Archive for the ‘Mental Mechansims’ Category

Interpreting messages from the body to the brain

May 27, 2019

My hopes of blogging more frequently in 2019 have so far been frustrated by a heavy schedule at work.   But even more frustrating has been the fact that during the past few months various things have made it difficult to find time even to run. These things have included preparing our house for sale and attending academic conferences.  Potentially more promising with regard to opportunities for running was the task of bringing our newly purchased canal boat from the south of England to the Midlands. Canal boats travel slowly and the journey took more than two weeks.  During journeys in our previous boat, I usually made the most of opportunities to run along the canal tow path, circling back as required to assist with the task of opening lock gates. However our new boat is much longer and has a deeper draught than our previous boat. Our route to the Midlands included the River Thames from London to Oxford and thence northwards on the Oxford canal. The wide river offers relatively few opportunities to disembark to run along  the riverside path. The Oxford canal meanders through delightful countryside but is notoriously shallow. With the deeper draught of the new boat we faced the risk of running aground. It was best for me to remain on board, prepared to use a pole to lift the bow slightly and nudge the boat towards deeper water, while at the stern my wife put the engine into reverse at appropriate moments to enable the propeller to force water beneath the flat bottom of the boat.  It was a journey with delightful memories, but sadly I did not run along the canal tow path at any point.  As a result, I am now at a lower ebb of fitness than at any time in the past 15 years.


Three days ago I set off for a run across the Lakeland Fells. I had no intention of running at even a moderate pace.  My intention was to begin to rebuild some fitness while enjoying the spectacular mountain scenery.  On the steep ascents I clambered upwards maintaining at least three points of contact with the rock over craggy outcrops; on the descents my main goal was to remain upright.   However, on the grassy level ridge-top, I was dismayed by how uncomfortable I felt.  Although my pace was slow, the depth and rate of my breathing told me I was near the upper limit of the aerobic zone. To my dismay, I felt a strong urge to stop and walk.  It is very rare that I ever feel the urge to stop when running. When pushing hard I often need to dig into my reserves of determination to sustain the pace, but I am rarely tempted to slow to a walk.  At first I was inclined to acquiesce to my body’s clamour for respite and simply enjoy the scenery. But before acquiescing I wondered about the nature of the signals my body was sending to my brain.

I was definitely short of breath. No doubt the accumulation of carbon dioxide and acidity in my blood was triggering a barrage of moderately insistent messages from the chemoreceptors in the large blood vessels to my brain. But I usually interpret this level of breathlessness as exhilaration rather than distress.  In addition, my leg muscles felt a little sluggish.   However, there was none of the sharp pain that arises from the transient accumulation of lactic acid when running at speed, nor the dull ache that arises from microscopic damage to muscles after an hour or more of running.  In reality, none of the signals to my brain could be interpreted as pain; they were merely markers of effort.

Possibly on account of the need to avoid wasting precious energy reserves faced by our distant forebears living on the African savannah 2 million years ago, our brains are predisposed to minimise unnecessary effort.  However, in a world where we are no longer prey nor predators in everyday life, this natural predisposition to minimise effort tends to be far too over-protective.   While it is necessary to be a little cautious when returning from a lay-off from running, at this stage of my run, with only a few miles behind me, there was little need for caution.

It was time to reinterpret these signals from body to brain.  The sensation of effort was cause for satisfaction rather a signal of need for rest. However, my legs felt unpleasantly clunky.  At this point I shifted my focus from the clunkiness of my legs and engaged a few of the tricks than promote fluent form.  In particular I focussed on the rhythmic swing of my arms, allowing the down-swing of each arm to pace the lift-off of the opposite foot from stance.   The sensation of clunkiness disappeared.  Despite my slow pace I began to feel like a runner once again, running freely along a mountain ridge with the central Cumbrian Fells defining the skyline ahead of me and the intricate facade of the distant Howgill Fells away to my left, across the valley of the river Lune that marks the natural border between Cumbria and Yorkshire.    I am still far from fit, but it is good to once again feel that I am a runner.

Creating the Zone

April 3, 2018

The Zone is that magical state in which running seems almost effortless. When it descends upon you, it feels like a state of grace bestowed by Hermes, the swift-footed messenger who could effortlessly outrun all other Olympian gods.   Hermes was also a cunning trickster, and his gift cannot be taken for granted.  The exact nature of the state of mind and brain that facilitates this magical experience remains unknown. Nonetheless as outlined in my previous post, neuroscience has revealed many factors that play a part.

These include the endocannabinoids that are released during exercise. Endocannabinoids are analgesic and create a sense of euphoria. They interact in a complex manner with the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which mediates the experience of reward, and plays a key role in the learning of patterns of behaviour.  The relevant neural circuits connect the frontal cortex, limbic system and basal ganglia.   While the interactions within these circuits that mediate the experience of the Zone appear to be subtle and complex, there is little doubt that these circuits can be trained.


Neurons that fire together

In recent years it has become clear that in general brain circuits are far more adaptable, even in adult life, than had hitherto been recognised.  One of the earliest indicators of this plasticity of the adult human brain was provided by Eleanor Maguire’s demonstration that London taxi drivers have an increased amount of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus, a part of the limbic system that is engaged during spatial navigation.    For our present purpose, it is crucial to note that in those days, London taxi drivers spent several years learning the layout of the streets of London to qualify for a cab-driver’s licence.  Subsequent brain imaging studies have confirmed that intense practice of various motor skills (such as juggling) and cognitive skills (such utilizing material maintained in short term memory) leads to an increase in the amount of grey matter in the brain regions engaged during those activities.

Many details of the molecular mechanism by which neural pathways are strengthened are known. It is a process known as long term potentiation (figure 1).  When a signal is transmitted across the synapse connecting one nerve cell with the next one in the circuit, it not only results in the onward transmission of the electrical signal, but also sets in train a series of chemical events in the receiving nerve cell. Those chemical events lead to an immediate increase in the efficiency with which the synapse can transmit signals and also to the transcription of DNA to produce proteins that produce long-lasting changes in the strength of the connection. The delineation of this process in recent years has confirmed the speculation of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, in his book, the Organization of Behaviour, written in 1949.  Hebb proposed that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’.


Figure 1. Neurons that fire together wire together. An incoming electrical signal releases a transmitter molecule (glutamate) into the space between the nerve endings. The glutamate binds to an AMPA receptor on the surface of the receiving neuron, changing its shape allowing the flow of ions. The electrical a potential changes, thereby transmitting the electrical signal to the receiving neuron. The change of potential also expels the blocking magnesium ion from the NMDA receptor. Calcium ions flow inwards and initiate a series of chemical events that make the synapse more efficient in both the short term and also the long term. 


The implication is that if we wish to strengthen a particular skill we need to practice that skill persistently. The converse is also true: if we practice the relevant activity in a counter-productive  manner we will strengthen the counter-productive pattern of brain activity.  What is the right way to develop the circuit that facilitates the experience of the Zone, and what is the wrong way?


The Central Governor

Tim Noakes concept to the central governor provides a clue to the right way and the wrong way.    According to Noakes, our brain creates a sense of fatigue that causes us to restrict our involvement in a demanding exercise when the cumulative signals for the body about our metabolic state, indicate that we are approaching our limit.  But as anyone who has sprinted at the end of a marathon despite feeling almost overwhelming fatigue with a mile to go knows, the governor is far too conservative.   Perhaps in prehistoric times, when food supply was uncertain and our forebears needed conserve reserve fuel to escape from an unpredictable predator, their glucose-dependent brains learned to set the governor conservatively.  Our forebears did of course have an over-ride mechanism: the adrenaline system could dramatically reset the governor’s limits in case of emergency.  We too can utilise adrenaline to reset the governor during a race, but in a long race, too much reliance on adrenaline is damaging.  A better strategy is to train the brain in manner that resets the governor, and delays the onset of fatigue.  We need to reframe the experience of effort when running: rather than perceiving effort as fatiguing or painful, we need to perceive effort as satisfying, even perhaps exhilarating.


How do we do this?  The first thing is to develop thought patterns that engender confidence.   Grandmothers’ wisdom tells us that nothing succeeds like success. In more recent times, the psychologist Martin Seligman has developed an approach to building resilience based on Positive Psychology.   His Mental Resilience Program is currently employed by the US military to produce mental toughness in soldiers. Modern neuroscience confirms that during challenging tasks, confident individuals who engage areas of the medial frontal cortex more effectively outperform individuals who do so less effectively.  If two athletes have identical aerobic capacity and efficiency, the one who believes he/she will win will almost certainly be the winner.

Perception is more important than reality.   In fact pessimistic people generally tend to see the world as it really is.  Freud famously remarked that only depressed people see the world as it really is, and much subsequent evidence has proven him correct.  But we function better with a self-reinforcing positive bias.  Nonetheless Positive Psychology is not merely about telling yourself you will win.  We are not so easily fooled.  We need to acquire the habits of optimistic thinking.  Optimistic thinking focuses on the specific details of the experience rather than overgeneralization and self-defeating prediction.  We need to train hard and give ourselves due credit for success in achieving our training goals, while identifying the specific problem when we fail to reach the target we set.

In particular, we need to frame challenges in terms of Albert Ellis’s ABC model: C (emotional consequences) stem not directly from A (adversity – e.g, the sensation of shortness of breath) but from B (one’s beliefs about adversity).   In dealing with the A’s  we need to learn to separate B’s—heat-of-the-moment over-generalised reaction to the situation (“I’m a failure”)—from C’s, the emotional consequences generated by those thoughts (“I cannot maintain this pace” is replaced by “I am breathing intensely; I’m running powerfully”). Then move on to D; dispel the fear of failing.  There is no need to abolish negative thoughts and emotions entirely.  Identify their source. Once you have given a negative thought a name, your brain can cope with it more successfully.  We need to build the sense that we are in control of ourselves; our thoughts and emotions.



I find that it is very helpful to focus specifically on breathing, during both training and racing.  Start with awareness of breathing; then relate breathing to footfall as this promotes controlled breathing.  I find focus on arm swing is also useful: the brain programs whole movements rather than single muscle contractions. The brain nonetheless devotes more processing resources to arm and hand than to leg and foot.  Our brain readily links arm movement to leg movement; we can enhance this link in our brain by practicing the focus on arm swing while being aware of footfall. I think a firm down/back stroke of the arm promotes a strong drive in the second half of stance that is associated with rhythmic breathing.

However do not expect to be able to focus on all of these things at once without practice. It took several years before I could focus on these things in a relaxed confident manner. Do not get tense if you cannot focus on everything.  Find what you can focus on comfortably and aim for a relaxed focus on this.  When you are in the appropriate confident relaxed state time seems to expand to accommodate the events you are attending to.

I learned these aspects of mental focus long before mindfulness became popular.  However when the technique of mindfulness emerged into popular culture in recent years, I found the key aspects of mindfulness came easily – probably because I had developed those skills when running. Conversely, it is likely that acquiring mindfulness skills will help you to apply these techniques when running.  Brain imaging studies demonstrate that mindfulness produces changes in functioning of the insula (figure 2), plausibly promoting constructive awareness of internal reactions ‘in-the-moment’.


