

Why it's important for running?

When the leg lands on the ground a load is place upon it. Your body weight shifts slightly over that leg and rotates over it. The rotation in the hip is internal rotation. Ok, so why is external rotation important? External rotation is needed to internally rotate. Put your hand on a table and lift one finger up and let it hit the table. Now, use the other hand to lift one finger and let it hit the table. Notice the difference in power. The opposite motion in needed to generate power in the direction you want.

Stability is a key factor in how loose or tight a joint or muscle is. Strong muscles provide stability to joints and surrounding tissue. Weak or inhibited muscles do not provide enough stability to the region and the body will reflexively tighten to provide stability.

In my case, external rotation was limited which  most people would stretch. Since I want to strengthen my muscles I decided perform strengthening in the opposite direction of the limitation, internal rotation. The improve mobility may be an affect of autogenic inhibition. Autogenic inhibition is when the sensors in a muscle are activated during a high stress load to shut down the muscle. It is  a protective mechanism to avoid tearing a muscle. In my case, activating the muscle will trigger it's relaxation. Strengthening in the opposite direction helps re-train proprioceptors of the muscles to work in a greater range of motion allowing for improve stability.


Here are a few exercises I performed accentuating internal rotation of the hip. The end of the video shows my hip mobility post exercises. The above video ( purple tank) was filmed earlier in the day. There is a big change in right hip range of motion.

Forward lunges with rotation - Lunge forward and use your arms to rotate the body towards the front leg. This places the front hip in internal rotation.

Side lunges with internal rotation - Perform a lateral lunge with foot pointed in. This will also create an internal rotation at the hip. For greater internal rotation, reach your arms toward the leg.

Cross body lunge - As you lunge forward turn your hips inward. This will create an internal rotate of both hips. This is the best exercise for runners as it most replicates what the hips do in running.

Perform 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps

So when you feel like your muscles are tight and stretching isn't helping, try performing strengthening exercises. Stretching is a short term solution to a long term problem. Strengthening is a key component to keep muscles relaxed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Transverse Abdominals- The Real Core

Returning to running after pregnancy has been an amazing journey. Due to a previous back injury, which was just resolved in 2016, I was nervous and anxious about returning to running postpartum. To my delight, re-gaining my fitness has been relatively straight forward ( as much as it can be with a newborn). A large part of my success has to do with making sure I did my core stability exercise. No, I'm not talking about planks, crunches, Russian twists, etc. I'm talking about real core stability, the transverse abdominals (TrA). I know, I always mention the TrA but these muscles literally held me together. 

Core stability is important to provide a stable center for the legs to move. There are a lot of core exercises, however the muscles which provide stability can be easily compensated for by other stronger abdominal muscles. The muscles which help provide core stability is the transverse abdominal muscles. They are the deepest layer of the abdominal muscles. When these muscles are engaged it provides a stable core allowing proper mechanics of the legs. People have a tendency to contract all of their abdominals too hard, over shooting the TrA. Contraction of the TrA requires a gentle squeezing of the musculature of the lower abs. Also, we think of abs as one unit, these muscles function separately left and right. So one side can be weaker then the other side. 

One of my 1st runs with the stroller... Want a workout?!

I incorporated these exercises while pregnant to maintain my core strength and minimize diastasis rectus. I was able to resumed these exercises within 3 days post partum (consult with your physician post c-section). I was able to return to running 1 month post partum. The best news of all, I didn't have the dreaded diastasis rectus. 

Here are the basic exercise to engage the transverse abdominals. I know where are the 3D exercises? There is a time for 3D functional exercises. To activate the TrA will allow the 3D exercises to work better. 
Feel the TrA on the inside of the pelvic bone

To best place to feel the transverse abdominals contraction is right to the inside of the pelvic bones at the bony marker called anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS). To contract the TrA imagine those bones coming together. Another cue is to pretend to put on a pair of pants that are just slightly too small. 


Marches - Lay on your back with knees bent. Tighten your TrA.  Lift one leg up while keeping your abs contracted. Return to resting position and switch sides. Key is to not let pelvis down towards ground. 3 sets of 10.

Fall outs - Lay on your back with knees bent. Tighten your TrA. Let one knee fall to the side, then return to neutral. Alternate legs. perform 3 sets of 10. 

Bridges - Lay on your back with knees bent. Tighten your lower abs. Weight shifted towards the forefoot ( heels remain on the ground) Lift pelvis off the ground. Hold 10 seconds perform 10- 15 times.

Heel slides - Lay on your back with knees bent. Tighten your lower abs. Slide one leg straight and return to neutral. Alternate legs. 1-2 sets of 15. Start with sliding your heel on the ground then progress to keeping the leg up. 

Performing exercises with intent and control will lay the foundation for proper mechanics while running. Good activation of theTrA muscles will minimize injury for not only your back but also your legs.
Let's get the transverse abdominals activated!