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Running Mechanics: Advanced

If you know Blue Devils, then you know we are huge on running mechanics. A significant tenant of our training methodology involves quality, focusing on training athletes to develop running as a skill. Improving our running technique has numerous benefits, including speed, efficiency, and injury prevention. By learning to run properly, we are teaching the body how to produce force and propel us forward while minimizing unnecessary movements.

The Science

Neural Plasticity

The nervous system is largely responsible for such efficiency when we talk about motor learning. The nervous system is essentially the link between our brain (the control centre) and our muscles (the effectors), and therefore is responsible for controlling our movements. And when neurons fire together, they wire together. Similar to muscles that are trained, neurons have the ability to grow and strengthen with practice. This phenomenon, the nervous system’s ability to make structural changes, is referred to as neural plasticity. If we continually practice poor, fatigued, sloppy running technique, then our nervous system strengthens these patterns and they become our default. But, the more we practice proper running mechanics with drills, the better habits we build and the more we strengthen our body to run efficiently. This is where quality comes into play, and explains how more is not better, but better is better.

Motor Learning

In order for motor learning to occur, we need to challenge the problem-solving abilities of the brain and the body together. In this sense, efficient running technique is the problem that we want to solve, and therefore running mechanics drills are the practice problems we are going to use. Similar to learning math, we cannot begin with quadratic formula. First we need to learn addition, subtraction, and multiplication … and then practice the basics of BEDMAS in much simpler practice problems. Breaking down the ideal running stride into simpler drills allows us to initially solve one problem at a time; knee drive, ground contact, and leg recovery. This was the purpose of part 1 of our running mechanics article, and is a great way to initially teach athletes how to run. Running Mechanics For Beginners should be the starting point for any runner! Even experienced runners should focus on the basics, especially at the beginning of each season. However, similar to muscles, as the season continues and the body adapts, we need novel ways to stimulate the body if we want to continue to elicit adaptations.

Variable Practice

This is where variable practice comes into play. We will continue to challenge the problem-solving abilities of the brain and body together by varying aspects of the movement patterns within one drill complex, while maintaining the key points of a running stride to facilitate learning. This means that the outcome is the same, but how we get there will vary. For example, the outcome of the B Complex drill is ground contact, and all of the key features associated with how the foot strikes the ground. But we will vary the movements preceding the outcome, challenging the body to still produce the proper outcome. In this sense, we are teaching the body to produce these efficient keys to running while changing other parts of the movement. This will improve the transfer of motor learning into our performance!

The Application

A common phrase is “practice makes perfect,” but as described above it is more accurate to state, “practice makes permanent.” The more that proper running technique is practiced, the greater neural plasticity will occur in your favour. By adding drills such as these prior to your interval workouts, tempos, and even recovery days, the brain and body will have more opportunities to engrain good movement habits, and these neural pathways will strengthen. Similar to studying for a test, cramming the night before is seldom the best approach. Instead, frequency is king. I suggest including x3 rounds of one of these drills prior to a run, and alternating between the drills 3 times each week. For example:

· Before Monday's interval workout complete x3 rounds of A-Complex,

· Before Thursday’s tempo complete x3 rounds of A-Switch-Bounce, and

· Before Saturday’s long run complete x3 rounds of B-Complex.

And after a few weeks, your body will adopt these changes and you will begin to naturally run more efficiently!

A Complex

The A complex links together 3 basic drills that all focus on the key features of initiating the stride. These key features remain the same, but progressing through the drills sequentially teaches the body to maintain these key features when varying the movement pattern. The goal is to transition from a march, to a skip, to a run pattern all while maintaining knee drive, foot flexion, and arm action.

Key Features:

· KNEE drives forward and up, level with the hip,

· ANKLE is directly under the knee (not behind) and the foot is flexed up, ready to receive the ground,

· ARMS move in sequence with the legs forward and back, never crossing the midline of the body,

· TRUNK maintains tall posture, with minimal rotation/rocking.

A Switch-Bounce

Similar to above, the goal is to maintain the same key features of our stride initiation. With the A Switch-Bounce, we are teaching the body to able to hold these key features during the bounce, and switch between positions quickly. This will help train strength in form, so that we are able to maintain these positions under greater force and velocity. Begin by practicing 2-switches (right-left-bounce) followed by a bounce, alternating sides between different repetitions (left-right-bounce). Once this feels comfortable, try practicing 3 switches, where legs will be alternating within each rep (left-right-left-bounce, right-left-right-bounce).

Key Features:

· KNEE drives forward and up, level with the hip,

· ANKLE is directly under the knee (not behind) and the foot is flexed up, ready to receive the ground,

· ARMS move in sequence with the legs forward and back, never crossing the midline of the body,

· TRUNK maintains tall posture, with minimal rotation/rocking.

B Complex

The B complex links together 3 basic drills all focus the key features of ground contact during the stride. These features remain the same, with the goal is to focus on pulling the leg from the powerful muscles around the hip and planting the foot directly underneath the body. The variable that changes first is speed and power; plant the foot under the body very quickly, then very powerfully. Then the focus is maintaining that foot plant but from the more running-specific knee drive position (as opposed to the previous straight-leg). Chopsticks for speed, chopsticks for power, then dribbles; all maintaining the key features of ground contact.

Key Features:

  • POSTURE is tall and slightly forward (think falling from the hips),

  • FOOT is flexed up, ready to receive the ground,

  • LEG pulls underneath the body, and the FOOT plants under hips pushing backward,

  • ARMS are bend and relaxed, synched with the rhythm of the legs.

If you feel comfortable with the basic ABCs of running mechanics, then you need to challenge the problem-solving abilities of brain and the body to continue to improve! Practicing these more complex running mechanics drills will improve your running efficiency and speed, as the body learns greater problem-solving abilities by finding ways to maintain these key running features while movement patterns vary.


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