The mind and brain of the runner

Mind and brain are two sides of one coin: the mind is the subjective experience of the activity in a complex network of brain cells that receive sensations from the external word and the internal milieu, interpret those sensations, and in turn transmit commands back to the muscles, hormone secreting glands, and viscera that carry out the functions of the body. 

If you are a runner, there are at least three things it is worth knowing about your mind and brain.

  • What you believe affects the way your body works.  A group of hotel cleaners was informed that the work they did would make them fitter. Four weeks later they had lower blood pressure, less body fat and other signs of improved fitness compared with a matched group of colleagues who had done the same work but had not been advised about the health benefits of that work.  (Crum and Langer, ‘Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect’, Psychological Science, vol 18: pp165-171; 2007)  Athletes who have faith in an inspiring coach often outperform those who do not have an inspiring coach.  What can the self-coached runner do to maximize the effectiveness of his or her training?

 

  • Non-conscious mechanisms act to limit damage to body tissues.  While the details of the role of the central governor, which Tim Noakes proposes acts to limit work output before we do serious damage to heart or muscles, remain controversial, there is little doubt that there are non-conscious mechanisms that adjust our actions to minimize harm.  Barefoot runners tend to run with a shorter stride and land on forefoot or mid-foot rather than heel (Lieberman et al, ‘Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runnersNature vol 463: pp 531-535, 2010).  These adaptations are the likely reason that they experience less torque at knee and hip joints (Kerrigan et al, ‘The Effect of Running Shoes on Lower Extremity Joint Torques’PM &R: The Journal of Injury, Function and Rehabilitation, Vol. 1, pp 1058-1063, December 2009).  The softer landing of the barefoot runner may have equipped our forebears to pursue game across the African savanna, but is not necessarily the most efficient way to run 10Km on a road.  However, an appreciation of how the human body was designed to run (by evolution or by God) is a good starting point in the quest to determine how to run fast and injury free.

 

  • The brain codes whole actions.  The gunslinger who draws his gun in a reflex response to the action of an assailant takes about 20 milliseconds less to draw  than the assailant who made a conscious decision to draw.  This is probably not a big enough difference to save the ‘good guy’ in a gun fight, but nonetheless demonstrates that complex, well rehearsed actions can be performed more rapidly under automatic non-conscious control than  under deliberate conscious control (Welchman et al. ‘The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention.’ Proc Roy Soc B Pub on-line Feb 2010; http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.2123).    When running it is generally best to avoid attempting conscious micro-management of the muscles.  Changes in running style cannot be implemented efficiently by conscious change in the actions of specific muscles.  A more efficient action is likely to emerge as a consequence of drills, strengthening of the necessary muscles, and guidance by a mental image of the goal rather than the specific details of the action.

 

Faith and Pose

I have been pondering these issues in recent weeks in relation to the Pose Method of Running.   In my recent posts I have reviewed what I regard as the good features and the bad features of Pose.  My overall conclusion is that Pose technique works reasonably well, at least for amateur athletes, despite quite serious flaws in the  biomechanical theory on which is based. In part it works because it espouses several very sound principles including the recommendation that cadence should be at least 180 steps per minutes, and that time on stance should be as short as possible.  In part it works because the Pose ‘pull’ facilitates a short time on stance despite appearing remarkably like trying to get airborne by pulling on one’s own bootstraps.  Thirdly, I think Pose works because its adherents invest an almost religious faith in it.  My own belief is that it would better to put one’s faith in a method that is biomechanically sound as this might combine the benefits of faith with the benefits of sound biomechanics, but it is not easy for a skeptic to have faith.

The Psychology of Pose

Nonetheless, I do believe many aspects of the psychology of Pose are helpful.  The aspect that I think is most helpful is the subtle way in which it encourages mental images.  Here is an example posted by jonp in response to a query from Gerry G about the distinction between ‘landing on’ and ‘landing over’ the ball of the foot in the thread devoted to discussion of my blog (post 42; Canute’s Efficient Running Site):

‘I would describe it as a distinction between “landing on the ball of foot” and “keeping bodyweight over the ball of foot”.
“Landing on” may emphasise actively putting the leg/foot to the ground before your mass is ready to be supported.
“Bodyweight over” emphasises a full body lean position over your ball of foot so that when your mass arrives on support (creating bodyweight) it will also be supported by the ball of foot.
Basically we don’t want to emphasise/focus on landing.’

