You’re an athlete. You know that bones move because muscles pull on them. You know that the stronger a muscle, the greater the force it can exert. How can we use this knowledge to help us to be better runners?
1. Motor skills
How familiar are you with your body? Do you know which muscles are tight?
Stand well (if you’re not sure how to do this, ask!). Notice where it feels uncomfortable in your body, if anywhere at all. Is it between the shoulder blades? Are you working to hold one shoulder higher? Do your toes scrunch into the floor? Is one buttock clenched and the other relaxed?
Noticing what’s happening in our bodies allows us to make good brain-body connections – muscles only work because of signals through the central nervous system (mostly, it’s a little more complex than that, but it’s good enough for the purpose of this article!) and being able to willingly activate muscles is a necessary skill when promoting muscular efficiency.
Without this knowledge, it would be like trying to drive a car without knowing what all the pedals, levers and buttons do…
This isn’t (just) about being able to touch your toes!
A person’s flexibility is defined by their ability to move their joints through a full range of motion. Joint/bone damage aside, the range of motion (ROM) shows which muscles are working well and which aren’t. If a joint feels stiff, it’s (usually) because of unwanted muscle tension somewhere (or myofascial ‘fuzz’ – find out more at the famous Gill Headley Fuzz Speech.). You might know, for instance, that it’s easier to raise one arm over your head than the other.
This muscular tension can be caused by a whole range of things – sitting at a desk for too long, spending too much time driving, old injuries etc. etc. The key is to loosen the muscle with massage (this can often be done without another person) and developmental stretches.
Gentle stretching every day (yes, EVERY day) can help, too. Move into a stretch slowly, hold it for a while as you breathe easily (it shouldn’t feel uncomfortable: the science varies *wildly* about how long to hold your stretch; I go for 45-60 seconds for these static stretches), release then do it again.
Anyone who’s ever had a joint immobilised after a broken bone will know that this takes time, but that the full range of motion (permanent damage notwithstanding) can be restored and it is necessary to have the best range of motion possible before trying to improve muscular strength or endurance.
I am certain that some people reading this will have had to ‘re learn’ how to run after a nasty injury, one that has been caused by continuing to train on an immobile joint. It is possible!
To continue the car analogy, driving around with one flat tyre works, but it’s not going to do anyone any good in the long-run (I should probably say that it’s massively dangerous to do this, just to be clear…).
3. Muscular endurance
Once we have developed the motor skills and flexibility we need to know how to move well, it’s time to build the endurance.
This is the ability to perform a full range of motion for the longest time possible. This is absolutely key for us as distance runners because we ask our muscles to perform the same movement repeatedly for (sometimes) hours at a time. Doing this well requires good cardio-vascular fitness, as the muscles need a good supply of blood.
[Cardio Vascular/CV fitness – this allows the blood to pick up and transport oxygen and fuel to the muscles and waste products away; our CV fitness levels can define how efficiently oxygen is used in the muscles.]
Getting back to our car, this is about learning to drive efficiently, to get the maximum from our battery charge/tank of fuel. We can drive around town in second gear quite happily, but it’s not going to maximise our energy consumption.
4. Muscular strength
Once we know how to move our muscles and our joints are moving without restriction, we can start maximising the force available.
As runners, we (mostly) need to overcome gravity, which is why many strength exercises for runners involve lifting weights against gravity. But there’s little point in doing this if it’s going to exacerbate poor movement or existing muscular imbalances.
In the car, sticking aerodynamic body-enhancements on the outside is going to make little difference if there’s the wrong fuel in the tank…
The right to move on
Your coach will help you to move through these steps; be patient because it can take time! You might be asked to move back a step or given something slightly different to do. This is all part of the process to help you to move well. If you notice something new/different happening when you do an exercise or drill, ask your coach, get them to watch what you’re doing and offer some corrections. If they offer those corrections without you asking, it doesn’t mean you’re getting it wrong; it means they want you to get that stage right!
Trust me, as a coach, there’s nothing worse than an injured runner and as a runner, there’s nothing worse than a coach saying, “I told you so.”