The tension that creeps into our necks and upper shoulders during a run can bring on niggling discomfort or even outright pain.
The culprit in most cases is poor posture: Shoulders rounded, head thrust forward, we constantly overtax our neck and shoulder muscles. But with a few simple stretches and exercises, we can easily straighten ourselves out.
First, simply move your head back. William Roberts, M.D., a runner and physician in St. Paul, Minn., recommends you hold your head so your ear sits directly over the middle of your shoulder. This might seem awkward at first ? as if you are too upright. But it's precisely how you should be.
"When you're running, you should be straight up and down," says Bob Larsen, head track and cross-country coach at UCLA. "The only time to lean forward is when you're accelerating."
A stickler for form, Larsen counsels runners to "run tall" and visualize themselves dangling like puppets on a string.
"Reach high with the top of your head," Larsen says. "Don't suck in your stomach, don't lift your shoulders. Just run tall, and let everything else hang loose."
If you're hungry for some homework, simple stretching and strengthening exercises never hurt. Roberts recommends standing flush against a wall ? heels, buttocks, back, neck, and head all pressing back. This stretches the muscles and makes it easier to adopt a proper posture.
Variations include touching your chin to your chest, bending your head backward and looking up, trying to touch your ears to your shoulders, and turning to look over both shoulders. Hold each position for five to 10 seconds.
Strengthening exercises are equally quick and easy. Because we use them so little, the muscles in our necks and shoulders are woefully weak, and a little strengthening can go a long way.
To strengthen your neck, place your hand on your forehead and push against it, maintaining resistance with your neck. Do the same with your hand at either side, and then at the back of your head, to give your neck a 360-degree workout.
Some tension will inevitably creep in on a run. If it does, roll your head, push your shoulder blades together and drop your arms, letting them dangle by your sides.
These relaxation tips will improve your posture, ease any tension in your neck and shoulders, and ultimately make you a more efficient runner.
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