Much of what appears arcane and even pedantic about Pose arises from the attempt to create images of what is required.   At times the creation of the image is at the expense of a realistic description of the action that occurs.  This is most clear in the case of the concept of the pull.  The pull is a hamstring contraction that lifts the foot towards the buttocks after un-weighting at the end of stance.  Pose theory explicitly denies the role of pushing and the associated ground reaction force in getting airborne, as is illustrated in the erroneous figure 7 in the article ‘Runners do not push off the ground but fall forwards via a gravitational torque’ by Romanov and Fletcher in Sports Biomechanics, 2007.    However in practice, a good Pose runner does get off stance quite rapidly. And I believe this is because Pose encourages focusing attention during stance on a rapid pull. Up to a point, this is useful. However it might become unhelpful if it encourages the runner to spend more time on strengthening the hamstring for the concentric pull than on conditioning the quads and calf muscles for sustaining the eccentric contraction that is the cardinal requisite for capturing the elastic energy that drives the push.

Religious fervor

On the whole, I think the religious fervor of Pose disciples is less helpful.  This fervor is easily visible on the PoseTech forums (which unfortunately are pass-word protected though it is easy for an interested person to join).  As I have mentioned previously, I was amused by the posting on the PoseTech thread devoted to my blog that simply stated ‘Burn the heretic’ (post 2: Canute’s Efficient Running Site’).   There have been many subsequent reasonable and interesting postings on that thread, but also quite a lot that is less reasonable.  

Where does this religious fervor come from?  A clear illustration was provided at the Pose clinic with Dr Romanov in Loughborough in March 2008.  Much of the event appeared orchestrated to establish the Pose mystique.  The first session commenced with an admonition from Dr Romanov that we must not question his authority.  For almost all of the practical demonstrations throughout the weekend he picked on the youngest member of our group, a personable but potentially impressionable young man.  For example, to illustrate the power of the mind, he had this young man bend to touch his toes.  He encouraged him to reach lower and lower by focusing his mind, over a period of about a minute.  Not surprisingly, the young man’s fingers reached lower as the protective stretch reflex generated in the muscle spindles relaxed.  While I strongly believe in the role of the mind in governing the body, there is not need to invoke arcane mental processes to understand a mechanism that is mediated by a simple neural circuit from muscles to spinal cord and back.   The next morning, Dr Romanov instructed him to close his eyes as he took his wrist and led him up a grassy hill, running Pose style.  When the young man opened his eyes, he was incredulous how easy it had been to run uphill.  Later we were all given the opportunity to share this experience, led by one of the Pose coaches.  The trick is that the leader slows down on the ascent to maintain an approximately constant effort level. It has virtually nothing to do with running style.  By end of the two days, the effect of these tricks, together with the group bonding that occurs when a group of like-minded people meet for a weekend to focus on a shared goal, helped produce a  group of committed Pose disciples.

Followers, Leaders and Self-belief

We are faced with the challenge of remaining sufficiently skeptical to avoid being led into error, yet benefiting from the power of faith.  Fortunately, the way the human mind works suggests that there is a way of combining skepticism with faith.  Humans have evolved as social creatures and it is probably beneficial to the species as a whole that the majority are prepared to put faith in a leader.  However, it also often the case that the person most capable of moving mountains is the leader him (or her)self.  Truly exceptional performances are often based on strong self-belief.  I suspect this reflects another characteristic of the human mind.  Despite a fascination with mysticism, humans are inherently scientists insofar as we try to understand our world by making predictions about the consequences of our actions and observing the results.   When our predictions are confirmed, we invest faith in the prediction and in ourselves.  Our goal as athletes is to develop a style of running and a method of training on the basis of careful observation and then be prepared to invest faith in it. 

This does not mean investing a blind faith in one style of good running or one training method.  In fact the evidence suggests that many aspects of any running style have advantages and disadvantages.  It is also clear that approaches to training methods as different as those of Lydiard and Furman can achieve successful results.  Belief that there is only one path to success is a very brittle foundation on which to build.  My belief, based mainly on observation but partly also on faith in the rationality of the human mind, is that we should use our powers of observation and reasoning to identify the style and training plan that appears to best suit our circumstances and goals.  We need to be able to recognize the strengths and potential weaknesses of our plan and then invest faith in our own judgment.

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12 Responses to “The mind and brain of the runner”

  1. the good sports gang | Sporting Goods On Sale Says:

    […] The mind and brain of the runner « Canute's Efficient Running Site […]

  2. Ewen Says:

    Canute, that was a great post. Should be compulsory reading for Pose Tifosi (and others who would say one method/technique is the holy grail for runners).

    This sentence rings true for me: “Our goal as athletes is to develop a style of running and a method of training on the basis of careful observation and then be prepared to invest faith in it.”