Insula and Limbic system

Figure 2: The insula and limbic system. The insula lies in a fold of cortex hidden between the medial temporal lobe, containing the amygdala and hippocampus, and the deep grey nuclei. The insula mediates the interaction between sensory perception, thought and emotion.



Whatever specific strategies work for you, you need to practice them repeatedly in every training session. You will build brain circuits that can sustain a mental state that is confident and in control in all circumstances.  When Hermes smiles upon you, you will find yourself in that transcendental state in which you are running powerfully with minimal effort and no sense of fatigue.

The runner’s high, the ‘zone’, and ‘second-wind’

February 7, 2018

This post will explore what modern neuroscience has to say about some of the mental phenomena that occupy a tantalising place in runners’ folk-lore: the runner’s high, the zone, and ‘second-wind’.   On the one hand, popular folk-lore accepts that the mind is just as important as the heart and skeletal muscles in athletic performance.  We accept the grain of truth in Yogi Berra’s incongruous quip:  “Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical.”  In recent years the topic of sports psychology has taken up an increasing amount of space in running magazines.  On the other hand, most of us devote more attention to the question of the best way to train heart and skeletal muscles, than to the training of our minds.   Perhaps this neglect of the mind is a pragmatic response to the scant evidence that is available to guide the training of the mind.  Many of the recommendations of sport psychologists, such as the need for positive self-talk, are quite plausible in themselves but appear too simplistic to account for the runner’s high; or the transcendental experience of being that mystical zone where power is achieved effortlessly; or the second wind that inexplicably revitalises us when we are struggling to maintain our pace.

However in recent years psychology has been transformed by the advances of neuroscience. This does not mean that describing mental processes in terms of brain processes replaces the value of understanding mental processes in terms of more traditional psychological concepts: concepts such as confidence, motivation and will-power. Mind and brain are two equally valuable sides of one coin.  We now understand a lot about the ways in which the mind can shape the brain just we understand how the brain can shape the mind.  But in contrast to the less tangible tools of traditional psychological science, neuroscience provides tools for objective measurement.  It adds a new dimension to our understanding of the mind, and holds promise of a solid foundation for developing effective ways of training our minds.

But despite the potential power of neuroscience to provide reliable answers to our questions, the sheer complexity of the human brain should warn us to be careful to avoiding invest too much faith in the preliminary findings in our investigations.   With that word of warning, let us begin our exploration of this field (though perhaps ‘forest’ would be a more realistic term) with an illustration of the power of the mind from the 2017 London marathon.

Kenensa Bekele, who had started as one of the pre-race favourites, appeared to be a spent force with 7 miles still to run, and then staged an awe-inspiring resurgence that got him almost within touching distance of the break-away leader Daniel Wanjiru as they ran along the Embankment with less than 2 miles to run.  Surely something powerful happened in his mind to generate Bekele’s dramatic ’second-wind’.   Perhaps equally importantly, what mental force sustained Wanjiru while he maintained the punishing average pace of 4:43 min per mile in the 12th to 16th miles that shattered the morale of the elite field.  Then as Bekele closed the gap along the Embankment, Wanjiru was able to step up the pace again.   This was an epic battle between two runners with superlative physical fitness, but also with immense mental strength.


A re-vitalised Kenenesa Bekele (right) pursuing Daniel Wanjiru along the Embankment in the London marathon, 2017

It is tempting to equate mental strength with the ability to persist despite pain.  However, this simplistic description is misleading. Pain is a protective signal indicating the need to take avoiding action to prevent damage to the body.  But this definition fails to address the fact that the experience of pain depends on many aspects of the situation including past experiences, current circumstances and future expectations.   Developing mental strength is not merely a matter of gritting ones teeth.

What insights might neuroscience offer?    Multiple brain circuits are likely to be involved, most especially the circuits making up the limbic system deep in the brain, and paralimbic cingulate gyrus lying on the brain’s medial surface, and the insula cortex, buried in a deep fold hidden by the temporal lobe (see figure 2). These circuits play key roles emotion, motivation, and in the evaluation of the signals from within the body.  The neurotransmitter, glutamate, mediates long-range communication in these circuits, while various other neurotransmitters play a modulatory role, adjusting the tone and intensity of signal transmission.  Three groups of the modulatory transmitters play an especially important role in the response to stress and pain: catecholamines, endorphins and endocannabinoids.

Insula and Limbic system

Figure 2: The insula and limbic system. The insula lies in a fold of cortex hidden between the medial temporal lobe, containing the amygdala and hippocampus, and the deep grey nuclei, which include the basal ganglia (not shown) and the thalamus.


Catecholamines: noradrenaline and dopamine

The two principle catecholamines in the human brain are noradrenaline and dopamine. Noradrenaline is similar to adrenaline, the hormone that acts rapidly to mobilise the body’s resources when we face any form of acute stress.  In the brain, noradrenaline  mediates arousal by increasing the overall tone of brain activity.   Dopamine plays a specific role in mediating motivation to act.  It mediates the experience of reward for beneficial actions. It plays a key role in the learning of beneficial patterns of activity.   If dopamine is depleted we become listless and lethargic.  Illicit stimulant drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine promote excessive release of dopamine, generating an unnatural surge of energy.


Endorphins have attracted the popular imagination because they are the brain’s natural opiates.  The concentration of endorphins in the blood increase during exercise.  However this observation provides only limited evidence for the hypothesis that endorphins play an appreciable role in the brain during exercise.  First of all, endorphins are large molecules that cannot pass across the barrier that exists between blood and brain and therefore, observed increases in blood levels do not necessarily correspond to brain levels.   Secondly, the two main side effects of opiates: respiratory depression and constipation are not observed during running.    Thus there is little direct evidence that endorphins play a substantial role during running.


Endocannabinoids are produced naturally in the body, and bind to the cannabinoid receptors that bind the cannabinoid chemicals such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)  derived from marijuana. The binding of endocannabinoids to these receptors in diverse tissues of the body produces a wide diversity of effects.  In the lungs, endocannabinoids produce bronchodilation, opening the airways to allow easier flow of air into the lungs.  They also exert anti-inflammatory effects.  Endocannabinoids are fat soluble and can easily pass across the membranes that separate blood from brain.   In the brain they produce a mental state characterised by euphoria, a sense of well-being and distortion of the passage of time.  These effects are similar to the mental experience described as being in ‘the zone’.  Furthermore endocannabinoids interact with the dopaminergic system in a complex manner.  In particular they can enhance the release of dopamine in the basal ganglia thereby enhancing the experience of reward.  It is noteworthy that laboratory animals lacking the gene for the endocannabinoid, anandamide, exhibit profound under-activity.

The central governor revisited

The evidence regarding the role of endocannabiniods during exercise adds intriguing subtlety to Tim Noakes’ concept of the central governor that sets the limit on how hard we can push ourselves during exercise.   This new evidence suggests that the brain does not merely passively accumulate warning signals from the body, and dictate a shutdown when we reach a pre-set threshold at some fixed ‘safe’ percentage of our maximum physical capacity.   Instead the evidence suggests that the decision whether or not to persist with an action depends on a more complex balancing of information.

The role of dopamine in facilitating reward seeking behaviour suggests that the conservative influences that promote the avoidance of harm are balanced by adventurous impulses that encourage us to seek excitement or exhilaration.   Perhaps during our evolutionary past our forebears developed a conservative tendency to discourage them from wasting energy pointlessly when food was hard-earned and metabolic energy was a resource to be husbanded prudently.  On the other hand, the need to acquire skills and keep them well-honed demands engagement in activity for its own sake: prudence should be leavened with playfulness.

When energy resources were at a premium, in ordinary circumstances the threshold at which the balance tipped against continuing activity was likely to have been far below the level at which activity was immediately dangerous.   At times of danger, when our forebears were at risk of becoming prey, or perhaps during a hunt, when they became the predators, the threshold could be re-set.  The sympathetic nervous system, which releases adrenaline to stimulate heart and lungs, and noradrenaline to arouse the brain, provides a rapidly acting mechanism capable of the required rapid mobilisation when danger is acute; in contrast, it appears that the endocannabinoid symptom is well suited to promote sustained increases in work output during a prolonged hunt.   For many of us nowadays, energy resources are plentiful and it is plausible that our brains which had evolved in more stringent circumstances, tend to set the threshold for equipoise between benefit and harm at an unnecessarily low level.

While this reformulation of the central governor hypothesis is speculative, it does offer a plausible explanation of why evolution has provided us with several distinguishable though interacting systems for mobilising our bodies.  Whatever the details of the roles of the various components of these overlapping systems, the crucial point is that to achieve maximum athletic performance, we must not only train to develop our peak physical capacity (for example by maximizing VO2max) we also need to develop the capacity to re-set our naturally conservative threshold for shutting down the system.

It is nonetheless necessary to bear in mind that our brain is designed to shut down the system when the risk of harm is high.  However provided we are in good health, it is likely that there is a large margin between our naturally conservative threshold and the maximum safe threshold. It should be noted that the increase in endocannabinoids during exercise is usually substantially less than the increase that is achieved by smoking forms of marijuana with high THC content, such as ‘skunk’.  We are unlikely to come to harm if we only invoke our own endogenous neuromodulators, .

How can we train  in a way that enhances our capacity to raise a naturally conservative threshold that is inclined to shut down the system prematurely?  This is the question I will address my next post in this series.

The mind and brain of the athlete

January 2, 2018

I am afraid that I did not post much on this site in 2017.

In part that was because of several health problems. One of these was a puzzling connective tissue disorder that remains a puzzle, but is now largely in remission.  Separate from that problem, I had been developing cataracts in both eyes over a period of several years. The problems from glare had reached a point where something needed to be done.  Last winter, when cycling home from work after dark, I was forced to find a homeward route on traffic- free minor roads to avoid potentially lethal dazzling by the lights of oncoming traffic on the main roads. On one occasion I cycled at speed into a 3 foot high barrier. Fortunately the outcome on that occasion was more comical than serious.  But it was a definite indication that it was time for surgery.   The operations went reasonably smoothly, though some minor complications caused temporary concern.  But now these minor problems have settled and I am enjoying a very pleasing improvement in my vision.  This winter I can cycle home from work after dark on my usual home-wards route without problems.

However health issues were only part of the reason for lack of blogging in 2017.  I had a busy and exciting year at work.  This was satisfying but unfortunately left little time for running and for blogging.  This year promises to be similarly busy at work and I hope will be similarly exciting.  Nonetheless, I am gradually re-building my running activities, and it is time to get back to regular blogging.  In this blog I want to set the scene for a series of posts about the mind and brain of the athlete.

I am a clinical academic.  My research is concerned with the function of the human mind and brain, and the mechanism and treatment of mental disorders.  In the 27 years since US President George (HW) Bush declared the Nineteen Nineties to be the decade of the brain, we have not achieved any triumphs as spectacular as landing a man on the moon, but we have nonetheless learned an incredible amount about how the brain works.   We have learned that simplistic answers based on assigning a particular function to one brain region, or to one brain chemical, fail to deal with the complexity of a brain containing 100 billion neurons with over a trillion connections between them.    We have learned instead about the mechanisms that sculpt the extensive networks of brain cells that support mental activity, perception and behaviour; we have discovered that even the adult human brain is remarkably plastic.

