Brains over Brawn

by Jackie Merritt, Milestone Sports Athlete

If you have ever attempted to change how you run, you know that it is not an easy task. When we consider steps toward improving our running biomechanics, we think of strengthening weak hips or stretching tight calves/hamstrings/hip flexors. While it is true that changing your biomechanics will likely involve gaining some degree of strength and flexibility in your muscles and joints, we often don’t consider that we also need to train our brains.

Each person has his or her own unique running pattern that is based on decisions the brain has made about what is optimal with its given hardware (i.e. your body). These biomechanics we use to walk and run have undergone hundreds of millions of repetitions over time with each foot step and are heavily entrenched in our nervous systems. Considering this, we should probably expect that it will take more than a few stretches and exercises to change the way we move.

In a study at the University of Delaware [1], researchers found runners with problematic hip mechanics and put them through a comprehensive hip strength training program for 6 weeks. Not surprisingly, after 6 weeks of strengthening, the runners’ hip muscles were much stronger than before they started. However, when the researchers measured their running biomechanics following the hip strengthening program, nothing had changed. Despite all the strength the runners had just gained, they did not use it to improve their hip biomechanics when they started running. The bottom line is that if you want to change the way you move when you run, you need to train more than your muscles.

 

Learning to change your running biomechanics requires overriding the decisions your brain has made about what is optimal. MilestonePod metrics such as rate of impact, leg swing and ground contact time can be improved through a number of different biomechanical strategies. This raises an important question: what is the best way to train our brains to run better?

As a physical therapist, neuroscientist and biomechanist, I spend my most of my days asking and looking for answers to these types of questions! (Or, as my husband Jeff likes to tell people, I spend my life finding the answers for the great Google machine.)

There are two primary tactics for feedback that can be used to train the brain:

1. Gradual learning through “trial and error”

2. Rapid learning through “watch and learn”

 

The Pod gives us access to lots of important data both after and during our runs! Now, what is the best way to use it?

 

Trial and Error – move better LATER.  

“Trial and error” occurs when we learn how to do something over time by learning from our previous mistakes. With the MilestonePod, runners can go out for a run and get retroactive feedback on their metrics when they sync to the App after the run. Over time, with enough consistent practice, runners can find a strategy that works to improve a metric that may be problematic.

As a personal example, on some runs, I have high rate of impact and have learned that at a specific cadence (for me, 184-186 steps per minute) my rate of impact decreases. I have worked over time to increase my cadence to this range and maintain it throughout the course of my run across many different terrains. I learned from mistakes in previous runs where cadence got too low and rate of impact got too high.

Research shows that this kind of “trial and error” learning takes a long time to happen [2]. However, once we learn, the changes tend to be maintained for a long period of time. In other words, once you “get it,” you got it.

Watch and Learn – move better NOW.  

“Watch and learn” occurs when we are shown how to do something while we are doing it. Recently, Milestone Sports launched its new real-time feedback capability for compatible 3rd party watches and apps. This allows runners to get instantaneous and constant feedback on some metrics during their runs.

In contrast to the above example, I can also check my cadence on my watch while I am running and adjust it to maintain my optimal 184-186 steps per minute. Previous research showed that by using this “watch and learn” tactic, we learn the correct movement pattern almost immediately [2]. However, when the feedback is removed, we quickly revert back to our old patterns. The changes in biomechanics are immediately reversible and not long-lasting. In other words, using real-time feedback will get you there fast, but you will immediately go back to your old biomechanics when the feedback is removed. And not many of us want to spend every run for the rest of our lives staring at a watch!

 

“Watch” and learn!

 

So, do I want to move better now, or later?

Both of these feedback tactics are different yet complementary when it comes to the brain learning new running mechanics. A combination of both types of feedback may get you the most bang for your buck!

If you are using the real-time metrics, try only checking the data occasionally during your run. Also, mix in runs without using real-time data and check your data when you get back to see how you did. Give your body a chance to learn from mistakes.

If you are not using real-time metrics and been unsuccessfully trying to improve your metrics, then adding in real-time metric feedback may give you the boost you need to get over the hump.

Though there are a number of different strategies a runner could employ to change his or her running biomehanics, one thing is clear: when we attempt to change the way we run, the brain has to be involved in the process. We cannot rely solely on stretching and exercises to improve our running mechanics. We also need to use our brains and try to change how we are running while we are running. Real-time Pod metrics can empower our brains to make immediate improvements in problematic metrics. However it is also important to learn what the wrong way feels like if we want our good biomechanics to last!

Happy trails!
Jackie

REFERENCES:

[1] Willy RW, Davis IS. The Effect of a Hip-Strengthening Program on Mechanics During Running and During a Single-Leg Squat. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 2011 41:9, 625-632. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21765220

[2] Roemmich RT, Long AW, Bastian AJ. Seeing the Errors You Feel Enhances Locomotor Performance but Not Learning. Current Biology 2016 26:20, 2707-2716. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27666970

“Running Brain” image source

Author: Jackie Merritt

Jackie is an accomplished ultra-runner and an avid MilestonePod data fan. She has a Doctorate in Physical Therapy and a PhD in Biomechanics. She lives and trains in Atlanta with her husband Jeff and the Yeti Trail Runners. When not running, Jackie works as a PT and research scientist at Emory University School of Medicine. Jackie also runs for Hoka One One and NATHAN Sports.