An Unexpected Cue for Posture: “Breathe”

Blog entry posted by Jon from PDX, Sep 27, 2018.

Everything is new and exciting to me as a novice runner. I feel like I’m constantly running along a knife’s edge between the joy of accomplishing new feats and the drear of taking another week off due to injury. Sometimes, the benefits are completely unexpected, like seeing the sooty majesty of dawn over a train depot. Other times, the benefits are surprising despite being completely predictable, like what happened this morning.

Today was my second 5k run. I didn’t plan it that way, I just measured the loop I took and later translated miles into metric and found that it was a run of 5.6 kilometers. I was only looking for a convenient route through my neighborhood, yet I ended up with a good piece of work! Indeed, 3.5 miles is nothing to sneeze at. For advanced runners, 5k falls in the dry zone between sprints at the short end that burn fuel fast and bright from the limited tanks in the muscles and endurance events at the long end that test the body’s ability to replenish those tanks while on the go. For beginners, though, it is a straight-up endurance challenge: 5k is a distance that will put your cardio and gait to the test, far enough to make us push through some muscular weariness and see if we can apply all those lessons we learned on shorter runs while now also being tired and perhaps a little grumpy. Running 5k well requires stamina, which requires efficiency, which requires good posture and plenty of oxygen. Which is surprisingly hard to achieve when all you really want to do is curl up in a warm blanket with a good book and mug of cocoa. But this morning was much easier than my last run along the same route because I started to learn how to stand tall and breathe deeply.

I get better every run. (Again, the joy of being a beginner.) I’m ecstatic that my footfalls are now effortlessly comfortable. The barefoot miles I’ve put in, both walking and running, have clearly paid off. I still have no knee pain, which drove me away from running for decades. My body is well on its way to making a natural gait automatic and easy for me to maintain — but that’s only true for the stuff that matters on short outings. Longer efforts don’t just benefit from full-body engagement, they require it. Now that the largest movements have fallen into place for me, I get to start working on the somewhat finer nuances of running. Like what my torso is doing.

The torso is the foundation of running. Now that I’ve written that, I think the architectural metaphor is apt. It isn’t very interesting but it holds everything else together. If the foundation is too soft then everything else bends and skews until it collapses; the only fellow runners I’ve seen with side stitches were those who ran with their spine flopped forward over their toes almost as though they were constantly ducking low branches. On the other hand, if the foundation is too firm and unyielding, even a modest stress will cause it to crack and fall apart with time; I think of soldiers who plow forward like somehow the pavement will submit to their discipline, and they’re marvelously fit, but then they retire in their 20s or 30s with the lower back issues of civilian retirees in their 60s or 70s. The torso needs to be strong enough to anchor the legs but loose enough to sway with the hips and hold the head smooth and steady over and rough bits below.

But what does good posture feel like? I really don’t know. I have always had bad posture. Even when I straighten my back as much as I possibly can, I still stoop; when I’m relaxed, I stoop even more. I think I might have mild scoliosis. So, I know better posture will make me a better runner, but I don’t know how to get there. I’ve been trying lots of cues. “Like a marionette with a string from the top of your head.” “Like a string from your sternum is pulling you forward from the heavens.” “Like you’re pointing up into the sky.” Even, “like you really want to pass this DUII field test.” (Note: the most common way to pass a DUII test is to not DUII, and the best way to avoid these issues is to not drive. But it is a funny cue for those of us who harbor mild or more apprehension about interacting with police. But I digress.) None of those cues really worked for me.

Aside from posture, another necessity for good, strong, light and fun running is getting enough oxygen into your muscles. Oxygen is the most fickle necessity to being alive, and we need more if it the more things we do. Fortunately, it is usually freely available to us and all we need to do is open our lungs to get more of it into our bodies. Sounds easy, right? Turns out, not so much. Most people habitually breathe with their chests, which is fine for sedentary living and helps us keep or tummies looking relatively slender. But, when our bodies want more oxygen than usual, the same approach to breathing doesn’t serve us well. (This is neatly analogous to how most people can walk just fine, but transferring that gait to running, or even long-distance walking, doesn’t yield comfortable results. Breathing is a skill to be learned, too.) Breathing well as a runner means using both our chests and our bellies, both our ribs and our diaphragms.

This morning, when my legs started getting sore, a sure indication that they were running low on oxygen, I began focusing on my breath. Sure enough, I was taking fast, shallow breaths. I started taking deeper, slower breaths and felt better. My cadence and my pace picked up, but I didn’t feel like I was working any harder, so I knew I was on to something. I kept thinking about my breathing. Deep, easy, relaxed; open my big belly, that’s okay, it is a lot smaller now than it used to be; the air is my friend, let’s invite it in and throw a little metabolic party, let it grab a carb and drag it to the dance floor for a little Kreb twirl or two.

Then the breakthrough happened: my back relaxed and opened up. I was just trying to get more oxygen into my muscles, but there I was, running along with a tall, easy posture that not only enabled better breathing but which simply felt stronger and yet more relaxed than my usual walking posture, not to mention any previous running posture I had adopted.

“Breathe,” I thought to myself, “breathe deeply.” Within a short distance, I knew I had it, not only a cue that helped my running posture but also a posture that made me feel better.

Without a doubt, my lumbar muscles have strengthened over the past few months of my barefoot journey, building themselves up to support my new hip and glute movements. Now that they’re stronger, they can also better support my torso, providing me with a healthier posture and more lung capacity. The cue, “breathe,” probably wouldn’t have helped me much as a beginner because I just didn’t have the full-body strength to engage in every aspect of the full-body exercise that is running. Now, though, I can start experimenting with better posture and better breathing in everyday activities, not just running. I have found yet another way this simple act of quiet rebellion, taking off my shoes, has improved my whole life.
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Jon from PDX

About the Author

Jon is a nerd with an affinity for sport. He loved playing soccer until a growth spurt led to knee pains that ended his running career, but went on to bike recreationally and row competitively while studying physiology and psychology (go, uh, Raiders?). He then studied law (go Irish!), and became a business writer (“Shark Tank” is for entrepreneurs on Easy Mode), and is currently running again for the first time in decades thanks to going barefoot.