We have learned some useful principles that explain how various experiences, including social interactions,  and ‘life-style’ factors, such as exercise and diet impact in understandable way on how our brains work; and we have learned much about how mind and brain can influence the function of the entire body. Nonetheless, the unimaginable complexity of the web of interactions between our genes and our experiences in life ensures that each of us is unique.  In applying what we have learned about the principles of mind/brain/body interactions to ourselves as individuals, we are each an experiment with a sample size of one.

We should therefore avoid simplistic application of lessons based on the experiences of a single individual to ourselves, and be cautious in drawing general conclusions from studies of a small number of individuals.  We should be even more cautious in following a guru whose principles are based on mystical interpretation of idiosyncratic evidence, though paradoxically the role of faith in recovery from illness (where is known as the placebo effect) and in athletic performance (where it can take the form of trust in your coach) cannot be denied.  Understanding the mechanism by which faith can move mountains (or more prosaically, by which confidence breeds success) is indeed one of the most intriguing challenges for modern neuroscience. I hope to return to that question in a later blog.

But just as we need to exercise caution in drawing general conclusions from the experiences of a few individuals, we also need to be aware of the limitations of drawing conclusions from studies of very large numbers of individuals. In large studies, averaging across individuals irons out the wrinkles due to the idiosyncratic behaviour of an individual.  We can have some confidence in drawing general conclusions about how the average person will respond in a particular situation.  However, we cannot confidently apply those conclusions to ourselves: we might prove to be the idiosyncratic individual.

Thus, in dealing with things as complex as the human mind and brain we must be very circumspect in the application of science to our own situation. We need to combine evidence from detailed observation of individuals and from measurement of the average behaviour of large groups, with knowledge based on understanding the underlying mechanisms.  There is a rapidly growing body of evidence about the mechanisms of the two way interaction between brain and athletic activities: the role of the brain in athletic performance on the one hand, and the role of exercise in enhancing the function of the brain on the other.


Brain networks engaged during running: upper left: dorsal attention network; upper right: executive control network, lower left: affect-rewards network;

There is a lot to write about, and I need to get my ideas organized – but to celebrate the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new year, I will get the ball rolling by pointing to an article that will be published next week in the journal Neuropsychologia (though it has been available on-line since Nov 2017).

In this paper Ashna Samani and Mathew Heath from the School of Kinesiology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience at University of Western Ontario report that in a group of healthy young adults, a single 10 minute bout of moderate-to-vigorous intensity cycling on a bicycle ergometer produced a 10%  decrease in reaction time during the anti-saccade trials in an anti-saccade task.  This might seem like a rather arcane laboratory finding of uncertain relevance to everyday like. The anti-saccade task requires looking to the left when an attention demanding visual stimulus suddenly appears in your right visual field, and conversely, looking to the right when the stimulus appears on the left.   This task in itself does not correspond closely to anything we are commonly required to do in everyday life.  However, in fact it is a rather good marker for the function of the brain circuit that acts to inhibit unwanted distractions that get in the way achieving our goals.  Attentional focus is indeed a pre-requisite for effective performance in many domains of every-day activity.  At some point in the future, I will return to the specific role of this inhibitory control circuit within the larger topic of the brain control mechanisms that govern athletic performance, though there are many other topics to cover before then.  I am looking forward to getting started in a more organised manner soon.

Threshold training: integrating mind and body

February 5, 2017

There is little doubt that ability to minimise acid accumulation in muscle and blood while running at race pace is a major determinant of performance at distances from 5K to marathon.  However the question of how best to train to achieve this ability is less clear.

This ability depends on several different physiological capacities. On the one hand, there are capacities such as cardiac stroke volume, capillary supply to muscles, and aerobic enzymes in the mitochondria that contribute to the overall capacity to generate energy aerobically, and thereby minimise production of lactic acid.  On the other hand are the physiological capacities that determine the ability to transport and utilise lactic acid. These include the transport molecules located in cellular membranes that transport lactic acid out of the fibres, especially type 2 fibres, where it is generated.  After transport out of type 2 fibres it can be taken up into type 1 fibres with the same muscle where it can be used as fuel, or carried via the blood to other organs such as the heart where it can be also used as fuel, or to the liver, where it can be converted by the process of gluconeogenesis into glucose and thence stored as glycogen.   All of these physiological capacities contribute to the ability to minimise lactic acid accumulation at race pace and all can be trained, to at least some extent,  by sustained running at threshold pace.


Specificity v Variety

Many coaches and athletes, including renowned coach Jack Daniels, have argued that the optimum form of training to minimise lactic acid accumulation at race pace is threshold training (i.e. sustained running at a pace in the vicinity of the threshold at which lactic acid begins to accumulate rapidly) or cruise interval sessions, in which epochs of moderate duration at a pace a little above lactate threshold alternate with recovery epochs at a lower pace to allow some dissipation of the acidity.  Threshold training is consistent with the principle of specificity: namely that the most efficient way to enhance the ability to sustain race pace is to train at a pace near to race pace.

However, there are several reasons to question the principle of specificity  Perhaps most important is the likelihood that if you rely on running near threshold pace as the main way to enhance this ability, your body will make use the physiological capacities that are already well developed to achieve the target pace during training sessions.    If some of the required physiological capacities are less well developed, it might be more efficient to spend time training is a manner that challenges those less developed physiological capacities.  For example, if ability to transport and utilize lactic acid is relatively weak, high intensity intervals will generate large surges of lactic acid and will challenge the mechanism for transporting and utilizing lactic acid.

As discussed in a recent post, many different types of training session, ranging from long runs at a moderate aerobic pace; threshold runs; to high intensity intervals can help develop the various physiological capacities required to minimise acid accumulation while running at race pace.  In general, it is likely to be best to employ a varied training program that utilises all of these types of training to promote that all of the required physiological capacities.  The proportion of the different types of training should be adjusted according to the athlete’s specific needs and also to the goals of the phase of training. During base building, when a substantial volume of training is required to build overall resilience while also building a large aerobic capacity, it is best to place the focus on lower intensity running to avoid accumulation of excessive stress. Nonetheless, some more intense training should be included in the phase, in part because it is an efficient way to develop aerobic capacity (as demonstrated by the many studies of high intensity interval training) and also because a judicious build-up of intensity develops the resilience of tissues to cope with high intensity in the pre-competition and competitive seasons.

To minimise risk of injury, there should be a gradual build of the intensity of the sessions training during base-building; intense training should generally be avoided when tired; and within any intense session, thorough warm up is crucial.  As discussed in my recent blog post, there are some grounds for proposing that risk of injury might actually be higher during sustained running at threshold pace than during more intense interval sessions provided you take adequate precautions to minimise risk of injury.  Nonetheless, there is little doubt that threshold sessions have an important part to play in the training of a distance runner. But rather than regarding such sessions as the universal answer to the question of what session to do to enhance the ability to sustain race pace, it is more sensible to utilise these sessions to achieve more specific goals.

One of the truly specific roles of the threshold session is training the body to integrate all of the physiological capacities required for distance racing.   The human body is a multi-organ system in which each individual organ, especially heart, lungs, muscles and brain, but also other organs such as liver and adrenal glands, plays a specific role in distance running performance.  Threshold training promotes the required integration of this diverse orchestra of organs.  For the most part, this integration occurs unconsciously.  We do not need to think about it.  This truly amazing integration of different physiological processes occurring in different organs is achieved by an intricate network of nerves, hormones and other signalling molecules, without the need for conscious intervention.  Indeed attempts to intervene consciously often led to less efficient integration, as is indicated by the finding that in some instances, runner who focus on internal processes such as breathing run less efficiently than runners who focus on things in the external world.

Brain and mind

The brain via its role as the central processing unit of the nervous system and also as a high level regulator of the endocrine system, plays a cardinal role in this integration.  For the most part, the brain carries out its integrating role non-consciously, but we would be missing out on two of the very valuable features of threshold training if we ignored its value in training conscious brain processes.

The first of these is the development of the confidence that butresses the self-talk that is sometimes necessary to overcome a self–defeating internal dialogue during a hard race.   In general I try to avoid doing demanding threshold sessions when I am tired or stressed because of the risk of injury at such times, but sometimes a scheduled hard session cannot reasonably be deferred.  This is the time to make a virtue of necessity and use the session as an opportunity to prove to your doubting mind that you really are capable of pushing through pain.  In fact quite often it is helpful to reframe the word ‘pain’ in such circumstance, because what our mind might tend to interpret as pain during a threshold session on a stressful day should more accurately be described as a level of effort that we are not confident that we can sustain for more than another few minutes.  Almost invariably we can sustain this level of effort for longer.  Demonstrating this provides evidence to buttress the self-talk we might require in a subsequent occasion in a hard race.

In my view, even more important than the development of mental strength to deal with hard races is the opportunity that threshold training offers to facilitate the ability to get into that almost magical state known as the zone.  When we are in the zone running seems almost effortless.  We feel exhilarated, in control, and above all, confident.  The zone is a state of consciousness, but it is not a state that we can easily adopt consciously.  When it occurs it can feel like a state of grace endowed upon us by something outside of ourselves.  Nonetheless we can facilitate it.  Threshold running can provide great opportunities for developing the ability to facilitate it.

In my younger days, for several years I lived in a house facing the beach in Brighton, a sea-side suburb of my home town, Adelaide.  My favourite Sunday morning run took me from sea level to the summit of Mount Lofty, the highest point in the Adelaide Hills.  I ran up the gorge of Sturt Creek and through Belair National Part to the summit.  My return journey started with a steep descent of Waterfall Gully, followed by an almost level run on pavement via the eastern and southern suburbs of the city, back to my sea-side home. The total journey was around 25 miles.  It was my version of the run that Lydiard’s athletes did regularly on Sunday morning in the Waitakere Hills above Auckland, though perhaps a little more demanding in both terrain and distance.   My ascent of more than 2000 feet was often quite a slog, but the descent though Waterfall Gully was exciting.


Waterfall Gully (photo:

Nowadays there is a well-made walking path from the lowest waterfall to the summit, but in those days, almost fifty years ago, the gully was wild.  In many places the most feasible route involved hopping from rock to rock in the bed of the stream itself.   On a good day, when my legs felt strong and sure as I leapt nimbly from rock to rock, I emerged onto the road below the lowest waterfall thoroughly exhilarated.  On such days, I ran a large portion of the remaining distance at a fast tempo, around 10K race pace, aided by the slight descent with average slope of about 1% to sea level.  Even now, decades later, I have a clear memory of the sense of power and confidence as I ran.   Around that time I was able to recreate the same sensation of power and confidence during several races. Those races are among the most cherished memories of my running career.

Even in a polarised training program that places the main emphasis on a high volume of relatively  low intensity training with a small amount of high intensity training, there is a place for threshold training, perhaps around 10% of total training.    Those sessions have a crucial role to play in training the body to integrate the diverse physiological capacities required for distance running, and in particular, provide a valuable opportunity for training the brain to achieve integration of mind and body.