  3. RICK Says:

    Great post Canute.
    I wonder what you think about this article
    http://www.posetech.com/training/archives/000791.html

  4. RICK Says:

    Canute, check out this book on google library, very interesting read
    http://books.google.com/books?id=oZTrsJjW4jwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=programmed+to+run&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  5. canute1 Says:

    Rick, Thanks for your comments and thanks for the link to the Posetech site.
    I found the link to the series of frames of a video recording during Usain Bolt’s run in the 100m at the World Championships in Berlin in 2009 very informative. However I would question Dr Romanov’s interpretation. In frames 10, 11 12 Bolt’s centre of gravity is clearly rising yet Romanov states he is rotating forward and down but not pushing off. Romanov’s interpretation violates the laws of physics. Furthermore, although Romanov emphasizes the forward and down rotational torque that acts after mid-stance he fails to discuss the consequences of the backward and down gravitational torque acting in early stance (frames 8 and 9 on right foot; frames 16, 17, 18 on left foot). I accept that the rotational impulse due to forward and down gravitational torque in late stance exceeds the opposite rotational impulse imparted in early stance. Gravitational torque does help cancel the rotational effect of wind resistance. Even if there was no discernible wind within the stadium, when running at faster than 100m per 10 sec, air resistance is appreciable. Therefore, gravitational torque does serve a useful purpose, but I believe it is far less than Dr Romanov claims.

  6. canute1 Says:

    Rick, The first chapter of Miller’s book is fascinating. I especially liked his description of his mental focus in Boston.

  7. RICK Says:

    Also the section on how Kenyan’s run is quite interesting inc leaning forward from the ankles!

  8. canute1 Says:

    Rick,
    I am afraid that by examining too many of the early pages of the preview of Tom Miller’s book I had exhausted my free pre-viewing before reaching page 34 which I suspect is the page describing the way the Kenyans lean from the ankles, to which you refer. However I note from the earlier parts of chapter 2 that he places emphasis on the backwards push in late stance. I agree that this is what provides the propulsion required to compensate for loss of forward momentum due to braking and wind resistance. I believe that by by leaning from the ankles (in contrast to hips) Miller is referring to keeping the pelvis forward, which I consider contributes to a good running posture. However I note that in his description of Jim Ryun’s style Miller refers to tilting the pelvis down at the front in late stance. Some downwards tilt is almost inevitable as the stance leg extends, but I think this tilt should be minimized as the tilt reduces the preloading of the quads at the end of stance that promotes the initiation of the swing. However without reading all of Miller’s second chapter, I would not want to draw any definite conclusions about his recommendation.

  9. Helen Says:

    Canute,

    that was extremely interesting,especially reading your thoughts on the Pose weekend. I havn’t attended one of these events, so my experience is different..mine is gathered from personal tuition from a certified Pose coach in the UK, and from following the Pose discussions on Fetcheveryone.com…but that is not an official Pose chat room.
    Just a few, slightly random, thoughts

    * its very common to hear runners, who are learning Pose, happily describe their style as ‘Pose, or my version of it’. I assume that they have realised that there is room for variation from the very tight instructions on style presented in the Pose literature and DVDs.
    * the PoseTech discussions that I have looked at present some very intense, dogmatic views. I would like to suggest that this is the over-zealous fringe..but the fact is, it is on the official website for Pose.
    * What happens at the grassroots level of coaching seems a healthier picture, with more latitude, rather than the Only One Way to Run presented by the central Pose organisation.
    * There is a refusal by many coaches to publicly criticise Pose ..the organisation or the theory. To me, that’s decidedly unhealthy, and rings loud alarm bells.
    * I think that your faith in the rationality of human nature is right. I’m hovering out in the foyer in this church..but there’s still benefit from the good principles (that you’ve listed)..high cadence, focus on the pull etc. I have company…skepticism is alive and well
    *Tifosi is a great word, as is fanbois 🙂

    Helen

  10. canute1 Says:

    Helen,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It is great to have confirmation that many good things are happening at the grassroots of Pose.
    I agree that the best way to learn Pose is with a good coach. Most of the UK Pose coaches that I have met appear to be good coaches, though most are not very strong on biomechanics. However, I would not judge a Pose coach by his or her understanding of biomechanics. I would however regard their appreciation of the issues related to stress around the ankle associated with a forefoot landing as an important guide to their credibility.
    I hope you continue to enjoy injury-free running. I too liked the sound of Ewen’s ‘Pose tifosi’. I am not quite sure what it means, though I did discover the description ‘Sleek, sporty, and lightweight’ applied to some tifosi sunglasses 🙂

  11. ajh Says:

    Canute, another wonderful post. The information on Pose is interesting, but a little over my head, I just go out and run. However, the statement “What you believe affects the way your body works” rings so true for me. Through my journey the last 5 years from a fat blob to somewhat of an athlete (maybe that’s stretching it a bit), the power of positive thought and self-belief, and the impact that positive comments and feedback from others can have on that, have been so important.

  12. canute1 Says:

    Andrew, Thanks for your comment. Your recent problems with an unrecognisable passport photo are an amusing testament to what you have achieved by self-belief and hard work.

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