If we were to link together the physical components that make up good running, there's a few key areas that get plenty of attention: hips, core, feet and especially the cardiovascular engine. There's one region of the body, however, that's just as important but not usually addressed with as much gusto: the thoracic spine, which is fundamental for supporting and stabilizing the body. That's right, move over core, it's the T-spine's turn to shine.
What is the T-Spine?
The T-spine is the upper and mid-back region, including everything between the shoulder blades. It consists of 12 vertebrae that sit between the cervical and lumbar spine, which are denoted T1 to T12. While the cervical spine is important for flexibility and the lumbar spine adds power and stability, the T-spine serves a very important purpose of stabilization, protection, and rotation, especially while you run. For example, a T-spine that's not doing its job leaves the lumbar region vulnerable to developing low-back pain.
On the flip side, in order for the T-spine to work well, the rest of the body needs basic stability and mobility. A weak core and wobbly hips, for example, will only hurt the T-spine.
Modern T-Spine Syndrome
Many of us walk around with dysfunctional T-spines without realizing it—especially athletes who lack stability in other areas, and consequently get easily locked up and stiff. Probably the biggest culprit for T-spine woes begins with today's modern lifestyle, in which slouching and poor posture are rampant—iPosture anyone? We simply sit too much without the mind to sit well. Even those who are adopting more standing—a standing desk or more frequent walking breaks—are not freed if the foundation is flawed. Stress is also a contributor, as many of us hold extra tension in our back.
This dysfunction holds you back from running freely and reaching your potential, whether you're an elite marathoner or a couch-to-5K newbie. Take it from someone who has overcome T-spine dysfunction—you don't know how good it can be until you have it.
It's hard to universally pinpoint the cause of one's T-spine dysfunction, and often we're too damaged for there to be a quick fix. Running is not a cure in itself. Even cross-training with weights, swimming, or cycling isn't going to unlock this area if overall stability, mobility and form are lacking.
T-Spine and Running
A supple T-spine opens up the door for good running. A rigid one shuts that door. There are several variables influenced by the T-spine:
? Posture. Running technique depends on posture. Posture depends on the T-spine. A limber T-spine is the foundation of good running posture. Muscles in the T-spine region from the mid-back to shoulders provide signature support to keep a runner upright and in good form. Additionally, a healthy T-spine allows just the right amount of rotation through the spine to promote efficiency. When the T-spine is locked up and kyphosis is present, this area of the back and spine—and all of the associated muscles—will not function efficiently, nor at all in some cases, causing other muscles to compensate and work overtime. This has a trickle-down effect through the entire body, not only leading to poor biomechanics but also to an increased injury risk.
? Arm Swing. The T-spine directly affects arm swing and therefore overall running mechanics, all the way down to the feet. We want "shoulders packed"—meaning pulled back and down--with elbows at roughly 90 degrees. However, if the T- spine is tight and locked up, the shoulders will likely round forward excessively, the elbow angle becomes greater than 90 degrees (picture sagging, flailing arms), and this lengthened "lever" (i.e. the arm) forces the runner to create more force to propel forward. Extra tightness and torque in the chest lead to lower leg and hip inefficiency—it's all connected.