The dream of capturing the force of gravity for forward propulsion: re-incarnations of Pose

November 15, 2015

The beguiling dream of capturing the force of gravity to assist forward motion when running has re-emerged in recent months.  There have been two recent re-incarnations of the dream.  Both attempt to overcome the problems of the Pose technique that had attracted enthusiastic followers but also critical analysis in the past decade.   I discussed the benefits and problems of Pose in some detail on this site five years ago.   The more recent versions avoid the unrealistic claim implicit in the Pose mantra ‘Pose, Fall, Pull’ that the Centre of Mass (COM) actually falls between mid-stance and lift-off from stance.  This claim is simply contrary the evidence that the COM rises after mid-stance.  This rise can easily be observed in video recordings of elite and recreational runners.   Both of the recent versions of the theory accept this.

Nonetheless in common with Pose, the recent versions are both based on the argument  that when the COM is ahead of the point of support in late stance, there is a torque acting on the body that tends to produce head-forwards and downwards  rotation.  Unfortunately neither of the new versions adequately addresses the fact than an oppositely direct torque acts prior to mid-stance, and both under-estimate the importance of the push that is required to overcome the braking that occurred during early stance and to get airborne.

Although both theories are flawed and neither provides grounds for claiming that gravity provides energy for forward propulsion, both provide a pointer to  cues that might perhaps help a runner improve efficiency and decrease risk of injury.   It is therefore potentially worthwhile to examine them in greater detail. However, if you are more interested in the practical conclusions than the detail, you can skip to the final section

Kanstad’s Model

Svein Kanstad a Norwegian coach has teamed up with an academic physiologist, Aulikki Kononoff, from University of Kuitpo in Finland to test and publish a creative new version of the hypothesis that gravitational torque acting after mid- stance can drive horizontal motion.  As in the theory of Pose, they argue that due to the forward inclination of the body after mid-stance, there is a component of gravity that drives a head forward and down rotation, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Forces acting after Mid-Stance. GRF = Ground Reaction Force. Force C1 directed along the line of action of GRF propels the body forward and upward. Force C2, at right angle to GRF produces a torque which promotes head-forwards rotation around the point of support

Figure 1. Forces acting after Mid-Stance. vGRF = vertical Ground Reaction Force; hGRF= horizontal Ground Reaction Force.  Force C1 directed along the line of action of total GRF propels the body forward and upward. Force C2, at right angle to GRF produces a torque which promotes head-forwards rotation around the point of support.  Illustrative numerical values are based on the model I presented on this site in 2012

Kanstad’s theory is somewhat more sophisticated than Pose theory, insofar as he recognises that the leg extends during late stance so that there is no net fall of the centre of mass after mid-stance. Because of the leg extension, the situation is a little more complex than portrayed in figure 2 of their paper, which depicts a body rotating about a fixed point of support, with fixed length from point of support to COM.  In reality, the distance from point of support to COM increases as the leg extends, thereby changing the moment of inertias (i.e. the body’s resistance to rotation) and furthermore, the point of support moves forwards in late stance.  Nonetheless as discussed in the extensive comments section of my article ‘Running: a Dance with the Devil’, computation based on a reasonably realistic model confirms that angular rotation in a head-forwards direction does occur after mid-stance.

Kanstad and Kononoff accept that both energy and angular momentum must be conserved, in accord with the laws of physics.  They argue that the angular momentum imparted in late stance is preserved during the airborne phase and then converted to forward linear motion at the next footfall, analogous to the manner in top-spin imparted to a tennis ball causes the ball to accelerate forwards as it rebounds off the ground.

In other words, instead of simply claiming that gravitational energy is captured by falling after mid-stance, they argue that gravity generates angular momentum as the body rises, and the associated head-forwards rotation of the body is converted to forward linear motion at the next footfall.

There are two flaws in their argument.   First of all, while they state that the rotational motion imparted after mid-stance might provide propulsive power at the next footfall, they do not address the question of where the energy associated with this rotation comes from.  It has certainly not been provided by gravity because the body actually rises after mid-stance.  Gravity extracts kinetic energy from the body during this phase. When averaged over the entire gait cycle, the net contribution from gravity is zero.

The energy associated with the rotation imparted during late stance comes largely from a redistribution of the kinetic energy existing at mid-stance.   A small fraction of the energy associated with forward motion of the body is transferred to the rotation.   Rotation acts as a temporary store of energy derived from an energy source other than gravity.

With regard to determining the energy requirement of running, the re-redistribution of energy within the three interchangeable energy pools (kinetic, gravitational and elastic) does not result in any net increase in total energy over the gait cycle.  There is however a loss of energy from these three pools due to several processes that dissipate energy.  There is loss due to friction within the tissues of the body; loss due to air resistance; loss to due to failure to capture all of impact energy at footfall and loss of energy due to the braking that occurs during early stance.   When running at constant speed, these losses are made-up by active contraction of muscles that consumes metabolic energy.  Any suggestion that rotational energy derived from gravity might be a source of propulsive power is false.   Muscle contraction must meet the costs, and the key issue in maximizing efficiency of running is minimising the losses.

Kanstad and Kononoff recommend that the runner should land with the foot as nearly under the COM as possible.  They point out that this would decrease the amount of head-backwards rotation that might otherwise detract from the proposed (but illusionary) advantage of head forwards rotation.   However, the second flaw in their argument is a serious under-estimate of the amount by which foot must be ahead of the COM at footfall.

The laws of physics demand that the foot must be placed appreciably ahead of the COM.  Apart from the instant when the COM is directly above the point of support at mid-stance, the COM must be either before or behind the point of support throughout stance.  The line from COM to point of support is angled either  forwards when COM is behind the support producing a braking effect, or backwards when the COM is ahead of the point of support, producing forward and upwards acceleration (as shown in Figure 1).  If there is no net change in pace over the gait cycle, the forward acceleration generated by the push when the COM is ahead of the point of support must be equal to the deceleration due to braking (if we ignore the effect of air resistance).

It would only be possible to abolish braking while landing with the foot under the COM if the duration on stance was zero, but this would require an infinite vertical ground reaction force. If there is to be no net generation of momentum in an vertical direction averaged over the gait cycle, the upwards impulse generated by upwards ground reaction force (GRF)  during stance must equal the body weight which acts downwards over the entire gait cycle.   Thus the average value of vertical GRF is body weight divided by proportion of the gait cycle on stance and this approaches infinity as duration on stance approaches zero.  Therefore the foot must be on stance for an appreciable time.  While on stance there must be appreciable but equal amounts of acceleration and deceleration.  The deceleration occurs when the point of support is ahead of  the COM between footfall and mid-stance.  Therefore, the foot must land an appreciable distance in front of the COM.

Where should the foot land?

Although the issue of rotation is of trivial importance, the question of where the foot lands is actually of vital importance because it determines braking costs.  It therefore warrants careful consideration.  While the forward acceleration generated when the COM is ahead of the point of support must equal the deceleration occurring when the COM is behind, the proportion of stance time spent with the COM ahead of the point of support is not necessarily equal to the proportion when COM is behind the point of support, because the cumulative effect of acceleration or deceleration are determined by both duration and magnitude of the force. The force tends to be greater in early stance because there is substantial tension in the leg at footfall to prevent the knee buckling.  Force plate data confirms the rapid rise in ground reaction force immediately after footfall.  As a result, the duration between footfall and mid-stance is less than that between mid-stance and lift off, even though the net transfer of linear momentum over the gait cycle is zero when running at a steady pace.

Observation confirms these theoretical predictions. For example Cavagna and colleagues reported measurements of the braking time and the acceleration time during stance in sample of 10 runners at various speeds.  At 10 Km/hour (2.8 m/sec) the average braking time was 0.125 sec and the acceleration time was .145 sec.  From these numbers it can easily be shown that on average the COM advanced 35 cm from footfall to mid-stance (i.e. the COM was approximately 35 cm  behind the point of support at footfall) and at lift-off it was  40 cm ahead of the point of support. (Note that to be precise we need to know how much the point of support moved forwards during stance but allowing a small movement of the point of support would make only a small change in these estimates of distance travelled during braking and acceleration.)

Cavagna  also reported that the difference between braking time and acceleration time diminished as speed increased.  This is almost certainly because at greater speed it is necessary to exert a stronger push against the ground after mid-stance, thereby reducing the difference between forces exerted during braking and acceleration phases.  Cavagna reported that braking time and acceleration time were equal at paces above 15Km/hour.    At 15Km/hour (4.15 m/sec) braking time and acceleration time were both 0.1sec. Thus the COM advanced by 41.5 cm in each half of the stance period.

However Cavagna provided no indication of the competence of these runners.    His runners did not necessarily achieve optimal placement of the foot. Would they have been more efficient if the foot had landed less far in front of the COM leading to a shorter time on stance and less braking?

The key question is: what is the optimum time on stance? It is necessary to bear in mind that while less time on stance decreases braking costs, the need for a relatively longer airborne time demands a more powerful push, creating not only greater stress on the legs but also greater loss of energy at impact, as only about 50% of impact energy can be captured as elastic energy, so an extremely short time on stance is likely to be inefficient.

In the study of Weyand, in which nine of the 10 runners studied were competitive athletes, all except one of the 10 spent appreciably less time on stance, at comparable paces, than the average runner in the study by Cavagna.  As they approached their top speed, all of Weyand’s runners decreased time on stance towards a limit of 0.1 sec (total for both acceleration and deceleration).   It is possible that 0.1 sec on stance is the optimum duration for efficient capture of impact energy as elastic energy.

The shorter stance times achieved by the runners studied by Weyand suggest that on average Cavagna’s runners spent too long on stance for optimum efficiency.  Possibly they simply lacked the power to get airborne, but it is also possible that a mental focus on landing with the foot more nearly under the body might have helped reduce stance time.  While the recommendation of Kanstad and Kononoff  (and many other coaches) to land with the foot as nearly under the COM as possible is advice to aim for something impossible, it is nonetheless is likely to be a useful cue for runners who tend to spend too long on stance.

The Virtual Pivot Point Model

The second these recent versions of the ‘gravitational torque’ theory  is the Virtual Pivot Point (VPP) model described by Mick Wilson in a post on 15th Oct 2015. on Lee Saxby’s  ‘Born To Run’ web- site.   Mick Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Northumbria University

A key feature of the VPP model is that the tension in the muscles of the trunk, especially the hip extensors and flexors is adjusted to ensure that the ground reaction force is directed along a line joining the point of contact of foot with the ground to a fixed point (the VPP) high in the runners torso (Figure 2).   During early stance, when the point of support is ahead of the VPP the direction of action of GRF is upwards and backward.  The torso is tilted forwards a little due to the momentum of the torso when the forward movement of the foot is arrested. The hip extensors act to prevent buckling at the hip.  By late stance the direction of action of GRF is upwards and forwards.  The torso now tends to incline backwards relative to the thigh and the hip flexors contract to resist this. The action of hip extensors in early stance and flexors in late stance stabilises the body, preventing it buckling at the hip, and keeping it upright.  It is reasonable to propose that these actions of hip extensors and flexors play a cardinal role in keeping the body upright.

Figure 2. The Virtual Pivot Point Model. The combination of gravity and GRF results in a force acting along the line of GRF and a component at right angles to GRF which exerts a rotational effect. VPP = Virtual pivot point; COM = Centre of Mass; GRF = Ground Reaction Force. In early stance, the force aligned with GRF arrests the descent of the body and also has a braking effect, while the ‘rotational’ component at right angles to GRF creates a head-backwards rotation. In late stance, the force aligned with GRF propels the body upwards and forwards, while the ‘rotational’ component at right angles to GRF creates a head-forwards rotation.

