Today we continue on our running journey and learning how to perform a little self maintenance. Previous standards were #1) Neutral Feet and #2) Flat shoes. (see previous posts with links at the bottom).
Standard #3) A supple thoracic spine.
Your thoracic spine consists of the 12 thoracic vertebrae found in the middle of your back. Sometimes called the “T-spine”, this is the region of your back that a lot of people round out or hunch when sitting. If you’ve never considered taking care of your thoracic spine, today is a good day to start. People typically define the core as ribcage to mid-thigh or so, but Dr. Kelly Starrett warns that if your T-spine is out of whack, all the power that you’d like to have flowing from your hard earned six-pack and taut glute muscles is going to get squeezed off. A tight thoracic spine gums up your posterior chain, and you can’t get your shoulders and head into a good, aligned position, which transmits strain into your neck and lower back. Starrett compares a day laborer in India that transports bricks to a construction site in a basket on top of her head to a computer programmer hunched over his laptop all day long. Which one sounds like it’s doing more damage to the body? The woman carrying bricks is demonstrating the power of midline stabilization, while the programmer is committing himself to a slow and grisly death.
The consequences of a tight thoracic spine:
- Neck pain. When your head juts out in front of your spine, consider that your head weighs about 12 pounds on its own and that every inch it juts forward effectively adds another 10 pounds of weight to the problem.
- Shoulder mobility problems. When your shoulder joints are in a neutral, externally rotated position, you get the benefit of stored-up energy from rotational torque. With your shoulders rolled forward, you give up all this torque. Your soft tissues have a lot more stress put on them, and they have to stabilize the shoulder joints.
- Lower back pain. A tight thoracic spine shuts down the flow of power within the body’s systems. In running, this translates to more stress being dumped on the lower back (lumbar section of the spine).
- Knee pain. Without a neutral spine, stress on the knees increases. This is what a lot of runners complain about. Piriformis pain (deep butt pain) and any number of knee ailments that result from poor hip function.
- Hotspots. Within the body systems, the two main engines for power are the hips and shoulders. A tight thoracic spine gums up stability and the flow of power. The result is pain. Feeling pain is a clear sign that you’re doing something wrong.
- Loss of power. This isn’t just about pain. If you run with your shoulders hunched forward and your head jutting out over your faulty upper back position, you are bleeding away power.
What to do:
- Laying on your back on a foam roller (or a battlestar-pictured below), tuck your chin down to your chest, fold your arms either across your chest or behind your neck, and bend your thoracic spine over the foam roller, essentially straightening out the rounded part of your back. It’s important not to open up your chin to the ceiling. It’s kind of like doing a reverse sit-up or crunch. Keep slowly flattening out your thoracic spine and returning to the start position. This helps to loosen up your TS and give some mobility to it. The more mobile joints are, the healthier and less susceptible to injury they are.
- For more specific work along your spine, use a double-lacrosse ball setup or the Gemini (seen below) to strip through the tissues connected to the vertebrae.
- If the Supple Thoracic Spine standard is tough for you, work on the front of your shoulders to help unshackle you from the poor posture and position that a stiff upper back can destroy you with.
4. This last one is to be done after you do the above mobility ball work to loosen up the fascia of your tight pectoral muscles. I do this one ALL THE TIME (4-5 days a week) because I have internally rotated shoulders that cause a painful impingement issue for me anytime I do heavy/fast overhead movements.
5. Another one I like with the PVC pipe is to rest it or another light bar on your shoulders, feet shoulder width apart, and twist as far as you can side to side. Keep looking as far behind you as you can each time to get a nice, deep twist in the thoracic spine.
Now you have homework. Get to it! Practice these, and practice them often if your thoracic spine is tight (most people will benefit from these, even if your thoracic spine is pretty mobile).