Form focus exercises: Train your brain to run better

Although I’ve been a casual runner most of my adult life, I only started entering races in the summer of 2010. (In fact, it was a dailymile friend, now a real world running buddy, who inspired me to start racing. Don’t you just love that about this place?)

I didn’t run in high school or college, so never benefited from the advice of a track coach. Published twenty years ago, Running Injury Free was the only such book I ever owned until recently. And other than a handful of tips gleaned from an occasional copy of Runner’s World magazine, I had no real instruction on the mechanics of running.

I didn’t know diddly about efficient and proper stride or form.

My first racing year, I used Hal Higdon’s half marathon training plan. It showed me how long my weekly runs should be, and how many I should do. But, it didn’t go into the body mechanics of running. It had me moving more, but not necessarily better.

Even though I run for health and race for fun, I still enjoy improving. Even nabbing an occasional PR. Who doesn’t? That said, I can’t see myself hiring a coach anytime soon (Coach Caleb will have to do for now). But, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about physically and mentally being a better runner.

Fate stepped in last year when my sister and niece came across Brain Training for Runners: A Revolutionary Training System to Improve Endurance, Speed, Health and Results in a clearance bin at a bookstore (remember those?)

Published in 2007 and written by Matt Fitzgerald, author of Triathlete Magazine’s Complete Triathlon Book, it had all the usual advice and training plans you’d expect.

But it also introduced me to proprioceptive cues. Proprio what?

While elite runners may already know about this brain focusing technique, it was the first time I’d heard of using such devices to improve running form. Now, I’m hooked.

So what are they?

Proprioceptive cues direct your mind to focus on different elements of running: body alignment, stride, foot placement, etc. During exercise, you turn your attention to assigned mental thoughts and certain physical sensations in order to get your body to move correctly.

Each week, you’re given one cue to work on during non-speedwork runs. This allows you to deal with the task at hand individually. You don’t become overwhelmed trying to incorporate everything at once.

In twelve weeks’ time, Fitzgerald cycles you through twelve separate sensory cues. And then back again for the length of your training. (It’s suggested you continue using the cues even after you’ve completed your plan and finished your race.)

A few proprioceptive cues (10 of the 12 in the book can be found here):

  • Navel to Spine: As you run, focus on pulling your belly button in toward your spine to activate your deep ab muscles (which act as stabilizers of the pelvis and lower spine).
  • Pulling the Road: Imagine that you’re on a nonmotorized treadmill, pulling the belt back with your feet (which is meant to teach your body to generate thrust earlier, stiffen stride and minimize ground contact time).
  • Driving the Thigh: Concentrate on driving your swing leg forward and upward more forcefully than you normally would (to enhance stride symmetry and stiffness).
  • Butt Squeeze: Contract your hip/glute muscles the instant before you plant your foot on the ground and through the ground contact phase (which will enable you to maintain greater hip and pelvis stability).

Of all the cues, the butt squeeze was the funniest one for me — and most challenging. I’m not a fast runner, but I just could not squeeze each cheek fast enough.

There’s a joke there … I just know it. ;-)

The proprioceptive cue outlines were invaluable for someone who’s never been coached in running. Learning how to engage and move certain body parts as I made my strides out there gave me great confidence. I realized how valuable each run was to the next. How each running technique builds on the one before it.

Since this was my first real effort at considering form, having those specifically outlined prompts in the forefront of my mind forced me to consciously scan my body and make the necessary adjustments.

It was empowering.

A bonus effect of all of this brain training? The concentration helped mute some of that ‘oh, this is hard work!’ refrain that can creep into your noggin when you start feeling like a flat tire.

I enjoyed having something positive and constructive to focus my mind on!

As I used the cues, they engrained themselves and began to overlap. As I continued to incorporate them (truth-be-spilled, I *do* forget to use them all the time), not only was the current cue in my mind’s cross hairs, but the others often popped back in, too.

My form isn’t necessarily perfect. But, I feel more in control when I bring my mind back to the cues and focus my brain on their prescribed body tweeks.

Next time you’re out on a run, employ your brain a bit. Think about what your muscles are doing, and how they are able to keep moving. Notice your heartbeat and think about the way you are carrying oxygen to each muscle through your cardiovascular system, allowing your body to move forward. Notice your tendons, how they loosen and contract with each bend of your ankle or knee.

By doing exercises like this, we’re increasing the connection between our minds and our bodies. We’re providing focus to every day training, and making ourselves faster, smarter runners.

Were you aware of proprioceptive cues? Do you use any in your training?

[Thank you, Kathy S., for your contributions to this piece.]


About Ilona M.

A Midwest-based digital journalist, author and 2011 dailymile team ambassador, Ilona loves trail running, forest hiking, road biking, open water swimming, free weights, meditation and yoga. Aiming to balance her love of motion with the sedentary and still pursuits of research and writing, she hearts dailymile because it keeps her moving, laughing, learning and growing.
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