Neuromuscular coordination for distance running

It is well established that countermove jump height (CMJ) is a good predictor of sprinting speed.  This is not surprising because CMJ performance depends on powerful type 2 muscle fibres and on the ability to coordinate the recruitment of these fibres.  In the CMJ, flexion of the hips and knees produces eccentric contraction of the corresponding extensors immediately prior to the explosive concentric contraction that propels the body upwards.  It is necessary to recruit the muscle fibres in a manner that harnesses the enhancement of power generated by the eccentric contraction.

The relationship between CMJ performance and distance running performance has been less thoroughly investigated.

In assessing endurance training, aerobic capacity and lactate threshold have been the main foci of attention, but other training-related variables also predict performance.  It is has been demonstrated that difference between elite athletes in volume of zone 1 training (comfortably below LT) predicts distance race performance (e.g. 10Km). In addition, it is fairly well established that a high values of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol sustained across a period of months predicts poorer performance.

However, somewhat paradoxically, within an individual athlete, week to week variations in training volume and cortisol values make the opposite predictions.  In a study comparing seasons best and seasons worst performance in elite athletes, total training volume  was less but volume of zone 3 training  (appreciably above LT)  was greater in the week before the seasons best performance. Cortisol tended to be higher a week before the best performance, Countermove jump height was also higher in the week before the best performance.

This apparent paradox is consistent with the evidence that a taper should involve decrease volume but not a decrease in training intensity.  The fact that CMJ was higher before the season’s best performance suggest to me that zone 3 training in the week preceding the event promotes good neuromuscular coordination.

The importance of neuromuscular coordination is clearly illustrated by the clunkiness that triathletes experience during the bike to run transition.   The rapid gains in weight lifting performance  at the beginning of a lifting program are most likely due to improved recruitment of muscle fibres.  Conversely, fatigue impairs neuromuscular coordination, and measurement of postural sway has been proposed as a sensitive measure of impaired neuromuscular coordination arising from fatigue in footballers.

Overall, the evidence indicates that neuromuscular coordination is crucial for both athletic performance and injury minimization but it is rarely the focus of attention in endurance training.  While not a specific focus of attention, when we engage in routine warm up we do in fact achieve  short-term enhancement of neuromuscular coordination, and when we accumulate miles of training, we engage in long-term enhancement of neuromuscular coordination, but we rarely think of these activities as exercises in enhancing neuromuscular  coordination.  However, we are more likely to produce effective enhancement of  neuromuscular coordination if we plan our warm-up and training activities bearing neuromuscular coordination in mind.

The elements of coordination

Recruitment of the optimal number and type of muscle fibres:  because much of our training should be at an intensity less than racing intensity, we need pay attention to the need to ensure that we do retain the ability to recruit type 2 fibres as effectively as required at race pace.  Although the importance specificity in training is sometimes over-rated, at least some specificity is essential.  As discussed in my recent post on lactate shuttling, beneficial enhancement of the ability to handle the accumulation of the lactate can be achieved by a large volume of low intensity training.  However the danger of a program focussed too strongly on low intensity running is the development of a tendency to plod slowly under all circumstances.    It is therefore crucial to do at least some training at or near race pace, especially when fatigued as is likely to be the situation in the later stages of a race.  Progressive runs that achieve a pace at or even a little faster than race pace are likely to be beneficial

Recruitment of muscles in the optimal sequence:  The action of running entails a very complex combination of muscle contractions, requiring that the extensors and flexors at each of the major joints of the leg are recruited in a precisely timed sequence.

Speed of recruitment of muscle fibres:    With increasing age, deterioration in running speed is associated with loss of stride length; not cadence.    This is accompanied by a atrophy of muscles and loss of strength.  However as I found three years ago when engaged in  intense high-load weight lifting program for several months, I was able to increase my strength to the point where I could squat a heavier load than Mo Farah, but  my stride length did not increase appreciably, and my speed remained but a very pale shadow of Mo’s speed.    Speed depends on  power: the ability to exert force rapidly.  This requires effective, rapid recruitment of muscle fibres.  It is far harder to train power than speed, though there is some evidence that focussing on a rapid contraction during the concentric phase of a lift, at moderate load, can produce a worthwhile gain in power.

Implications for warming up For most of my training sessions, I employ a warm up procedure that includes 10 activities, beginning with simple movements designed to get all of the major joints  of the leg moving freely, and proceeds though a sequence in which  power output gradually increases.

Calf raises

Hip swings, (straight front to back; rotating from foot behind to opposite side in front.)

Body-weight  squats (aiming for hips below knees)

Single leg squats

Lunge, to front and side

High knees

High knees skipping

Hopping (fast, small hops)


Surges at race pace

Time for each is adjusted according to how my body is reacting, though typically each of the first 8 activities takes 20-60 seconds; the focus is on fluent action rather than effort.

