We’ve been talking quite a bit about how information is processed in our brains so that a specific reflexes and cognitive actions can be produced. It’s also the end of the cross country season and my mind has been mixing the two. Take Steve Prefontaine (one of the greatest American long distance runners of all time) for example. I was watching a video clip of Prefontaine running and paused it right as he was putting his foot down and picking his other leg up. He doesn’t extend his leg out very far. Instead, he lifts his knee up so that he can drive his pronated foot into the ground just under his hip. Since his foot is already pronated, he can further drive his leg behind him and use the ball of his foot as a launch pad to drive himself forward. This technique saves a lot of energy and keeps the runner mostly in the air, rather than on the ground (which is what you want).
Sadly, no one brought the technique to my attention until about halfway through college. I’ve been overextending my legs without picking up my knees, landing on my heels, and rolling to the balls of my feet. This means I use more energy and a lot more time in projecting myself forward each stride. Ever since I learned of proper running techniques I’ve been trying to make them an automatic reflex in my strides, but this is incredibly hard to do.
For the past twenty two years, neurons in the motor cortex of my frontal cortex, cerebellum, Thalamus, and several other regions of my brain have been adapting to coordinate specific muscle actions to create my presently crappy running technique. This spider web of nervous tissue is constantly changing as neurons diverge and converge on each other, become more sensitive to or produce higher concentrations of specific neurotransmitters, and develop other specific interactions with other neurons that perfectly coordinate my behavior and actions. However, it has taken twenty two years to perfectly coordinate all this interaction so that I can run so terribly, meaning that learning to truly run could take a long time as I prune and pair more neurons to coordinate a totally different reflex.
So far I’ve been trying to reshape my neural network by doing one legged hang cleans. In the exercise I have to shrug a large amount of weight off one leg in a lunging position, get under the weight in mid air and catch it as it comes down in the same position. It is difficult to catch the weight without landing on the ball of my foot, which is pleasantly placed directly under my hips, making my body develop the correct foot placement as a reflex. This learning is actually the reshaping of the network of neurons inside my brain that deal with motor coordination as they make new interactions, destroy old ones, change their amplification of signals, or change their functions completely. At any rate, I haven’t even scratched the surface of how intertwined the processes are that go inside this skull of mine to create who I am and the things that I do. But I do find the little I know pretty amazing, and can only hope that my non-declarative memory will eventually kick in.
To see the proper running form, take a look at Michael Johnson in his world record 200m race.at the 1996 olympics.