Running technique is reflexive

“Once the fundamentals of technique have been acquired, we can then add endurance and strength’  – Arthur Lydiard

Define (reflexive): (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought.

Technique – how we choose to run – eventually determines the longevity of our running careers and extent to which we can exploit our natural potential and our reap the rewards of our hard work.

The teaching of running technique must always be approached in the knowledge that human movement only functions optimally when it is subconscious, automatic and governed by reflexes.

Running technique coaching, even when showing short-term benefits, eventually runs into trouble when taught through focus on specific muscles and conscious control.

I support only those running technique coaching practices which seek to restore optimal posture and form through greater sensory and bodily awareness. You can call this ‘subconscious coaching’ – reprogramming your primitive ‘reptilian brain’ and the reflexes that work in tandem with it.

The best example is posture. Proper posture is crucial in generating correct technique. But forcing yourself into correct posture causes excessive tension and new compensations on top of the old ones.

No ‘perfect method’ currently exists for teaching running technique but current practice is constantly evolving. Of the many available tools out there, I employ the following as among the best for this type of coaching:

  • Joint exploration: Exercise allowing the runner to ‘explore’ all the ranges of motion his joints possess allowing his brain to re-establish a correct position of ‘centre’ and re-map the available range of motion and help remove sensory-motor amnesia where present. These exercises are best performed with a high level of awareness.
  • Self-limiting exercise and constraints-led training: Self-limiting exercises would include running barefoot on hard surfaces, crawling through a narrow tunnel or holding a weighted bar overhead. All these exercises force the learner to work within certain constraints. Other constraints can be moving within a narrow area, putting a soft plate behind a runner on a treadmill that his rear leg will move back into and so forth.
  • Subconscious learning: By isolating one particular movement and performing it as a drill, we can repeat a pattern enough that the subconscious brain may recognise it again as useful and begin re-integrating the pattern into the greater pattern of complex movements such as running. Drilling can also recondition a part of the body that has become deconditioned – perhaps your hamstrings are no longer sufficiently reactive to play their part in running so your body no longer utilises them. Drills can ‘bring them back up to scratch’. Isolation exercises like this must be done with caution, however, to avoid conditioning muscles to do activities unrelated to your sports movement or teach it to act in a way that is not in harmony. Whenever possible, we want to avoid isolation work.
  • Externally focused action cues: When we utilise internal foci (i.e. ‘contract your hamstring’) our conscious mind obstructs the smooth workings of the subconscious mind. This has been proven to reduce performance in motor-skill learning. External foci must therefore always be preferred such as ‘remove your foot from the floor’. Here we allow the brain to choose the optimal way of moving the foot. I focus learners on the objective (‘drop down and land on the floor in front of you quietly’) rather than the process (‘bend your knees and hips somewhat as you drop off the step onto the floor and ensure you land with most of your weight towards the balls of your feet’).

There are other parts to the method of teaching running technique coaching falling into grey areas in the three categories above. Coaches should notice that traditional methods such as ‘active cueing’ (‘stick your pelvis forward’) are generally discouraged as these tend to overly engage the conscious brain and are open to interpretation – i.e. cues have different effects on different runners. External cues are exempted from this rule.

Percy Cerutty, the great coach of Herb Elliott, deserves the last word on this article:

“The recognition that anything that is inhibited, mechanical, regimented, done under imposed duress or direction, even that which may be thought to be self-imposed-anything at all that is not free out-flowing, out-pouring, instinctive and spontaneous, in the end stultifies the objectives, limits the progress and destroys the possibility of a completely and fully developed personality.”

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