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.



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