Saturday, March 1, 2008

Brain Training for Runners

The last thing I need is another book on running. However last night I was at Barnes and Noble looking to use up some gift cards. I got a book on improving my teaching, Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 and a book I always wanted to read Between a Rock and a Hard Place about Aron Ralston getting his arm stuck under a boulder while hiking in a canyon and having to cut it off in order to survive. On my way out I saw on a table of new books a running book, "Brain Training For Runners: A Revolutionary New Training System to Improve Endurance, Speed, Health, and Results". I had never heard of it so I gave it a glance. It had a lot of pages and it seemed 1/2 of them were training tables (not something I am usually interested in). But I saw some interesting stretches and read a bit to see what the "brain training" was all about.

I decided it was cheap enough and picked up a copy, particularly because some of the ideas I noticed in the book were similar to some of the things I have been exploring in Z-Health as to the importance of the "brain" in regulating stride form. Since this blog is titled "Recover Your Stride" I think this is an important subject.

I skipped through a lot of the book to get to the important stuff that I wanted to explore. First I liked how the author, Matt Fitzgerald, started the book, "Other runners think I am weird..." and then he goes on to explain how he is incorporating his studies and thinking into bettering his own running performance by doing out of the ordinary techniques.

Chapter 5 is entitled "Pursuing the Perfect Stride" and in here he begins by writing, "The stride is's truly amazing how little attention has been given to stride development in the training of distance runners." Whereas other coaches will tell you not to play around with your stride, he is all for it! His brain training approach has 3 components: emulation (study elite runners), proprioceptive cues (thoughts and sensations to focus on while performing), and technique drills (to enhance good running form).

I like how he analyzed runners to come up with 5 characteristics of good running technique. These are explained well in the book: stiffness (that allow you to spring as you run), compactness (of stride), ballistic action (allows push-off), stability (prevents joint collapse), and symmetry (something I don't have in the least). This chapter is worth the cost of the book alone. There is a lot to digest, yet it is simple and precise in presentation.

I tried one proprioceptive clue as I did my treadmill run today (more snow!). Because it sounded the most fun (actually because it says it will maintain greater stability in the hips, pelvis, and lower spine) I tried the "Butt Squeeze". Basically the idea is to contract the muscles of the hip and butt on the side of the body that is about to hit the ground and then maintain that engagement through the stride. As silly as it sounds I tried it and well it wasn't easy. However when I got it right my stride evened out and in particular my bad left side felt like the femur was setting in the hip much better and even the whole hip reacted differently then the usual collapse it does as I run. As I looked down my legs seemed to be running straighter.

There are other proprioceptive drills to concentrate on (only do one per workout) and that gives you something to think about and try while doing any workout. There are also some core conditioning drills that seem like some of the "best of" exercises of what I have tried in various programs. I am also excited to see the "Dynamic Flexibility Exercises". Static stretching has never worked for me, in fact I think some hamstring stretching I did this week affected my progress with the Z-Health and my running. These drills have to do with relaxation and tension of the muscles (something else I have seen written about elsewhere but haven't yet begun to explore). Dynamic flexibility is also referred to as mobility exercises (ah- similar to what I have been exploring with Z-Health).

I think these couple of chapters alone are well worth rereading and studying again and again. It may be awhile until I get to the rest of the book, because there is a lot of food for thought as I train my brain.


ExSoccerGuy said...

Good stuff, Jim. I look forward to getting this book. When do you think would be the time to try to incorprate some of the suggestions, especially for someone who's going from one marathon training cycle to the next relatively quickly (probably a month in between)?

Cheers, ESG

Jim Hansen said...

Hi exsoccerguy,
Do you mean one month between marathons or one month before starting a marathon. Numerous times I have done a marathon 2 weeks after a previous one mainly because I recover quick, and I just train and race as I feel. So I don't follow a schedule (although my year follows a similar pattern each year).

I try any new idea (if it sounds good) as soon as I can. I am doing a lot of joint mobility work now (as well as trying to get back into shape). I am using Matt's dynamic flxibility exercises before runs when I remember them. You can see them at his site.
I also intend to do his core conditioning drills more often. His book details 3 phases of the drills leading up to racing.
What I like best are his proprioceptive cues. These are great and you can concentrate on one per workout. Begin now! It can't hurt. Find what works and what you like. His schedules details plans to work the drills and cues into the workouts of whatever goal distance race you have. Matt's drills only take minutes so it is not like you have to find a lot of time to fit them on!