Most people are pretty aware of my love of trail running (ok, make that my love of running in general!) and I love getting questions from clients, friends and strangers about what I recommend when it comes to different aspects of the sport. Of course, what one person loves my not work for someone else, but it’s always great to get feedback from others in finding what works for you. (A lot of what I’ve found to work for me has been a exercise in trial and error…and usually, that is the best way to find what works!) In any case, I want to start sharing some of the questions I get here, so that maybe a few people can benefit. :)
I recently received the following question:
“What exercises would you suggest to help build up my neck muscles? I have learned that when running a portion of trails that I look down a lot for fear of falling and my neck gets super sore.”
Excellent question! Trail running can be quite a different experience from road running in many ways, one of which being your more prone to looking down! This can be a real pain in the neck (sorry, bad pun intended) especially when first starting out. What to do about this neck pain/stiffness/soreness? Well, for starters, I recommend trying to relax as much as possible; sometimes you can be so afraid of falling you tighten those shoulders up and hold a lot of tension in your upper body. So, relax! Keep those shoulders down (not hiked up by your ears) and by reducing the tension in your shoulders you’ll have a lot less soreness in your neck.
There’s an old saying in mountain biking “look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go.” I apply this to trail running; when running, rather than constantly staring down at my feet or the ground right in front of my feet, I keep my head level and focus on watching the ground 4-7 feet in front of me, and adjust my running based on what I see as I scan the coming terrain. This keeps me from keeping the “head down” position and allows me to see any potential obstacles – and react accordingly – while on the trail. The only time this doesn’t work as well is VERY technical or rooty/rocky terrain, when this happens you do have to focus a little bit more on keeping your feet clear of immediate threats underfoot, but it’s also wise to pick your head up and look ahead at what’s coming.
Regardless of whether you spend your time shoe gazing or not during your runs, some time spent doing some stretches like the ones below will help ease the tension in your neck and back – before, during, and after your runs. While not “neck strengtheners” per se, most of the pain felt in the neck is from tension created by not holding your head in alignment, or from keeping your shoulders up (which can cause a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders.) So be learning how to stretch and relieve tension in these areas, find you have a lot less pain and discomfort.
Relax chin to chest to maintain the correct length of the muscles on the back of the neck, and release accumulated tension. Hold for 60 seconds. Another great stretch (not pictured) that goes well with this one, is to drop your ear towards your shoulder (while keeping your shoulders down) and holding , allowing the muscles on the opposite side to stretch. Repeat both sides.
Another great stretch is the Thoracic Stretch. This stretch will help stretch and mobilize tight shoulders and rib cage. It’s important to keep wrists straight, elbow pits pointing upwards, hips behind ankles with weight in the heels, and keep legs fully extended. Practice this until the tailbone can be higher than the waistband, bending forward only from the hip joint. Work up to a 60 second stretch.
This move will increase the ability to hold the head in correct alignment. Alternate from a forward thrusting head to a ramped-back head. Ears should align over the shoulders, and bring your chin towards the spine while neck bones move backward. Be careful not to nod the head upward. Practice for 60 seconds.
While not an exhaustive list, the stretches above will help to alleviate some of the pain and discomfort that trail running can bring – especially when first starting out. My best advice is learn to relax, focus on the trail just ahead of you (except in extremely technical sections; you’ll want to stay eagle eyed for potential toe grabbers and ankle rollers then) and have fun!