Figure 2. The Virtual Pivot Point Model. The combination of gravity and GRF results in a force acting along the line of GRF and a component at right angles to GRF which exerts a rotational effect. VPP = Virtual pivot point; COM = Centre of Mass; GRF = Ground Reaction Force.
In early stance, the force aligned with GRF arrests the descent of the body and also has a braking effect, while the ‘rotational’ component at right angles to GRF creates a head-backwards rotation.
In late stance, the force aligned with GRF propels the body upwards and forwards, while the ‘rotational’ component at right angles to GRF creates a head-forwards rotation.

Furthermore, the variation of inclination of torso relative to hips from a slight forward lean in early stances results in the direction of action of GRF passing forwards of the COM to pass through the VPP, in early stance, while it passes behind the COM in late stance to the same pivot point in upper torso in late stance.  Although in the VPP model the line of action of GRF does not pass through the COM (as was assumed by Kanstad and Kononoff), the direction of action of GRF is nonetheless upwards and forwards in late stance.  As in the Kanstad model (and also in the Pose model) there is a torque that tends to produce acceleration in ahead forward and down direction during later stance.  Similarly, an oppositely directed rotation will be generated when the COM is behind the points of support in early stance. The main difference between the models is that at any particular point in time after mid-stance, the inclination of GRF is a little less forwards that would be the case in the Kanstad and Pose models.

Unlike Kanstad, Wilson makes no attempt to explain how this rotation might be converted to forward motion.  Furthermore, Wilson does not specifically claim that the head forward rotation induced after mid-stances exceeds the head-backward rotation induced before mid-stance.   However these limitations do not matter, because, as in the Kanstad model, gravity can provide no additional energy while the COM rises after mid-stance.  The energy associated with any rotation generated by gravitational torque after mid-stance is largely derived by redistribution of the energy in the pool of kinetic and elastic energy existing at mid-stance.  There is one slight difference.   In the VPP model, the direction of action of GRF is long a line that passes behind the COM.  If this is in fact the case, the active contraction of muscles responsible for generating GRF will contribute directly to the energy associated with rotation.     But gravity does not contribute.

Another misleading feature of Wilson’s account of the VPP model is his claim that the forwards and upwards GRF is generated purely by elastic recoil, so that an active push is not necessary.  This could only be the case if the kinetic energy associated with downward movement at footfall could be captured as elastic energy and subsequently released with 100% efficiency.  In fact, only about 50% of the kinetic energy of downwards motion at footfall can be recovered.  Although Wilson acknowledges the fact that the COM rises after mid-stance, he actually appears to deny that any active muscle contraction is required to generate GRF.  Thus he very seriously underestimates the work that must be done when running.  But could this under-estimate be a virtue? This question leads us to the issue of what useful lessons might be learned from these two recent versions of the gravitational torque theory.

What useful practical lessons might be learned?

Why does the claim that gravity provides forward propulsion continue to attract attention?  Many recreational athletes appear to benefit from the mental image created by the notion that gravity provides forward propulsion.  As mentioned in my discussion of the theory of Kanstad and Knononoff, at least part of the benefit comes from the encouragement to land as nearly under the COM as possible.  Although impossible to achieve, this advice discourages over-striding and tends to promote a short time on stance.   However, the advice to land nearly under the COM is not specific to theories claiming that gravity provides forward propulsion.

In a more subtle way, the illusion that gravity might provide propulsive power tends to discourage a conscious focus on pushing against the ground.   A short time on stance is only possible if there is a strong push, but perhaps paradoxically, for most athletes, conscious focus on the push is counter-productive.   It is likely to lead to delay on stance – the opposite of what is required.  Effective push-off from stance requires precise timing.   For most runners, this precision is best achieved automatically.   A cue that minimises potentially harmful conscious interference with the precision of  timing is likely to be beneficial.

While a cue that promotes an automatic rapid lift off from stance is likely to be beneficial, I would prefer to employ a cue that is based on sound science rather than one based on illusionary theory.   One consequence of spending a short time on stance is a relatively long airborne time associated with a relatively large amount of flexion and hip and knee of the swinging leg.   I find that conscious focus on the swing rather than the push can be the most effective way to minimise harmful conscious interference with the precision of timing of the push.

The focus on an upward and forward swing of the thigh should be combined with a focus on a sharp swing of the arm in a downwards and backward direction.  Our brains are wired to produce coordinated oppositely directed movements of the leg and arm.  Because the brain can apply more finely tuned control of our arms and hands than to our legs and feet, more precise control can be achieved by placing the main focus on the arm swing.  Precision in timing of the flexion of the hip is necessary to ensure that the swing does not lead to over-striding .

The required mental image of the swing is cultivated by the swing drill. However the swing drill does not involve getting airborne and hence does not help develop the association of a conscious swing with a forceful non-conscious push of the stance leg.   For this, I find the Pose Change of Support (CoS) drill is effective.   This drill entails alternating shift of stance from one leg to the other without forward motion.  The mental focus is on a precise flexion of knee and hip of the ‘swing’ leg as it lifts off from stance; not on driving the other leg downwards.

Although CoS is a Pose drill, you do not have to invest faith in the claim that gravity provides forward propulsion to benefit from it. In fact CoS is similar to the major form of the ‘Hundred Up’ drill developed by WG George, the world’s fastest miler in the nineteenth century.   While similar to Pose CoS, the ‘Hundred Up’ places emphasis on flexion of the hip to bring the knee to the level of the hip. This makes the drill quite effortful, but I do not think it is essential to lift the knee to hip height.  The greatest focus should be on precise timing.  George did place emphasis on the well-controlled swing of the arms, which helps promote precise timing.  I recommend raising the arm somewhat higher and closer to the chest during the forward arm swing than is depicted in George’s model (Figure 3) as I believe bringing the arm close to the chest promotes better control of the swinging leg and minimises risk of over-striding.

Figure 3: Illustration from

Figure 3: By courtesy of

In conclusion, in my opinion Pose and its more recent re-incarnations encourage a helpful focus on an effective swing without over-striding, while minimising the risk of harmful conscious interference in the essential push.  I do not consider that it is necessary to invest faith in an illusory horizontal propulsive effect of gravity in order to achieve this helpful focus on the swing.

How much does this matter during every day running? For an athlete who suffers repeated injury, careful analysis of running form to identify possible errors is crucial and conscious focus on cues promoting good style is an essential part of correcting errors.   Even when not dealing with injury, I think it is worthwhile to consciously attend to form during at least a small portion of each training session.  During long races, conscious focus on a precise and firm downwards and backwards swing of the arm at lift-off from stance can play an important part in preventing a loss of power when tiredness builds up. I recommend including a short period of the CoS drill, together with conscious attention to arm action, in the warm-up to all training sessions.

Cortisol and the stress response

June 2, 2014

Cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland, plays a key role in mobilizing the body’s resources to cope with stressful challenges, including the challenge of running. Among its many roles is the regulation of blood glucose. When demands are high, cortisol acts to conserve glucose for the brain by minimizing uptake of glucose into other tissues and by promoting the production of glucose in the liver.   Because healing is not a priority when dealing with an acute challenge, cortisol suppresses inflammation and the immune system. In a healthy person, cortisol levels return to normal over a time scale of 30-60 minutes after the stress resolves. However if the transient surge of cortisol required to deal with acute stress is not switched off, cortisol inhibits healing by suppressing the formation of collagen while promoting breakdown of protein, thereby damaging many tissues of the body.

Recent evidence from a study by Skoluda and colleagues indicates that endurance athletes tend to have persistently high levels of cortisol. This increases in proportion to training volume. Thus the regulation of cortisol is potentially of great importance not only for ensuring that an athlete obtains benefits from training, but also for long term health.

The relationship between cortisol and inflammation is complex. In the short term cortisol suppresses inflammation, but sustained elevation of cortisol can lead to a suppression of the receptors that mediate the effects of cortisol on body tissues, and consequently, sustained elevation of cortisol can actually promote chronic inflammation which in turn damages tissues by laying down non-functional fibrous tissue as described in my recent post.

Although excessive cortisol is harmful, reduced ability to generate cortisol when required can be even more harmful. Addison’s disease, a rare condition in which the adrenal gland is damaged by autoimmune attack, is characterised by non-specific symptoms such as weakness and fatigue, and can be result in fatal inability to respond to stress. There is some evidence that sustained stress can reduce the capacity of the adrenal glands to produce cortisol when required, though the concept of adrenal fatigue, popularized by some alternative-medicine practitioners, remains an ill-defined entity.

Cortisol production is regulated by a feedback mechanism that takes account of information about the overall metabolic state of the body. This feedback system acts via the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). The release of cortisol from the adrenal glands is stimulated by a hormone, ACTH, that is produced in the pituitary gland. The release of ACTH is in turn stimulated by a hormone, corticotrophin releasing factor, that is secreted by the hypothalamus. Information about the state of the body is funnelled via the amygdala and hippocampus in the temporal lobe of the brain, to the hypothalamus. This complex feedback system allows a diverse array of neural and hormonal signals to control cortisol release in a way that balances the catabolic effects of cortisol, promoting tissues breakdown, with the anabolic effects of other hormones, such as DHEA (a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands) and growth hormone, produced in the pituitary gland, that play a role in promoting the repair and strengthening of damaged tissues.  Thus many complex, interacting processes are involved in ensuring the optimal balance between mobilising body resources to deal with acute challenge and subsequent healing. Factors such as levels of ongoing stress from life circumstances and age contribute to the balance.

 Strategies for optimising the stress response

In summary, an athlete requires healthy adrenal glands which can generate enough cortisol to meet the challenge of stress but then to switch off cortisol production to promote recovery. The simple principle is that for optimum training benefit and long term health, we need to avoid excessive stress. However, the best way of achieving this is likely to determined by individual’s genes and life circumstances. While each individual has to find what works for him or her, there are several issues likely to be relevant to most athletes.

1)      Avoiding over-training. As demonstrated by Skoluda, the sustained excess of cortisol is greater in those who train more. Both volume and intensity matter though it is noteworthy that prolonged duration of exercise promotes increase in cortisol, whereas high intensity promotes hormones such as growth hormone and anabolic steroid hormones that promote strengthening of tissues. Consistent with this, some evidence indicates that the over-training syndrome is more strongly linked to high volume training than to high intensity training.

2)      Recovery from training and racing is crucial.   Not only does inadequate recovery increase the risk of persisting inflammation (as discussed in my previous post) but it impedes the transition from the cortisol induced catabolic state to the anabolic state required to rebuild and strengthen body tissues. This raises the major question of how best to determine if recovery is adequate. Subjective indices such as the Profile of Mood States, and autonomic measures such as resting heart rate and heart rate variability provide a guide, but no single test provides the full answer.  This is an issue I will return to again in the near future.

3)      Resistance training promotes the release of anabolic hormones and has many other beneficial effects on metabolism including increased sensitively to insulin. The major metabolic benefits of resistance training can be achieved by two 15 minute sessions per week.

