- Leaning forward when you run can change your stride, and that may raise risk of overuse injuries.
- These injuries can lead to pain in the hips, knees, and ankles, as well as lower back.
- Not every runner needs to stand up straight, but playing around with posture may improve your body mechanics overall.
Overuse injuries in runners is common, particularly in long distance runners, and although repetitive stress from hitting the ground is considered a major factor, new research in Human Movement Science suggests another culprit might be your posture.
Even small changes in trunk flexion—which means the degree you lean forward while in motion—could have a major impact on the length and frequency of your stride, the amount of impact you experience, and the level of force experienced within your joints, the researchers found.
To determine how much flexion can play a role, researchers recruited 23 young runners between the ages of 18 and 23 and had them do three running trails with different trunk positions: a 10-, 20-, and 30-degree angle of flexion.
“We were interested in how much the degree of lean would change your stride because that could increase injury risk,” says lead author Anna Warrener, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology at University of Colorado Denver. “What we found was the opposite of what we expected.”
Researchers hypothesized that the more you lean forward while running, the longer your stride would become as a way to stabilize your body overall, but that’s not what happened, Warrener says.
Instead, higher flexion angles led to short, fast strides. That means you’d be doing more work and taking more strides than you would with less flexion. That’s called “overstriding,” she adds, and that can increase injury risk since it might come with:
- Smaller range of motion
- Repetitive use of fewer muscles
- Strain on lower back
- Too much pressure on lower joints, especially knees
- Higher amount of impact
“As you shorten up your stride, it can have an effect throughout the entire body, especially when you take impact into account,” says Warrener.
Should You Straighten Up?
Although overstriding can potentially raise the risk of overuse injuries in some people, that doesn’t mean everyone needs to stop leaning forward while running.
Warrener says that body mechanics are highly individual, and for some people, standing straighter actually increases knee problems—a result backed up by some research, such as a study in Journal of Athletic Training that found people who have weak hip extensors tend to be more upright when running, which leads to an over-reliance on knee extensors.
Anna Warner, PhD
— Anna Warner, PhD
“The key here is to understand how your posture is affecting you, throughout your body, as you run,” she adds. “There isn’t one running form that will work for everyone, because there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect form’ that constitutes a one-size-fits-all approach to running.”
There are indications that you should start paying greater attention to your own form and making modifications like posture or stride, she says. Those include:
- Greater frequency of overuse injuries like knee pain, hip tightness, or ankle issues
- High levels of fatigue while running or afterward, which could indicate you’re exerting more effort than necessary
- Nagging, low-level pain in the back, neck, or shoulders
“Changes in posture affect people differently,” says Warrener. “What might work well for your running partner could be terrible for you, so it’s worth playing around with the variables to find your own best form.”
Injury Prevention Tips
In addition to doing more work to build awareness of how your form loads your joints and affects your stride, there are other ways to keep injury prevention in mind when running, says trainer and running coach Kourtney Thomas, CSCS. This is especially true for beginners as they ease into a regular schedule.
Kourtney Thomas, CSCS
— Kourtney Thomas, CSCS
She says these include:
- Progressing slowly by adding distance or speed gradually over time
- Don’t skip dynamic warmups that prime your muscles for activity
- Build in rest days and recovery time
- Cross-train so you’re not overusing the same muscles
- Get shoes appropriate for running
“The biggest advice, as always, is to listen to your body,” says Thomas. “It’s good to challenge yourself and stay motivated with a slight amount of push. But if you’re starting to get any kind of pain or fatigue, that’s a signal to dial it back.”
What This Means For You
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