Does Correct Head Positioning Make You Run Faster?
“Keep your head up”!
Go to a race course of any kind, and you are likely to hear this phrase. Running coaches are fond of this advice, because it conveys both a metaphorical and literal message: keep a positive attitude, and HEY! get your eyes back on where they should be; on the person in front of you, not at the ground with your neck bent at a weird angle.
Almost everyone will agree that an upbeat attitude is critical to peak performance in training and racing, but if your head is tilted down or your chin is pointed to the sky when you run, is it really that big of a deal? After all, you run with your legs, not your head!
Lets look at how your head position affects your entire body.
According to research presented at a scientific conference this year, the answer is a little more complicated than a straight “yes” or “no.” A group of researchers led by Dan McCann at Gonzaga University attempted to try:
- The study recruited 16 female distance runners from Gonzaga’s DI track team- impressive with respect to both the number of subjects and the caliber of their running ability.
- Each subject underwent a series of three treadmill runs while wearing a specially-designed neck brace set at a predetermined neck angle. In random order, the athletes ran one mile at seven-minute pace with the brace tilting their head down, keeping it straight forward, or tilting it back.
- Each runner’s oxygen consumption and heart rate was measured during the treadmill runs, and they all rated their perceived effort level during each condition.
The results showed that neck position had no influence on any of the physiological variables measured; however, the runners’ perceived effort level was significantly higher in the tilted-forward and bent-back head positions.
This study hints at an emerging trend of research on minor changes to running form; small alterations in form, especially in the upper body, have a small or nonexistent effect in the absolute physiological cost of running.
Research published earlier this year by Christopher Arellano and Rodger Kram showed that running with your arms completely locked behind your back, not swinging at all, only increases the metabolic cost of running by three percent.
Unfortunately, Arellano and Kram did not investigate the perceived effort level of their subjects, which means we cannot make a direct comparison with the first study.
Some may find it hard to believe that perceived effort could have any impact on running performance, but a growing body of research supports the idea that your exertion level has a substantial impact on your pacing in a race, time trial, or workout.
In a 2009 review article, Ross Tucker at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa cites a number of studies in support of this theory, which used clever tricks including giving athletes in a time trial inaccurate splits or distance information, to show that rating of perceived exertion affects pacing strategy.
Perceived effort, Tucker says, is a two-way street: perceived effort influences our pacing, and is also influenced by factors like heat, fuel availability, caffeine, and other external factors that impact your performance.
Therefore, it’s at least plausible that an uncomfortable or awkward neck position could hamper your performance.
In addition, if you hold your head at a strange angle, it gives others around you a psychological boost as it is well known that when you are struggling, your form will begin to break down. This can lead to a competitor passing you, which brings in more negative self talk, and a higher perceived effort to maintain the same speed.
So, what does this mean for neck position during running?
- Try to keep a level head, both literally and figuratively.
- If you keep your neck relaxed, in a natural position, it will help you feel more relaxed when you run, which will help you to maintain speed.
- However, if you have to dig deep at the end of a workout or in the final stretch of a race, don’t feel too bad—it’s only impacting your running physiology by a negligible amount.