Straight Talk About the T-Spine

When athletes talk about strong and healthy running form, hips, core and feet there are usually the stars of the show.

But one region of the body deserves a chance in the spotlight but too often gets forgotten: the thoracic spine.

The thoracic spine, a collection of bones running from the base of the neck down to the abdomen, is the only part of the spine connected to the rib cage.

Also known as the T-spine, the thoracic spine is essential for stabilization and strength as a runner. But when athletes start feeling a niggle in the foot, leg, or hip, they rarely suspect the t-spine is the cause.

Here are a few things all runners should know about the T-Spine and how it could be impacting your running.

What Exactly is the T-Spine?

The thoracic spine is the upper and mid-back region, including everything between the shoulder blades. It consists of 12 vertebrae that sit between the cervical and lumbar spine, which are denoted T1 to T12. While the cervical spine is vital for flexibility and the lumbar spine adds power and stability, the T-spine serves a fundamental purpose of stabilization, protection and rotation, especially while you run.

A T-spine that’s not doing its job leaves the lumbar region vulnerable to developing low-back pain. For the T-spine to work well, the rest of the body needs basic stability and mobility. A weak core and wobbly hips result in a stiff and painful t-spine.

Many athletes with dysfunctional T-spines don’t realize their thoracic spine is causing them to feel stiff, especially if lacking stability in other areas. That dysfunction has consequences.

Slouching and poor posture are probably the biggest culprit behind T-spine woes. Staring at screens and stress induced neck tension reinforces already poor posture, which means T-spine dysfunction is rampant in modern times.

This dysfunction holds you back from running freely and reaching your potential, whether you’re an elite athlete or a couch-to-5K newbie.

T-Spine and Running

As Erin Carson, owner of Rally Sport Boulder and the strength coach behind many Olympians and world champions, always says a supple T-spine opens up the door for good running. A rigid one shuts that door. Here are a few variables influenced by the T-spine:

Posture: Running technique depends on posture and posture depends on the T-spine. A limber T-spine is the foundation of a good running posture. Muscles in the T-spine region from the mid-back to shoulders provide the support that keeps a runner upright and in good form.

Additionally, a healthy T-spine allows just the right amount of rotation through the spine to promote efficiency. When the T-spine has locked up, the rest of the body will not function efficiently, nor at all in some cases, causing other muscles to compensate and work overtime. This has a trickle-down effect through the entire body, not only leading to poor biomechanics but also increased injury risk.

Arm Swing: The T-spine affects arm swing and, as a result, overall running mechanics all the way down to the feet. We want shoulders packed—meaning pulled back and down—with elbows at roughly 90 degrees.

However, if the T-spine is tight and locked up, the shoulders will likely round forward excessively making the elbow angle greater than 90 degrees. According to Erin, extra tightness and torque in the chest leads to the lower leg and hip inefficiency.

Core Strength: The T-spine allows for the actualization of core and hip strength. When the T-spine locks up, we lose the ability for the core to function dynamically while running. All the planks and sit-ups in the world won’t matter if we can’t access those muscles during exercise.