This is Spinal T: What Runners Need to Know About the T-Spine

This is Spinal T: What Runners Need to Know About the T-Spine

Runners—especially those new to the sport—often make the mistake of focusing all of their strength and flexibility training on the muscles, bones, and joints in their legs and feet. After all, those are the parts that actually propel your body forward, right? On the surface, that logic seems sound. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll find there are quite a few other anatomical structures that influence how far, fast, and comfortably you can run. One undersung hero of running efficiency: the thoracic spine.

As this article explains, the thoracic spine—a.k.a. the T-spine (not to be confused with T-Swift)—is “the upper and mid-back region, including everything between the shoulder blades.” If you want to get all Doogie Howser with it, the T-spine is technically the “12 vertebrae that sit between the cervical and lumbar spine, which are denoted T1 to T12,” the article notes.

However you define it, the T-spine plays a major role in posture, which in turn plays a major role in running form. And as most runners know, proper form is one of the biggest keys to staying injury-free. The scary thing is that many of us are already deep in the throes of spinal dysfunction without even knowing it. And if that’s the case with you, it’s only a matter of time before T-spine tension and stiffness sideline you with injury. Plus, T-spine dysfunction prevents you from running freely and fluidly—which makes it tough for you to achieve your full training and racing potential. Here’s why:

  1. A locked T-spine prevents the back and spine muscles from completing the proper rotation, which in turn forces other muscles to work overtime—and puts you at a much greater risk for injury. Plus, inefficient biomechanics lead to unnecessary energy expenditure—energy you could be using to propel your way to a new personal record (PR).
  1. T-spine tightness affects your running arm swing—and as my high school track coach taught me, arm drive is actually a pretty important piece of the running puzzle (I can still hear him yelling, “Fast arms, fast legs!”). Ideally, your shoulders should stay relaxed, with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. However, a rigid T-spine causes the shoulders to round forward and the arms to extend beyond a right angle. This compromises the “lever” function of the arms, which means you’ve got to pick up the energy inefficiency slack. The result: you slow down.
  1. T-spine dysfunction keeps your core from performing at the top of its game. In other words, no matter how many planks and situps you do, you’ll never reap the full benefits of your labor if your rigid T-spine is preventing you from moving in a way that puts all that strength to work.

Unfortunately, if T-spine issues are to blame for your running problems, it could be tough to identify the underlying cause of the dysfunction—on your own, anyway. That’s where a physical therapist comes in: a PT can analyze your movement patterns and determine where the breakdown is happening. Don’t have a PT yet? Use our PT finder to search for one in your area.

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