In an ideal word our body would function as intended; however, bad habits, a medical history plagued by surgeries, broken bones, or overuse injuries, and anatomical deficits in strength and flexibility have other plans. It’s really the difference between muscle strength vs. activation.
If you add strength to a muscle, does your neuromuscular system automatically add it to your movement patterns? Most clinicians can tell you this is rarely true. Our movement habits conform to what’s available. No glute strength? Ok. Well your neuromuscular system will weasel its way to functioning (running) without it. The accommodating nature of our neuromuscular system is good and bad. Through accommodation we continue to compete, play, train, and live. Unfortunately, through said accommodation, the body engrains the poor movement into your motor programming. In fact most of this occurs with zero knowledge of you, the athlete. It makes it a real “B” to fix, too.
Take core strength for example. You would think that if you continue to add strength through an exercise program that your neuromuscular system will graciously incorporate what you’ve earned. Well it may not. Luckily, we have conscious control over our muscles, giving us the ability to train them back into a motor program.
Improving Postural Set
Postural set is an anticipatory reaction from the body to estimate how much strength is needed to complete a task: lifting, pushing, pulling, etc. Have you ever attempted to open a door that was being hammered by the wind only to find yourself face planting into the front of it? Well, your neuromuscular system estimated how much strength (based on past experience) is required to open said door. Unfortunately, its estimation was wrong. Another common example can be found when lifting. Have you ever picked up an apparently heavy object, but found it to be light? Again, your neuromuscular system estimated how much strength to divert to the task. Like before, it guessed wrong.
In the clinical world, postural set can be synonymous with abdominal bracing. We use it clinically to protect the spine and joints of both athletes and non-athletes alike. Postural set (bracing) is all about co-contraction around the spine, creating a more stable and stiff environment for your low back. This is more than sucking it in. Too often a contraction of the abdominals is equated to sucking in and drawing the abdominals to the spine (known as abdominal hallowing). Well, you’re going to be upset to learn that the ancient knowledge of abdominal contraction is wrong.
Although there’s no specific running-related research (that I can find), some research articles can give us a glimpse into the theory of abdominal wall bracing to improve stability. Vera-Garciaa et al compared hallowing (sucking it in) vs. bracing maneuvers when applying an anticipated perturbation to a group of subjects. Abdominal bracing was found to improve torso co-contraction (think contraction 360 degrees around the spine, reduced lumbar displacement (movement), and increased trunk stability. All great things when we’re trying to both absorb shock from the ground and return fire at push off. (Full disclosure this study had 11 subjects)
I see this quite often in the clinic. I can take an individual with low back, hip, or even knee pain and train them to brace their spine properly. The result is a toggling between noticing (no bracing) and abolishing symptoms (bracing).
What does this have to do with running?
Every foot strike and push off is an opportunity to calibrate and train your postural set/bracing. Through conscious effort you may be able to better prepare yourself for the forces associated with landing and push off. Remember, at foot strike your body is exposed to upwards of 290% of your body weight in a mere 5 milliseconds. A little conscious awareness emphasizing core activation may help you “brace for impact.” You’re not looking for an all-out, solid contraction. In fact, I’ve found success with patients just noting a conscious tautness through their midsection.
The key is to teach yourself to co-contract around the spine. Co-contract, brace, set your posture, etc–whatever you want to call it. Six of one really. I’ll work a new article on some simple bracing strategies in the near future, but for those looking to get started…
The Basics of a Good Brace / Set
A good co-contraction is absent of holding your breath. You should be able to maintain talking comfortably (try reciting the ABC’s) and without strain. The force can be graded, but a light push outwards (yes outwards) is the basis of a good brace. Take the pads of your fingers and push into your midsection. From there, push out lightly using your abdominal wall—feel your abs firm under your fingers and your ribs flare. Our abdominals are endurance muscles, so the contraction can be held for extended periods of time. First, though, you need to train them with conscious awareness. Good luck!
Francisco J. Vera-Garcia, José L.L. Elvirab, Stephen H.M. Brown, Stuart M. McGill. Effects of abdominal stabilization maneuvers on the control of spine motion and stability against sudden trunk perturbations. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. Volume 17, Issue 5, October 2007, Pages 556–567