A standing start should mean just that, says Dr Sean Carey. Here he outlines how your posture matters at the start of any distance race
For years the term “standing start” struck me as an odd term to use to describe what happens at the beginning of races of 800m upwards because in the “set” position at the starting line nearly everyone crouches with one foot placed around 18 inches behind the other and shoulder-width apart before taking a step forward into running.
I now realise that actually it’s a useful term, because the concept of a standing start can help an athlete better understand the importance of standing fully upright before any other movement takes place.
Stand up and listen
My observations reveal that relatively few athletes seem to appreciate how important uprightness is at the beginning of a race. Most focus, understandably, on remaining “relaxed” by maintaining their warm-up, perhaps by moving from one foot to the other or flicking the feet out in front of them or slapping their upper thighs with their hands. Then, after the starter exclaims “on your marks”, too many anticipate the crouching involved in the set position by stiffening, specifically by pushing their neck forward, pulling their head down on to their shoulders and rounding their upper back, as they move forward to the starting line.
Then, having arrived at the starting line, instead of rotating smoothly from their hip joints and bending their knees and ankles to crouch, many add to the unnecessary tension they’ve already generated by bending not from the hip joints but from their lower back resulting in rounding and thus weakening their whole back.
This is often accompanied by an athlete pitching too far forward, which only serves to create additional muscle strain, especially in the front leg and pelvis.
Of course, not everyone pulls themselves out of shape in this or other ways. Observe closely Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele or Tirunesh Dibaba or watch videos of legendary British runner Steve Ovett and you will see that none shorten their stature at the start of a race. Rather, they maintain uprightness while keeping warm (Ovett had a habit of running on the spot and pumping his arms as well as bouncing on the balls of his feet) and then walk or jog upright to the starting line. It’s only then that they lean forward from their hip joints and bend their knees and ankles into the set position – being careful not to collapse or over-curve their neck or otherwise distort their spine.
But why is standing tall before bending forward from the hip joints, and then preserving internal length along the spine in bending, so important? Well, humans are the only creatures on the planet that can stand fully upright in large part because of our double-S shaped spine.
Furthermore, as anatomists have discovered a healthy human’s ability to stand at their full height is simply more energy efficient in supporting body weight compared to stiffening the musculature and shortening the stature.
Few such medallists raised in Western-type societies, however, remain as well-coordinated as they were in early childhood. There are a variety of reasons why this deterioration in coordination happens but sedentarism at home and school or peer pressure to assume a particular body shape are probably the main culprits.
Whatever the cause, one significant effect is a habitual shortening of the stature – that is, the measurable distance between the crown of the head and the soles of the feet – to a greater or lesser extent. That compression, in turn, interferes with and degrades the kinaesthetic sense – someone’s sense of position, muscle tension and movement.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still possible to run very fast in such circumstances but not as fast and certainly not as efficiently as when stature is maintained, at or near maximum height, breathing unimpaired and the kinaesthetic sense providing accurate feedback regarding the overall efficiency of movement.
For any healthy child, teenager or adult to move in a well-coordinated way, they need to be able to assume, before running, a fully upright stance with a freely poised head on top of an extended spine. The knee and hip joints will be extended in such a way that the thigh bones align with the bones of the lower leg to form flexible, continuous vertical columns.
Viewed from the side, the shoulders, hip joints and ankles will be aligned, with the body weight efficiently transmitted through the skeleton to the ground. That alignment necessarily involves a dynamic stretch in the body’s musculature, not only, as already noted, in the vertical plane between the head and the feet but also in terms of maintaining elasticity in the torso musculature so that, for example, one’s shoulders are releasing apart from each other.
The knees will also tend to release out of the hip joints and slightly away from each other over the toes. In addition, in this coordinated state, the rib cage hangs from the spine and moves freely without an athlete having to ‘do’ anything to make it move. In short, breathing takes care of itself and will respond swiftly to changing, and at times strenuous, demands.
By contrast, if while standing fully upright you unduly stiffen the large muscle groups anywhere in your body – for example, by over-tightening the nape of your neck, over-activating your abdominal muscles, or locking your knees or ankles, you will shorten your stature.
Viewed from a side perspective, you will now be out of alignment, with your pelvis likely pushed forward and your rib cage moving less efficiently because you are now hollowing your back. In addition, the minimal energy expenditure you required only a few moments ago to maintain uprightness will have increased significantly.
Why it matters to athletes
“So what?” an athlete might say. “I’ve got 800m, 1500m, 5000m or longer to sort it out.” The truth is, however, that once you have stiffened and lost internal length, especially along your curvaceous spinal column, at the start of a race it’s very difficult to restore or improve your coordination while moving at speed.
That means, for example, that the compression that you have created in your upper body before running will affect the working of your legs as you run, not least because some of the work that ought to be performed by the powerful (extensor) muscles of your neck and torso has been transferred to your legs. The result is that you will be over-using your leg muscles which, in turn, will compress the space between your ankle, knee and hip joints.
What to do?
Perhaps the first step would be to look at recordings of your training and racing and observe carefully how you approach the starting line. You may find that you are indeed pushing your neck forward and down as soon as you hear the words “on your marks”.
In which case, you can try to uncouple your stiffening reaction from those words – although easier said than done, especially in a racing situation. Try to observe if you are also bending forward from your waist and stiffening your back and rib cage rather than moving freely from your hip joints. If this is so, you will find it useful to perform a daily practice of lying on your back, in a semi-supine position, on a firm surface with your head supported by a small pile of books (face parallel to the ground) and your knees bent and pointing upwards, with feet flat on the ground.
Keep your eyes open in order to remain present, and aim to lie there for between 10 and 20 minutes. Don’t try to do anything, but simply allow the ground to support your weight and your spine will tend to then lengthen to its optimum length. You should also gain a clearer kinaesthetic sense of your neck and back musculature and the balance of your head on your neck.
Try to maintain this awareness when you decide to return to an upright stance and indeed as you run.
» Dr Sean Carey is a social anthropologist and a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). He teaches the technique in London’s Old Street and St Albans and can be contacted through the STAT website (alexandertechnique.co.uk). For more information on running and the semi-supine position you can read his book, Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity: Improve how you sit, stand, walk, work and run (Hite; £14.99) which is available to order here