Student Post: Running With Neurons

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 the 1996 olympics.


  1. David says

    Forgive my anal retentiveness. The spell checker didn’t find your error but I did.
    You don’t pair and prune, you pare and prune. Just in case there is a test.
    Best Regards,

  2. says

    Very neat! I have to try that. Since we learn different movements for dancing, I wonder if it would help to associate a song or chant with the correct movements–preferably something circular, where the end leads into the beginning again.

  3. Owlmirror says

    I also found another article, which is what I presume led to it being realized that, as you noted, keeping the runner “mostly in the air, rather than on the ground” was the optimal method:

    Which lead to this journal article (“Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements”):

  4. says

    Great post! Is this phenomenon the same thing as the “muscle memory” that my brother-in-law (a ski instructor) keeps telling me I need to develop?

  5. says

    Great post! Is this phenomenon the same thing as the “muscle memory” that my brother-in-law (a ski instructor) keeps telling me I need to develop?

  6. natural cynic says

    How do you know that your running is inefficient? Have you measured oxygen consumption over a given distance at a given speed?

    A relatively slower runner is likely to assume that they are less efficient, but without the data to demonstrate one’s inefficiency, it remains only a conjecture. Testing oxygen consumption at a particular speed has shown some world-class runners to be more efficient than others, but those with less efficiency tend to have a greater max O2 consumption to compensate so that the difference between two competitive runners is lessened. In your case, you probably don’t really know. The primary reason that you cannot run as fast as Pre and other world-class runners is because you have your own physiological limits [max cardiac output is the major one, ability to synthesize mitochondrial contents is another] or anatomical factors [% slow twitch muscle fibers is another major component to be considered].

    In addition, world clas runners like Pre was may have had a high efficiency due to their own biomechanical peculiarities, such as lower and upper leg length, achilles tendon flexibility and elasticity for energy storage, foot shape, hip width, strength balance between anterior and posterior thigh muscles and the gluteus, muscle fiber type in the prime movers, and so on. Each of us is unique in our proportions, so what might have been the right form for Pre might not be the right form for you. Your difficulties in trying to change your running form may have a lot to do with your body already assuming a more efficient running form from your own body structures, so, unless you’re shaped like Pre, you might not want to copy his running form. It would probably be best to look for world class runners that are shaped like you and adopt their form.

    Until you have the data, you really don’t know whether you’re efficient or not.

  7. Mooser says

    Interestin parallel to learning to ride a motorcycle correctly. As a motorcycle leans into a turn the rider should shift his weight to the inside and down. This balances the bike and allows the bike to make the turn with much less lean. Unfortunately, for all but the gifted, instinct makes you lean in the other direction, away from the direction the bike seems to be falling. This becomes a severe situation is part of the bike hits the ground, and the rider suddenly shies away, in exactly the wrong direction. Not being a gifted rider, it took me a long time to relearn this technique correctly. All of this assuming, of course, you are riding a motorcycle which is correctly designed for shifting your weight, and not a “cruiser” with its forward foot controls, high handlebars, and dished seat. In that case, prepare to kiss the pavement.

  8. Darrell E says

    With regards to riding a motorcycle, I don’t think that makes a good comparison with learning to change your running stride, or golf swing. Learning to hang off a bike properly, learning to stay on the throttle when something goes wrong, like losing traction, or bad pavement when you are at max lean angle, involves a bit more. The biggest obstacle to training yourself to do something like keeping the throttle on when your back tire starts slipping as you are cornering a motorcycle is the instinctive fear reaction that everyone has in these types of situations. Something like this

    … oh shit … I am going to die … maybe just maim myself … make it all stop!

    Intstinctive fear reactions may have evolved for good and useful reasons, unfortunately they are almost always the exactly wrong thing to do when you get into a spot of trouble on a motorcycle. You have to overcome this type of reaction, which is hard because it happens very fast with no thinking involved and, in most cases, with no warning. If you can train yourself to do nothing, except maybe shit your pants, for a fraction of a second you give your mind a chance to start working again and do the right thing instead of automatically doing the wrong thing.

  9. Margaret says

    He doesn’t extend his leg out very far. Instead, he lifts his knee up …

    Fascinating. I haven’t a clue about running, but in the smooth dances (foxtrot, waltz), there is a common style that involves extending the leg with the foot brushing the floor, and a different (rarer) style that involves lifting the knee up and letting your body place the foot right under you to land. Most dancers seem to teach (and do) the first style, but I’ve been told that some of the very best use the second style. It’s interesting to see a parallel with running.