Having been in the Pilates world for a number of years, I have had "neutral spine" pretty much drummed into me.
However, I always like to question what I'm told (and have never liked doing as I'm told) so I'm quite interested in the latest debate regarding spinal position. Suddenly, it seems that neutral spine is no longer where it's at. It's a tricky one - you might argue that as soon as you move, your spine has to come out of neutral in order for that movement to happen. Maybe neutral spine is the most comfortable and "safe" position when you're upright, but what about if you're doing a push-up and are horizontal to the ground?
Yes, I could read through all the scientific research and come to a conclusion from there, without my backside even leaving my seat. OR, I could experiment myself and see what works for me. The second option always seems to make more sense.
Danny Dreyer (www.chirunning.com) advocates tucking your pelvis under slightly when you run which therefore slightly "flattens" your lower back curve and many people's running has been greatly improved by adopting the ChiRunning technique. Indeed, Barefoot Ted said that the "tucking under" aspect was something that particularly helped him when he attended one of Danny Dreyer's seminars.
My partner, David, has been playing around with this too. When he tucks his pelvis, he automatically feels as though he has more potential speed, a smoother running style and less effort is required. He describes it as feeling like a Thunderbird puppet, i.e. as though he's suspended from strings and can run lighter.
When I can achieve this position, I too feel the same and seem to fly forwards - it feels right. The problem is, I have quite a tight lower back and when you're on the move, it's sometimes hard to get a sense of where your pelvis is and it can be difficult, especially when you're tired, to achieve the correct position. I see this with my clients too, particularly women who often have more flexible hamstrings than men but less flexibility through their spine and a tendency to hyperextend their lower back (i.e. stick their bottoms out). Men tend to have more mobility through their spine through flexion (bending forwards) which can contribute to other problems but often means they're more capable of achieving that tucked under position. There are variations on this and I'm speaking quite generally of course but it's something I have noticed over the years of studying people's movement.
Anyway, back to the difficulty of tucking your pelvis when you run. Danny Dreyer tells us to practise it standing still, which is definitely useful to get that brain-to-muscle coordination thing happening. Today during our run though, my lower back just wasn't having any of it. In fact, I felt as though I suddenly had a giant bum that wouldn't actually fit underneath me. So, what to do?
What to do is: remember that your body is always trying to find a balance within itself and that everything is linked. So, if my lower back is hyperextending, chances are my cervical spine (or neck) is hyperextending too. Next time you see a tired runner, check out their position. Their chin gets higher and higher as their shoulders lift and their bottom sticks out further behind them. Those two curves - the neck and lower back - appear to be linked. So, as I ran today, I began to concentrate not on tucking my pelvis under, but lengthening the back of my neck. And what happened? My shoulders began to relax and my lower back seemed to lengthen. I was then able to get that sense of moving my pelvis underneath me, giving me a push which helped me achieve that energy flow forwards. I had to keep focused or my spine would sneak back to its over-curved ways, but I found gently "lifting" the back of my head, bringing my chin down and in slightly was a much subtler and therefore much more achievable method of lengthening my lower back whilst on the move.
Couple this with paying attention to where your eyeline is, i.e. keeping your gaze about 3 or 4 metres in front of you so you're not looking directly down or up but almost straight ahead and this will help your alignment too.
If you're a runner, you'll know that on some days, perfect form seems to happen by itself, whilst other times you feel like you're in someone else's misshapen body. On days like this, don't try and force the problem area into the correct position but instead look elsewhere in your body for answers.