Upright Runner

Roy Benson coached the cross-country and track teams at the University of Florida from 1969-79. For part of that period, he was president and CEO of Florida Track Club, the outfit that spawned 1972 Olympians Frank Shorter (marathon gold), Jack Bachelor (marathon 9th), and Jeff Galloway (10,000m).

Every distance runner alive in this country on September 10, 1972 was glued to the tube during Shorter’s wonderful race through the parks and streets of Munich. And every last one of us went out for a celebratory run afterward.

A remarkable feature of Shorter’s run was how easy he made it look. He seemed to be floating, as if riding as a passenger in his own body. He looked relaxed, as he flew forward at 4:58 pace.

Later, the running press analyzed the race endlessly, and it soon emerged that coach Benson believed runners are most efficient when they balance their upper body carefully over their feet. Shorter’s carriage was straight-up-en-dicular — a very different statement from the forward lean of Chi Running, and the widely reported view of a leading sports scientist who said that running is an act of continually falling.

If you tape a major road race on your video recorder and play it back in slow motion, you can see that most of the elites lean slightly forward. Whether this is “falling” is beyond the ability of yours truly to know. But I do find it interesting that, whether upright or leaning, their backs are always very straight. The elites don’t slump, slouch, or run with bent necks, or caved-in chests.

Can a straight spine help a runner go faster?

My interest in the answer is partly personal. I’ve always been interested in the effect of good posture on my running. During a recent slow run, I passed the time straightening my upper spine by stretching my neck and arching my back. When I’d achieved an upright, confident posture, it was remarkable how much better I felt. It felt like opening a wider channel for energy to flow in my spine, especially to my heart and lungs. My pace picked up marginally, but what was most enjoyable was the sensation of lightness and flow.

The spine is the major channel through which energy flows to all parts of the body. Eastern spiritual disciplines point out that wherever energy goes, consciousness goes as well. A simple test shows this to be true: inhale deeply, holding the breath for an equal count before exhaling. Don’t strain. Repeat until you feel a gathering of energy in the area of the heart. As the energy gets stronger, you’ll notice an awakening of expansive feeling there.

This has relevance for runners. A calm, harmonious heart works more efficiently. (For scientific evidence, see Chapter 7 of Fitness Intuition.)

It’s a reasonably safe guess that any way we can remove blocks to the free flow of energy in the spine will improve our performance and enjoyment. Not to mention that an upright posture encourages a positive, confident mind.