4)      Life-stress and relaxation. Many of us have relatively limited control over the pressures of work and other responsibilities. However the way we react to these pressures is largely under our own control. Sleep plays a cardinal role. During sleep, cortisol levels fall while release of growth hormone is promoted. During our waking hours we can do a great deal to minimise stress. In recent years, the practice of Mindfulness has been proven to be effective in treating clinical disorders including anxiety and depression. It is a technique derived from Eastern meditative practices in which the aim is cultivation of a calm, non-judgmental awareness of one’s present physical and mental state.   Accumulating evidence indicates that this mental state is the optimum state for individuals such as US Navy Seals for whom remaining calm and focussed under intense pressure is crucial. Some studies show that Mindfulness lowers cortisol levels, while other studies have found evidence of beneficial reduction in stress and improved sleep but did not observe significant reduction of cortisol levels. Mindfulness is a knack that can be acquired by practice. Although the evidence for its effectiveness is still preliminary, my own experience is that it is effective in lowering mental and physical tension. I practice it at any time when I feel pressure is building, and also experiment with employing it while running to promote a constructive focussed mental state.

5)      Fuelling before and during training is a debateable topic. Some evidence indicates that training in a fasting state leads to improved endurance performance, perhaps mediated by the development of increased capacity to utilise fat as fuel, but overall the studies have yielded mixed results, as I have discussed in a previous post. I suspect this is because training in a fasted state also promotes increased cortisol levels that might be harmful. I have made appreciable gains in fitness in the past following training in a fasted state, but suffered one of the few serious muscle strains I have ever experienced after three weeks of high volume training predominantly in a fasted state.   This is mere anecdote, but when combined with the mixed evidence from scientific studies, leads me to conclude that training in a fasted state should be done cautiously, ensuring that overall stress levels are not excessive.

6)      Long term nutrition.  In light of the mechanism by which the hypothalamo-pituitary axis (HPA) adjusts cortisol levels in order to maintain metabolic homeostasis, it would be expected that a diet that promotes healthy energy metabolism would also be expected to promote healthy regulation of cortisol. As discussed in several of my recent posts, there is growing evidence that a Mediterranean diet promotes healthy metabolism. In accord with this, the available evidence indicates that a Mediterranean diet does promote healthy regulation of cortisol. For example a study of Spanish women found that those who chose a dietary pattern closer to the Mediterranean diet, with high mono-unsaturated fatty acid intake, showed more stable regulation of cortisol by the HPA.


The evidence obtaind by Skoluda indicating that endurance athletes suffer sustained elevation of cortisol suggests that taking steps to maintain healthy regulation of cortisol is likely to result not only in a better response to endurance training but also in better long term health. This might be achieved by avoidance of over-training, ensuing good recovery, incorporation of some resistance training into the schedule and a number of life-style adaptations including adequate sleep, stress reduction via strategies such as Mindfulness, and a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

Wilson Kipsang and Memories of Running in the Zone

April 26, 2012

My recent posts have dealt with two linked themes.  On the one hand I have speculated about ‘natural running’ characterised by harmonisation of a kinesthetic sense of where one’s limbs are in space, with well-practised movements dictated by the laws of physics and biomechanics.   On the other hand I have returned to my recurrent theme of the apparent conflict between the fact that running requires the generation of large forces yet conscious effort is often counter-productive.  The muscular actions that are required for getting airborne and repositioning the swing leg are largely automatic, and best left to the non-conscious control system in our brain.  Attempts to impose conscious control create a risk of mistimed or excessive force that is not only inefficient but also risks injury.  If we are to perform at peak level, the challenge is to achieve a conscious overview of the non-conscious control system that harmonises our rational planning with automatic action.

There is indeed a well known mental state in which this is possible – the elusive mental state popularly known as the Zone.  It is a state with four principal characteristics: complete focus; harmony within oneself; total confidence and the experience that performance is virtually effortless. It is the state most clearly seen in top-level tennis. It is the state that allows a player to spring sideways with racquet outstretched to make a cross court shot that skims a few centimetres above the net and raises a cloud of chalk dust from the line in the far corner of the court.  There is no way that such precision of motor control could be achieved by conscious control.  When a player in is in this frame of mind he simply knows he going to win.

Running in the Zone

Running in the Zone is less dramatic but the feeling can be as powerful.  I was reminded of this by Wilson Kipsang’s seemingly effortless victory in the London marathon a few days ago.  Though actually it was his performance in Frankfurt last October that evoked more powerful memories for me.  I watched this video clip of the final two Km of that run in which he came within a few seconds of the world record, set only a few months earlier in Berlin by his countryman, Patrick Makau.  Watching Kipsang’s lithe and powerful legs while I listened to the German commentator brought back a personal memory of an event over forty years previously.   The magic was enhanced by my limited understanding of German: good enough only to allow me to appreciate that the excited yet controlled voice was reeling off the passing kilometres, and the minutes and seconds that indicated Kipsang’s progress towards Makau’s world record time of 2:03:38.  But my lack of full appreciation of the commentator’s words heightened my awareness of the power and elegance of Kipsang’s gait. To my eyes, he was the archetypical illustration of a runner in the Zone.  As in London, where he missed the count-down for the London course record by a few seconds, in Frankfurt, he missed the world record by a similar amount despite the shower of tickertape and flashing lights as he crossed the finish line.

Small town glory

For me, it evoked a memory of much humbler surroundings.  As I have mentioned before, in my younger days I could reasonably have been described as a sub-elite marathon runner, but as a track athlete I was an ‘also-ran’ with limited talent, prepared to run any event, from 400m hurdles to 3000m steeplechase or 5000m, as required to earn points for my club.

I won less than a dozen races in my entire track career.  The most memorable was a mid-week evening 10,000m on the old Adelaide Harriers cinders track.  As described in a previous post, it was a low key meeting but offered one of the few track 10,000 races in the local athletic calendar. I arrived straight from work only just in time to line up at the start, without even time for a warm-up.  From the gun I was running confidently and harmoniously.   Within a few laps I was calmly confident that I would win – though in fact I had never previously run a 10,000m on the track and had no realistic knowledge of what lay ahead of me.  I was simply running effortlessly with all-embracing focus, complete harmony within myself and with calm confidence.  As the laps slipped by, I continued to run harmoniously and virtually effortlessly. Even the sprint over the final 300m felt more like a celebration than a challenge. I have no record of my time.  It remains my lifetime best as I have never had the opportunity to race 10,000m on the track since, but the memory of the race matters more than a record of the time.

The following Saturday, I lined-up for the 5000m in the local interclub series.  The field included most of the top 5000m runners in South Australia at that time, but that mattered little to me. My goal was to win points for my D grade club and for this my placing among the A grade competitors mattered little.  Nonetheless, some of the aura of the previous Wednesday night still cling to me, and as the leaders jockeyed for position in the home straight with a little over one lap to go, I was in fifth place, on the shoulder of the current state 5000m champion.  Although the pace was a little faster than the 10,000m pace a few days earlier, again I was running harmoniously and almost effortlessly.  Up to that point the thought of winning had not even occurred to me, but suddenly it seemed possible.  With a little over 400 metres to go, I surged to the front.  The sound of the bell and the sight of the open track curving away to my left as I entered the final lap remains as clear in my memory as the event at the Adelaide Harriers track the preceding Wednesday evening.  I was oblivious of the runners behind me as I rounded the bend and sprinted along the back straight.  It was a wonderful feeling, but of course it was too good to last.  With 180m to go the state champion slipped by, and in the home straight I faded to finish in sixth place.  I did of course secure maximum points in the D grade competition, so sixth place was more than was required of me.

In the minds of the leading runners jockeying for position as we approached the final bell, I would have scarcely warranted a second thought.  So I was delighted when the state champion came up to me afterwards and said:  ‘You started your run too soon but I couldn’t just let you go. You looked too dangerous.’  To know that I had even appeared to be a threat is a pleasing memory, but even more satisfying is the mental picture I still retain of sound of the tinkling bell and the sight of the clear track ahead as I led into the last lap.  Perhaps if Ihad held off my sprint for another 100m I might have finished even nearer the front but I have no regrets for having seized the moment when I did.

These memories are largely nostalgia for times long ago, but I did enjoy a minor reprise of the feeling of being in the Zone on my way to victory in the second division of East Midlands Fetch Challenge mile three years ago.  Nowadays, I step onto a track only occasionally.  However I do still cherish the experience of running in the Zone.

The elusiveness of the Zone

One of the paradoxes of the Zone is that if you focus too much on being in it, you cease to be a detached observer of your own mental and physical state, and the Zone dissolves.  It is an elusive mental state that cannot be grasped too tightly.  Being in the Zone is not in itself the primary goal.  However provided you can allow your conscious mind to trust the non-conscious control system in your brain to look after the fine details, it is possible to do things beyond the capacity of your conscious mind.  I believe that my few fleeting moment of ‘small-town glory’ on the track many years ago were a product of this state  Of course no mental tricks can make up for lack of strength and aerobic fitness.  But if you want to run at the limit of your physical capacity, I think it is a crucial element.

If one examines carefully the various descriptions of his mental state provided by Usain Bolt, the theme that emerges most strongly is mental focus. Here is his response to Desmond Howard’s question: How about during the race? What do you see? What do you hear?’, in an interview for ESPN.  ‘The first 40 or 50 meters, I’m aware of almost everything because that’s the weakest part of my race, so I always check immediately if I got a good start. Maybe after 20 meters, I check again — trying to tell myself to keep my technique right. I look around a little bit, but I don’t really hear the crowd much over 100 meters because I’m so focused.’  His mental state during the acceleration phase is dominated by intense focus but his description does not convey the sense of effortless harmony and self confidence that characterises the Zone.  A man of his physique has to work hard to get his long legs and large frame up to speed.  Video recordings show his torso rocking from side to side as he strains to push against the ground.  His own account confirms this picture.  But once he is at top speed his stride length is an advantage, and everything fits into place.  Watching the cruising phase in video recordings of the 100m final in Beijing, the World Championship in Berlin in 2009 or many other races during his period of world domination everything about his demeanour conveys a sense of effortless, harmonious self-confidence.  He is a picture of a runner in the Zone.

It is noteworthy that Bolt is aware of the weakness of his acceleration phase.  It is a weakness that arises from the physique that serves him well later in the race. In part, he is the world’s fastest sprinter because he is has the capacity to perceive his own weaknesses.  Being in the Zone does not replace the need for strength, skill or, in the case of endurance running, the need for aerobic fitness.  It reinforces these things and is reinforced by them.  It is a mental state that allows us to exceed the capability of our conscious mind.  If Bolt can achieve harmonious mastery of his own huge frame in that first 40 metres, he might release the latent skill that will take another 0.03 seconds off his time.

I believe that a factor of key importance for any runner who aims to run as well as they possibly can is the ability to create the circumstances that open the door to the Zone.  Developing this capacity is as important as building aerobic capacity, strength and skill.  As a result, the goals of each training session includes not only enhancement of some aspect of aerobic capacity, strength and/or skill but also specific attention to cultivating the ‘present-centredness’ that is the foundation of the Zone.

Zone-oriented training

Because of the Zone defies capture, the goal of Zone-oriented training is not to achieve the Zone, but simply to create the circumstances that allow it to happen.  My own experience suggests there are five key elements.

