John Davis

Written by John Davis

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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.

Running form

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 formsmall 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.

McCann’s research suggests that perceived effort should be examined in addition to physiological variables like oxygen consumption or heart rate.

Perceived effort

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.

Conclusion

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.

Free Running Form Course

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Here’s what we’ve got for you

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How to treat the source of injuries but finding, understanding, and fixing the underlying issues. Most runners look to icing and therapy when treating running injuries. But, for recurring or long-standing injuries, you need to treat the source.

How bad running form causes cramping in the marathon (not hydration or electrolytes) and the exercises you can add to your training to make sure you don't cramp again!

References

1. Moore, S.; Thompson, S.; Doesburg, K.; Johnston, K.; Clark, M.; Portillo, J.; Leahy, T.; McCann, D. In Effects of neck posture on ventilation and percieved exertion in trained females, International Journal of Exercise Science: 2014.
2. Arellano, C. J.; Kram, R., The metabolic cost of human running: is swinging the arms worth it? The Journal of Experimental Biology 2014, 217, 2456-2461.
3. Tucker, R., The anticipatory regulation of performance: the physiological basis for pacing strategies and the development of a perception-based model for exercise performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2009, 43, 392-400.

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2 Responses on “Does Correct Head Positioning Make You Run Faster?

  1. I love testing stuff like this out. I myself have questioned the true benefits of trying to work on some aspects over others. The more fine tuned the eye, it becomes the ” crooked picture on the wall” syndrome and you start trying to fix everything.
    My ‘variable’ to throw in here however…is 1 mi really enough time to mark effects? Especially since trained athletes can adjust for such variances.
    It is like watching someones running gate at the store for 5 min on the treadmill..instead of after they have ran maybe 6-8 miles and you see where their form goes and better indicator of the shoe maybe they should be using. .
    I know as a cyclist that the longer the time in tucked TT postition, if I don’t change my head angle a bit, a static muscle position tends to cause tension that becomes distracting and possibly affects at some neurological level, a governor on the body to back off.( haven’t looked up any studies on that yet lol )

    • Thanks for your feedback Chris! It is interesting to think about, and yes, we have to be careful not to overanalyze everything about our running, at the end of the day, it is about putting one foot in front of the other! You do bring up a good point about the 1 mile, but I think physiological differences could be measured in that short of a distance. It would be interesting to see what they did find over a longer period though. Thanks for your insight about cycling too, surprising how much of a difference your head can make within your efficiency!

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