Implications for injury minimization Recent studies, reviewed by Herman and colleagues, reveal  that in a variety of different sports, poor neurocognitive performance, either at baseline or in the aftermath of a concussion, is associated with elevated risk of musculoskeletal injury. It is probable that a thorough warm-up that  sharpens up neuromuscular coordination is a good way to minimise risk of injury.

Measuring neuromuscular coordination The CMJ is widely used  in various sports, especially team games such as football, to assess fitness.  However, it has three potential disadvantages as a measure of neuromuscular coordination for the distance runner: 1) it is not a ‘pure’ measure as performance depends on type 2 fibre strength in addition to coordination; 2) maximal performance is quite demanding and creates the risk of injury; 3) accurate measurement requires special equipment.

I have been experimenting with time taken to perform 20 line jumps as a test of coordination.  It does depend on other aspects of fitness such as muscle strength  to at least a small extent, but placing the emphasis on time rather than maximal power focuses attention on coordination rather than strength.  The risk of injury is small. At this stage, the utility of timed line-jump performance as a test remains speculative as I have not tested it systematically.  Typically, I find that my time for 20 line jumps decreases from 9.0 seconds after a few minutes of jogging to 7.5 seconds after the ‘neuromuscular’ warm up described above.  Time for 20 jumps increases dramatically after a long run.  Provided I can establish that the test yields consistent results when assessing deterioration in neuromuscular coordination associated with fatigue, I plan to use it to determine whether or not light weight shoes (Nike Free 3.0) result in greater deterioration in coordination during a long run, compared with more heavily padded shoes.

Conclusion It is almost certainly true that many of the activities that athletes and coaches have traditionally incorporated into warm-up and training achieve their benefit at least partly through enhancing neuromuscular coordination.  However by focussing on the more easily quantifiable physiological variables when planning and assessing training sessions, there is a risk that endurance athletes might fail to optimise training to achieve the required combination of aerobic capacity, strength and coordination.   Perhaps we should place more emphasis on a systematic approach to enhancing neuromuscular coordination during training, and on measuring it to assess the outcome of that training.


5 Responses to “Neuromuscular coordination for distance running”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Interesting post Canute. That looks like a good warm-up routine. Must admit I’ve been a little slack in that regard of late, usually just walking 400 metres or so on the treadmill, including a couple of strides. I’ve been doing progressive runs on the treadmill, also “iFit” programs which I think would be good neuromuscular training in that you have little warning of when the treadmill will incline or decline during a run and have to adjust your power/speed/stride length to cope with the variation.

    I just looked up CMJ on Youtube – it doesn’t look too dangerous (if warmed up). I wonder if you could measure results using the video camera function of a phone (head on) with a height scale behind the athlete?

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Video recording from the phone is ingenious but I suspect not easy to quantify reliably. However, my other concerns about CMJ matter more. I find that at the end of a long run, max effort CMJ is very demanding, and at least for an elderly person, might risk injury.

      On the other hand, CMJ was used as a measure of muscle fatigue after a marathon in this study of 40 runners with average age 41 years. The average reduction in CMJ height was 17% .

      However it is likely that loss of strength due to damage accounted for part of this reduction. In itself loss of strength is interesting, but I would prefer tests that allow separate estimate of the effects of strength and coordination.

  2. Robert Osfield Says:

    Thanks for another Intriguing article Canute.

    Two weeks ago I used neuromuscular tuning as a key part of my runs during taper week for the Speyside Way Ultra race ran 9 days ago. I didn’t do anything more sophisticated than simply running at intended race pace which was 8 min/mile. At the start of the week the pace felt a bit awkward and too fast for an ulta but by the end of the week I had tuned into race pace and it felt comfortable. Come race day I was able to run relaxed at the target pace right away from the first mile.

    Things came a bit unstuck after 50km, but up till then I average 8:10 min/pace, including tackling 1900ft ascent/descent. I’m pretty sure that Neromuscular tuning helped. Alas it wasn’t able to help beyond 50km as muscle fatigue in my hip flexors really set in for the last 10km shortening my stride so that even 10 min/miles were a struggle. Not quite enough training was probably the culprit for the muscle fatigue – I just wasn’t’ in the shape to mange 60km at that pace.

    With your article you mention the timing “20 line jumps”, but I’m not sure what you mean here. Line jumps as in skipping? Doing small little jumps on the spot?

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert, thanks for your comment. It is good to hear that the neuro muscular tune-up was helpful.

      Line jumps are rapid forward and backward, or side to side, hops over a line on the floor. In my warm up I do forward and back to footed hops with ‘soft-knees’ with emphasis on speed and accuracy and soft-lading rather than height, as this is undemanding and appropriate for a warm -up. Here is an illustration from popsugar.

      Here is an illustration of the side-to-side variation.

      Single leg side-to-side hops are probably the most taxing. Here is the single leg version

  3. Robert Osfield Says:

    Thanks for the video links, very informative. Will have a bash at doing some line jumps 😉

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