  • The first is body awareness.  The goal is subliminal awareness of every  part of the body, but I find it most helpful to focus mainly in my thumb and forefinger as each arm swings down to my waist, in turn.  The action is not forceful but it is firm and precise.
  • The second element is relaxation of muscle tension.  The light pressure of thumb against forefinger allows my non-conscious brain to calibrate the tension in my arm and the opposite leg optimally, while I also direct attention to relaxing my shoulders.
  • The third element is harmonising my breathing with the rhythmic movement of arms and legs.  Not only does the depth of breathing and ratio of breaths to strides provide me with a sensitive measure of where my effort level is in relation to my anaerobic threshold, but the awareness of the rhythm acts to stabilise this rhythm and enhance the sense of calm detached conscious observation of my non-conscious motor control system in action.
  • Fourthly, I aim for a feeling of lightness.  Largely this is based on conscious awareness of the impact of my feet on the ground.  I am subliminally aware of, and from time to time overtly attentive to, the way in which the load is distributed over the arch of my foot during stance, as I observe the light sound of my footfall.
  • Finally I cultivate an awareness of the rapid forward swing of the leg from stance.  This is entails a mental image of a graceful arching trajectory rather than a deliberate contraction of any particular muscle group, though my understanding of biomechanics suggest that iliopsoas does most of the work, facilitated by recoil of the Achilles tendon at lift-off, and a light contraction of the hamstrings.

 More recent memories

My ability to sustain present-centredness was tested in an interesting way a week ago.  The riverside paths on which I run are fairly popular with people walking their dogs.  Most days I encounter at least a dozen or more dogs, and over the course of each month I can expect to meet several hundred animals of varying breed and temperament.  In the open spaces along the riverside, most dog-walkers release their charges from the lead, so it is not surprising that from time to time I am chased by some poorly trained animal.  Usually I stop and point to the ground while saying in a firm voice: ‘Stay!’  In most instances this is at least moderately effective, except with little yappy dogs, whom it is best to simply ignore.  However last week as I ran along the banks of the Trent with a pleasing feeling of relaxed harmony, I found myself the quarry of a Great Dane.  Great Danes have a lineage that extends back to their original breeding from wolves for use in wolf-hunting, but generations of domestication have made them reasonably docile and they rarely exhibit a strong prey drive.  However this fellow appeared to have identified me as prey.  As he would have stood at least 7 feet tall on his hind legs, I doubted that I would sounded very authoritative if I stood my ground and commanded ‘Stay’.

The memory of a similar experience  as I ran along the banks of the River Soar a few miles from it confluence with the Trent a year ago, flashed into my mind.  Shortly after passing an unfriendly-looking Alsatian prowling along the bank, I was aware of a flurry of movement behind me and the beast leapt to grasp my wrist in his jaws.  The power in those jaws was terrifying.  I did not know what to do, but on impulse, I kept running.  Mercifully he opened his jaws within a few moments and to my surprise, let me go.  After I had put a few hundred metres between myself and my attacker I stopped to inspect the damage.  Apart from the lacerations where the teeth had gripped my forearm, I was unharmed.

So here I was again, in a similar situation.  This time the dog was even bigger but he hadn’t yet sunk his teeth into me. So I just kept running, trying to create an impression of calm confidence.  I continued to focus on opposing my thumb lightly against my forefinger as each arm swept down in turn towards my waist, to facilitate a neatly timed, relaxed footfall.  I was aware of the dog’s jaw impacting with my ankle but he didn’t get a grip.  I was also aware that my heart thumped in my chest.  As I continued running with an outward appearance of calm, I could hear a distant female voice calling.  It was apparently the dog’s owner, and he abandoned the pursuit.  I had no wish to invite any more trouble so continued on my way.

Later in the day when I examined the recording from my heart rate monitor I was both dismayed and amused to see the record of how my heart had responded.  The relevant segment of the record in shown in the figure.  There was a dramatic paroxysm in which my heart rate fluctuated crazily for about 10 seconds, but then settled back into a regular rhythm, just a little faster than before the attack.  Within half a minute it was back to its usual level.  While the heart trace demonstrates that I did not succeed in maintaining a perfectly harmonious physical and mental state throughout, it appeared I had done reasonable well in recovering my equilibrium.  I will never know just how intent the dog was on bringing me down, or indeed whether he was merely issuing a warning as the Alsatian had a year earlier, but I am pleased to know that I managed to remain calm and fairly confident with scarcely a perceptible adjustment of my stride.

Re-covering heart rate equilibrium after eluding the jaws of a Great Dane


In summary, if one wants to run at one’s best, establishing the ability to create the circumstances that facilitate this centred harmonious, virtually effortless and confident mental state is a crucial complement to the tasks of developing aerobic capacity, strength and skill.  Many of my most memorable running experiences over the years have been associated with this magical zone.  I hope that even as my strength ebbs with the passing years I will still retain ability to evoke this state.

I believe that many great athletes, among them sprinters such as Usain Bolt but also marathon runners such as Wilson Kipsang, have the knack of summoning this mental state.  Whether or not Kipsang will achieve it again in London in October this year is not certain, but as I watched that video of his run in Frankfurt, it appeared to me almost certain that sometime within the next year or two he will eclipse Patrick Makau’s world record.

Running naturally using sense and science

April 11, 2012

A few months ago I had a fairly clear idea about the content of my next few blog posts: my debate with Robert over the New Year period (recorded at length in the comments section of my Dance with the Devil article) had prompted me to tackle the issue of applying Newton’s equations of motion to running in a systematic manner, so my immediate priority at that time was a few technical articles on the mechanics of running.  After those articles, I intended to return to the issues of developing aerobic fitness; the influence of hormones such as growth hormone on tissue repair and regeneration; and some further accounts of my experiences with monitoring my heart rate.   This broad sketch is still on the drawing board but I have been waylaid by many interesting diversions. Apart from one post on the heart of the runner, that I felt could not wait too long because it was, in a way, my tribute to John Hadd, who had died while running a few months earlier, my posts this year have been heavily focussed on Newtonian mechanics, but many aspects of running mechanics remain untouched.

I anticipated that after the main article, posted on January 16th, in which I outlined the application of Newton’s equations to the motion of the runner’s centre of gravity (COG) and demonstrated the inevitable reality that getting airborne efficiently – the essence of efficient running – demands a short, sharp push against the ground, that I would easily tie up a few loose ends: important issues such a identifying optimum cadence and more peripheral issues such as dealing with wind resistance; but I had under-estimated the magnitude of the task.  In that first article, I had alluded in passing to the energy cost of repositioning the swing leg.  However I intended to by-pass this tricky topic by focussing on low to moderate speeds where repositioning costs are a minor fraction of the total energy cost.  However, Simon, whom I had come to know, at least in cyberspace, as a kindred spirit sharing a sceptical fascination with Pose technique, would not let me get away so easily with ignoring repositioning costs.  Others have jointed the debate from various perspectives, and as a result, I am still far short of my initial goal of reviewing the implications of Newton’s equations.  I continue to ponder the issues of aerobic fitness, tissue regeneration and heart rhythms, but my planned updates on these topics have been delayed.

The conundrum of the push

However, I have not been able to ignore another issue.  The conundrum that it is almost certain that for most runners, conscious focus on delivering a short, sharp push against the ground is not the best way to run safely and efficiently, except perhaps when sprinting.  It is this conundrum that has fuelled my long-standing fascination with Pose.  Despite the ‘looney-toon’ cartoon physics proposed by Dr Romanov in his book, ‘Pose Method of Running’, and unfortunately still lingering in articles on the Pose Tech website, there is little doubt that this irrationally-inspired running technique  has helped a large number of recreational runners to enjoy safer, more satisfying running.  There have also been many individuals disillusioned by being told by Pose coaches that their Achilles tendon injuries are simply due to not doing Pose properly, and others who have been disappointed that their race performances have not improved in the way they had hoped.  However, there does appear to be some magical injury-reducing ingredients in Pose.  One of these is the necessity to cut one’s training volume while developing the skill to perform the technique.  Furthermore, the reduced stress on the knee is an easily understood consequence of the Pose emphasis on forefoot or midfoot landing, though ironically it is the forefoot landing that puts the Achilles at risk.   The recommendation of high cadence reduces the magnitude of the force required for each step.  However, I think an even more important issue is the fact that the illusion that gravity provides ‘free energy’ allows Pose runners to achieve the essential short-sharp push against the ground without trying.

The secret

Is there a secret?  Many comments that have appeared on internet discussion threads in recent years imply that the secret lies in ignoring the physics; that  it is subjective experience that counts;   that we should perhaps revert to the noble primeval state of our Palaeolithic ancestors who are thought to have engaged in persistence hunting, barefoot, on the African savannah two million years ago.  The core idea is that thinking about what you are doing gets in the way of doing it.  In fact I strongly agree that attempting to exert conscious control over skills that our unconscious brain has learned to perform is often counter-productive.  However I do not believe that the secret is to revert to a primeval Palaeolithic state.  In fact I do not believe that would be natural.  In the two million or so years that separate early members of the Homo genus, such as Homo erectus who apparently had developed the musculo-skeletal features necessary for endurance running, from Homo sapiens with his/her large skull, we have developed an extraordinary capacity to achieve our goals, a capacity residing largely in our brains.

For several millennia, this capacity was strongly shaped by spirituality.  In the video recording of persistence hunting in our own era by bushmen in the Kalahari, narrated by David Attenborough, there is a moving moment near the end, after the quarry has been killed, in which the hunter strokes the head of the dead animal in acknowledgment of the spirit with which it had eluded its pursuer in an eight hour run across the savannah.   Spirituality is a key human persisting attribute.  If we are to be truly in tune with our own nature, we need to find a way to integrate the legacy we have received from our Palaeolithic ancestors with the capacity for science that is embodied in Newtonian mechanics.  For the present discussion, we can put aside relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory.  Our Palaeolithic ancestors, perhaps unencumbered by too much weighty remembrance of the past or planning for the future, lived much more in the present moment, in which sensations not only of sight and sound, but also the sensations of the body in its environment, dominated awareness.  Can we run in a way that utilises both sense and science?

John Woodward, a practitioner of the Alexander Technique based in the Lake District where he teaches the art of running barefoot across the Lakeland fells, summarises the challenge: ‘.. in our modern lives our thinking caps (our heads) have become disengaged from our kinesthetic (body) sense. Unlike our ancient ancestor we are rarely in the vivifying moment but we languish in some past memory or crave some future state.’


I have been diverted into this train of thought by some challenging questions and comments on my article  on Natural Running (posted  on 29th March), especially by Hans, a Feldenkreis practitioner who had attempted various ways to escape his previous injury-prone running style before trying Pose, under the guidance of Jeremy Huffman.  Jeremy is an elite athlete with a sub-4 minute indoor mile to his credit, who has subsequently become a strong advocate of Pose, and frequently comments on this blog.  Jeremy helped Hans find the practical answer he was seeking, but left him with the challenge of understanding how Pose had worked while Feldenkrais had not.   Feldenkrais had been developed by Moshe Feldenkrais, who was an engineer who attempted to integrate a sound scientific understanding of human movement with a holistic awareness of one’s body in space.  Moshe Feldenkrias did not develop a theory of running but others, such as Feldenkrais practitioner, Jae Gruenke, have done so.  Hans concluded the emphasis on avoiding driving and pushing was a key issue in the success of Pose.  In his comments on my blog he initially questioned the necessity of the push.  After we had discussed a number of actual and hypothetical experiments that he devised, he was willing to accept that the push occurs, but proposed that the action of the leg might best be described and experienced as springy, rather than a push movement.  He agreed that that muscle work is involved in creating the springy effect, but this could happen without conscious effort

I agree that it is desirable to maximise the recovery of energy via elastic recoil, and certainly accept that it is best to let this occur with minimal conscious effort.   However, my own view is that we need a somewhat more comprehensive approach.  I think that it is best to cultivate a holistic perception of one’s body in space while applying a range of principles that are derived not only from physics and muscle physiology but also from neuroscience.

