Three times a week, rain or shine, I met a friend to run 6 miles around the Wonderland trails. No matter the weather, hobbling or in pain, I never missed. Boulder is rife with injured athletes, racking up toughness points for running or hiking through pain. I fell into that trap. From stress fractures to knee pain, I still would pat myself on the back for finishing this or that work out. Then I learned a few principles that changed everything. Head nod (literally) to Danny Dreyer for Chi Running and Chi Walking**.
Running or walking can be fraught. Crazy. Humans are bipedal and we usually figure out how to walk by our first birthday. How we mess that up is anyone’s guess, but often we do. From knee, hip or back pain to plantar fasciitis and iliotibial band syndrome, our bodies give us lots of signals that things need to change. But we also get the messages like:
Those ear worms might all be swirling around in your head as you take inventory -while jogging – of all the reasons this walk, or jog is a really bad idea. It can’t be good for you if it hurts, right?
There is a better way, and it starts with a head nod. How easy is that? Stretch or lengthen the back of your neck, as though your head is being pulled up by a string, and your chin will naturally tuck. That little move starts a cascade of changes as the rest of your body literally falls in line. As your neck lengthens, your rib cage lines up under the pelvis, and you are ready to move. You go from the picture on the left to the picture on the right .
And, as you do, you naturally start to lead with your upper body, which allows the low back to open and pelvis to level. A slick way to feel this is through the ski jump exercise. The forward lean changes breathing, allowing the diaphragm to drop and lower ribs to expand. As breath goes into the lower lungs, you automatically activate the parasympathetic nervous system through the Vagus nerve and your whole body starts to relax.
Once you have the ski jumper exercise down, you should be ready to move. Start with a ski jump, but lean until you feel the need to catch yourself by stepping forward. You’ll take one small step, then another step, and another. With that bit of forward lean, you simply relax your foot as it hits the ground. Without even thinking about it, you land on the midfoot rather than your heel. Your legs stay under your center of gravity. Steps are smaller and less jarring, turnover is faster, and the ease of movement is unbelievable.
There are a few more considerations to optimize walking or running. One is to bend your elbows and swing your arms, with the focus on elbows going back. Your upper body then contributes to the rotation you need to make walking fluid and natural. It distributes the work to both upper and lower body. Walking this way allows you to access your glutes more easily to push off, lessens the impact of a foot strike, softens the landing, and improves breathing.
Just one more note: if walking or running has been painful for a long time, walking in a more fluid way will have more than one effect: as breathing this new way activates the Vagus nerve, your nervous system responds by decreasing muscle tightness. You have a different relationship to movement, and if enough walks happen without pain, walks become less threatening and ultimately less painful.
If you lose your way as you are learning this, just go back to lengthening the back of your neck, tucking your chin, and doing the ski jump to return to the right alignment. While this sounds easy, breaking old movement habits can be hard. Thank your lucky stars that we have therapists here to help you get back to moving with ease. Call us today.