Archive for July, 2008

Introduction to the Mind of the Dancer

July 12, 2008

It is many months since I last posted on my blog. The main reason has been that I have been too busy at work, though I have also had some health problems.

In addition to a number of minor musculo-skeletal problems that have niggled me for many decades and are looming ever larger as I am advancing though my seventh decade, I have also had life-long problems with my respiratory tract. Mostly these have been merely a minor inconvenience, but not always. One of my earliest memories is a night of terrifying hallucinations in infancy when a severe bout of croup starved my brain of oxygen overnight. In those days the principle treatment was confinement in a steam tent. – hot, sticky and claustrophobic but these discomforts were relatively minor compared with the horrible sensation of gasping for breath and being unable to get enough air into one’s lungs. To this was added the frightening phantasmagoria generated by my anoxic brain.

For the sixty years following that near fatal episode, my respiratory problems were minor in comparison and I never sought specific treatment, despite the fact that effective bronchodilators such as salbutamol had become available. However a few months ago, I was being awoken frequently in the early hours of the morning by shortness of breath, and when I ran I was limited to a slow jog if I wished to avoid profound breathlessness and wheezing. So I decided it was time to see a doctor about the problem. I was given a peak flow meter and also a prescription for a salbutamol inhaler. The flow meter revealed that my ambient peak flow was around 540 litres /minute; about average for my height and age. After using salbutamol. I achieved a peak flow of 620 litres /minute – a respectable value even for a fit young man. However, when the wheeziness overtook me, my peak flow fell as low as 180 litres/minute. So the doctor added a prescription for a beclometasone inhaler.

For a few weeks the situation improved, but then two weeks ago I caught a cold, and my peak flow plummeted again. After the cold resolved I was left with persistent bronchitis that has left me feeling debilitated. My peak flow has yet to recover to its former level. The doctor has now prescribed oral steroids, but I am reluctant to take these. In the medium term there is risk of suppression of cortisol production by my adrenals, though that can be avoided if the steroids are taken for only a brief period. There is also the disconcerting fact that catabolic steroids, unlike the anabolic steroids abused by bodybuilders, have the opposite effect and turn muscle to fat. Since starting the inhaled steroid, I have lost weight, while increasing tightness of my belt suggests an increasing waistline. It might be a coincidence but I am a bit concerned that my muscles are turning to mush. So I have deferred starting the oral steroid for the time being.

I am running again, though slowly. It is disconcerting how rapidly one loses fitness after any set-back in middle age, and how difficult it is to regain that lost fitness. So I am facing the question of how to maintain morale. This is an opportune moment to consider the role of the mind in running, though I am still very busy at work and do not have time to do the subject justice today. So in this blog, I will outline the themes that I want to cover, and try to find time over the next month or so to develop each of these themes.

How the brain coordinates movement

Efficient running requires exquisite timing of the contractions of many muscles. Attempting conscious micromanagement would be a similar to a centipede trying to deliberately control each leg; chaos would ensue. So the trick is to create an image of the desired movement and let the non-conscious motor control systems of the brain look after the detail. Years of experience, since infancy, have established coordinated motor programs.

A few years ago it was thought that these programs were stored the cerebellum, like the code embedded in the pattern of punched holes in a pianola roll. That idea is over simplistic, but observation of any skilled performer, pianist, tennis player or runner, provides ample evidence that exquisite motor programs can be evoked by conscious thought, but are governed by non-conscious programs that have the flexibility to respond to subtle changes in circumstances.

Mirror neurons

Several recent discoveries about motor learning are relevant to a runner who seeks to understand the principles of motor control. One is the discovery of mirror neurons. When a human (or a monkey) observes another human (or monkey) carry out any action, the brain cells that would be engaged in executing that action if the observer were to perform the action, spring into action. Thus, we have the potential to learn motor skills merely by observation, even without conscious intent to perform the observed action.

Similarly, imagining an action cues activity in the brain cells that would be engaged in performing the action. This, we can enhance the ability to perform an action merely by imagining it. It is not even necessary to invoke a conscious image. Improved performance of a skilled motor task occurs between practice sessions. If an action is rehearsed repeatedly, the smoothness of execution increases during the session, but perhaps even more importantly, performance is often even better at the beginning of the next practice session after an over-night break from rehearsal.

Practical conclusions

I will hope to return to considering the implication of these observations for learning how to run efficiently, in a future post. Meanwhile, there are two practical lessons:

1) fostering a mental image of the running style we are aiming to achieve is likely to be more effective than attempting micro-management of the muscles.

2) running with good form one day is likely to enhance form the next day; conversely running with bad form is likely to entrench the unwanted form.

Mental mechanisms for lifting performance to a higher plane

The second theme I hope to develop in subsequent postings it based on the observation that running sometimes feels powerful and almost effortless. This phenomenon is observed most readily in cycling rather than running. The cyclist who comes from behind surges past his hapless opponent leaving him wallowing in his wake. However it also occurs in running. The most famous illustration was the Vancouver mile at the Commonwealth and Empire Games of 1954. That year, John Landy and Roger Bannister had both established that they were capable of running a mile in less than four minutes. Landy held the world record, but Bannister was the more experienced tactician. As Landy led off the curve into the home straight on the final lap in the Empire Stadium, he looked anxiously over his left shoulder while Bannister surged past on his right.

In subsequent years, after the instant has been cast in bronze by the sculptor Jack Harman, Landy used to remark wryly that while Lot’s wife was turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back to see brimstone raining down on the city of Gomorrah, he was the only person in history who had looked back and been turned into bronze.

The feeling of grace and power occurs not only as one overtakes an opponent in the home straight. It can also be achieved under other circumstances when one is running confidently and with good form. It is the experience that is sometimes described as being ‘in the zone.’ There are tricks for achieving it, but they will have to wait for a later posting.

Mental mechanisms that limit performance

The converse phenomenon is the non-conscious mechanism that apparently comes into play to protect the body against the dangers of pushing too hard. This phenomenon is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the ill-famed wall that rears up in the final few miles of a marathon. No doubt physiological factors such as depleted muscle glycogen play a role, but the decisive mechanism is mental.

I have only run five marathons – in three I performed above expectation; in one, I started with mild respiratory tract infection and did not finish after severe broncho-constriction almost stopped me breathing. For the fifth I was inadequately prepared. Despite a creditable pace for the first 20 miles, I hit the wall in the 21st mile and struggled to the finish at a pace almost three minutes per mile slower than I had achieved in the first 20 miles. I simply could not move my legs any faster, despite all the mental tricks I could muster. However, in the final two hundred metres, despite my painful hobbling gait, I was slowly closing the gap on the runner ahead of me. By this stage there was nothing of importance to fight for, but the competitive spirit emerged and I was able to achieve a sprint finish – though I still failed to catch the runner ahead, by a few metres. The abiding lesson was that even though I had felt like a completely spent force for the preceding 5 miles, merely hobbling on to avoid the failure of not finishing, in fact there was still ‘gas in the tank’ that I was only able mobilise when I was within sight of the finishing line.

It appears that some protective mechanism come into play when there is a risk of over-reaching. It is probable that this mechanism also plays a crucial role in the phenomenon of over-training.

So I have at least made a start on exploring the Mind of the Dancer. I hope to develop these ideas in more detail soon.