Some background

Perhaps it is time to give a little more detail about my background.  I began my scientific career as a physicist over forty years ago and subsequently have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity do research in many different fields of science.  From physics I moved to biochemistry, or rather I integrated physics with biochemistry while holding joint academic posts in physics and biology.  Eventually, after several decades of diverse scientific and clinical experiences, I became what might be most accurately described as a neuroscientist, though I have always resisted labelling myself as a practitioner of a single discipline.  In the early 1990’s I was involved in some of the earliest investigations using modern brain imaging techniques to attempt to delineate the brain mechanism associated with willed action.  Since then I have continued to study brain function, mainly focussing on the conscious processing of information.  I am certainly not an expert in either the perceptual or motor systems in the brain.  Nonetheless, in some of my recent work using brain imaging techniques combined with electroencephalography (EEG), I have investigated the way in which the perception of bodily sensation engages the brain’s executive systems.

Although this work is exciting and high tech, it is also extremely primitive.   Indeed, while I am confident that neuroscience will furnish us with concepts that help us to understand many of the types of processes that go on in our minds and bodies, I believe it will never provide an understanding that matches the richness and diversity of personal experience.

In the days when I was doing my PhD in physics, I was also a marathon runner and a mountaineer.   Though physics, running, and spending time in the mountains were an integral part of my life, there were only a few strands that linked these activities.   Over the years, the rest of life’s activities displaced the running and, eventually, the adventurous aspects of mountaineering.  However nowadays I am once again running and also enjoying the hills and mountains, while I am still a scientist.  My forays into the intricacies of the human mind and brain have given me a slightly firmer foundation from which to try to integrate science, running and an appreciation of the natural world

The messages from neuroscience

Perhaps the most relevant message from cognitive neuroscience to the runner is that we can only focus consciously on a very small number of items of information at any one time, but the neural representation of many other aspects of a situation can be subliminally active in the background.  Furthermore, our brains are exquisitely sensitive to unexpected events. Thus we cannot focus on all of the aspects of running mechanics within a single gait cycle, but if we have practiced the actions and experienced the sensations often enough, the neural representation of most aspects of running are subliminally active, and are likely to enter into conscious awareness if the expected rhythm misses a beat.  In an attempt to instil the expectation of the pattern of activity involved in the swing of the leg from one stance to the next, I practice drills such as the Swing Drill.

The next important point emerges from our understanding of the sensori-motor systems: modern brain imaging has consolidated the observation of neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute in the 1930’s, that the brain allocates far more of its processing resources to the hand than to the foot.   The region of the motor cortex devoted to the hand  is far greater in area than that devoted to the foot.  However, our brain can learn to integrate a complex set of muscle contraction into a single action.  Therefore, it is plausible that if we can link a set of movement of the hand to a set of movement of the leg and foot, we might be able to control this complex but integrated action more precisely.  Therefore I practice a version of the Change of Stance drill to establish in my brain a non-conscious motor program that combines a down sweep of my hand from a position near the sternum high on my chest wall towards my waist, with a quick extension of the flexed hip and knee of my elevated leg to the ground.  As I sweep my hand down, I hold forefinger and thumb lightly opposed to inculcate a sense of tidy but relaxed movement.  When I run, I rarely attend consciously to the extension of hip or knee but focus mainly on this brisk but relaxed and economical down-sweep of the hand.

This was the final sprint in a half-marathon a few years ago. I am 4449. The strain of running with a torn hip adductor, wrenched during a clumsy turn near the halfway mark, shows in the tense muscles in my neck and left shoulder, but the right hand, with forefinger and thumb lightly opposed at my waist is fairly well coordinated with the (non-conscious) push of my left leg.

The next important point to learn from the way in which our brain develops from infancy to adulthood, is that we learn how to detach unnecessary movement from a motor act.  A young child, when trying to do some intricate task with one hand, often exhibits mirror movements with the other.  Although we usually avoid this in adulthood, at times of stress, we are prone to introduce unnecessary movements.  Perhaps Paula Radcliffe’s tortuous movements of the neck during her 10,000m races in the late 1990’s were an illustration of this.  You can also see it in the picture of me.  However we have the capacity to release tension in unneeded muscles.    When I run I cultivate an awareness of the tension in my shoulder muscles, aiming for a sensation of the trapezius muscle relaxing to allowing my shoulders to relax downwards and slightly back.

I also find it helpful to maintain awareness of the pattern of pressure on the soles of my feet during stance, and to adjust this according to terrain and speed.  I do not run barefoot, except for short distances on grass, but do wear fairly light-weight shoes.

I regulate my level of energy expenditure largely by awareness of my breathing.  When breathing comfortably at a rate of one breath every six steps (about 30 breaths per minute),  I know I am in the lower aerobic zone, with minimal accumulation of acidity in my blood stream.  I can run for hours at this pace.  When my breathing rate increases to one every four steps, there has been mild accumulation of acid, but my body is dealing with it.  Nowadays I will be struggling after an hour at this pace, though a few years ago I could maintain this pace for about two hours.  When breathing rate becomes one breath every two steps, the acidity is accumulating rapidly.  This is only OK for the final stages of a race, or during high intensity intervals.

Some of these aspects of body awareness are well known to coaches and athletes; others, such as my focus on the down sweeping hand are experimental.  The over-arching principle is the cultivation of a holistic awareness of the sensations and movements involved in running, allowing for effort in the right time and place, while maintaining an overall sense of light, relaxed progress across the ground.

Final thoughts 

Here is John Woodward again, describing a workshop that he and his colleagues offer: ‘We perpetually stream down one route – the mechanical one: WE RUN MECHANICALLY. The aim of the workshop is to first and foremost stop the flow of traffic down the mechanical road the route well travelled. Like repositioning the points on the railway we want to initiate a flow down the road less travelled. This will enable the Thinking Gear to re-synchronize once more with the body. In this way we might begin to run creatively. There’s a number of key things about this invitation to re-route the traffic onto the road less travelled, the road to the present moment.’

I am not fully in tune with all of this statement.  I do not think we need to stop the traffic flow on the mechanical path.  I think the word ‘synchronise’ is the key concept. If we, as members of the species Homo sapiens, are to run truly naturally we need to find a way of synchronising the two routes: the mechanical path guided by knowledge and shaped by practice, and the path through sensations in the present moment.  I am still at the beginning of working out how this might be done.  My current experiments in running holistically might be clumsy, half-blinded attempts towards the goal.  I will value any comments.

Note added 12 April 2012

With regard to the proposal that it might be desirable develop a holistic sense of what is happening to the body, even though our attention is not focussed consciously on every aspect, there is a very informative picture in today’s Guardian newspaper, showing Prince Harry and Usain Bolt being silly for the sake of a photo-opportunity.   They are imitating a well known advertisement for Richard Branson’s company, Virgin. In the advertisement, Branson’s face is superimposed on Bolt’s body, as he mimes shooting an arrow from a bow.  In this Guardian photo of Harry and Bolt, note how the index finger of Bolt’s right hand is aligned perfectly with the index finger of his left hand.  I suspect he wasn’t consciously thinking about this as he posed for the photo.  Simply, his brain has an extremely good sense of where the ends of his limbs are at all times.  I think that is one of the reasons Bolt is the world’s fastest sprinter.  I think we can improve our running by improving our bodily awareness. In particular, awareness of the end of the index finger can probably associated with subliminal awareness of the location of the foot.

The future belongs to Africa

December 28, 2010

A few months ago I speculated on whether or not some non-African runners might make an impact in the big city marathons in the near future. I focussed on Dathan Ritzenhein as he prepared for the New York marathon, and Ryan Hall who was aiming for a US record in Chicago.

A year earlier, Ritzenhein had joined a group of selected athletes in the well-funded Nike Oregon project.  The athletes live in a house in Portland, Oregon, where the bedrooms and living room have a controlled atmosphere that makes it possible to live high (that is in an atmosphere with oxygen content similar to an altitude of 12,000 feet), yet train low (near sea level), under the guidance of Alberto Salazar.  In order to adjust training load according to body physiology, various high technology devices are used to monitor heart rate variability (based on fairly sound science) and brain omega waves, which as far as I am aware is at best based on speculative science, and is perhaps as mind-boggling as the Cryosauna Space Cabin, in which temperatures of -170 degrees C are employed to hasten muscle recovery.  In my post on 4th September, I expressed some concern that Salazar had attempted to change Ritz’ running style, encouraging him to land on the mid or forefoot, despite his well know susceptibility to metatarsal stress fractures.  So far, the outcome has been disappointing.  Dathan achieved 8th place in New York, in a time of 2:12:33.

Ryan Hall was training with Terrence Mahon at Mammoth Lakes at an altitude of 7800 feet.  I was concerned by the approach to training that led to what he described as a brutal training run of 12 miles climbing from 7,000 to 10,000 feet over Tioga pass, a week before his tune–up in the Philly Rock and Roll half marathon.  He ran poorly in Philadelphia, and subsequently withdrew from Chicago.  Around the same time he also announced that he was leaving Terrence Mahon’s training group.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Kenyans and Ethiopians were again dominant.  The winners of the five World Marathon Majors were:

Berlin, Patrick Makau (Kenya, born 1985) 2:05:08

London, Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia, born 1987) 2:05:19

Boston, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya, born 1988)  2:05:52,

Chicago, Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya, born 1986) 2:06:24

New York, Gebre Gebremariam  (Ethiopia, born 1984) 2:08:14

The fastest marathon of the year was the Rotterdam Marathon, won by Patrick Makau in 2:04:48.  It is noteworthy that the oldest of the winners of the 5 Majors, Gebre Gebremariam, was born in 1984. All are younger than Ritzenhein and Hall, both of whom were born in 1982.  All the signs indicate that the Africans will continue to dominate marathon running for the foreseeable future.

In their review of the highlights of long distance running in 2010, IAAF statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava reported that 59 of the athletes in world top 100 marathon runners were Kenyan while 28 were from Ethiopia.  Of the top 18, 10 were from Kenya and 8 from Ethiopia.

Whatever the role of genes or high altitude training, a major factor must simply be the power of cultural expectation.  Just as Bannister’s 4 minute mile opened a floodgate, a floodgate has been opened in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Aspiring young Kenyans and Ethiopians know that times faster than 2:10:00 are not only possible but to be expected of themselves and their compatriots.  Conversely, perhaps the high tech of the Nike Oregon Project has created a barrier in the minds of US marathoners that appears as insurmountable as the 4 minute mile once did.