Running Rewired author Jay Dicharry shares how your brain can be rewired to promote better running form and improved performance.
There are three systems that run a program over and over with each stride you take. I cover them in my book Running Rewired. Each element in the system has specific inputs and outputs to modify the quality of your stride. This is what’s missing from our understanding of running. Runners have an unrelenting focus on volume. More miles per week obviously puts more mechanical load on your joints. It’s the body’s job to produce a controlled and efficient response, rising to the challenge and controlling your body. A poor movement program equates to poor body control. When the body becomes overwhelmed by the demands of running it sets us up for injury or leads to compromised performance. Specifically, it is how we deal with the mechanical demands of running that dictates how well we perform.
The two big questions are:
1. Is your movement safe? What type of movement skill and body awareness do you bring to running?
2. Is your movement efficient? Could you rewire the way you move to drive you forward with less effort, and less form breakdown during your runs?
An efficient movement program improves the quality of your stride for long-term joint health and efficiency. Just as we can adjust the quantity of our running volume, we can learn to improve the quality of our running volume. Your brain learns through movement and awareness to know when, how much, and how fast to drive your legs. You can improve your skills by better understanding the input your brain is receiving and rewiring your movement program to get your legs moving more safely and efficiently.
What’s my favorite thing to eat? Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. You didn’t know that 5 seconds ago, but you do now. Do you know how you learned to swim? Do you know how the brain recovers after a stroke? The answers to these questions have one thing in common: neural plasticity. Your brain is capable of learning. Not just rote memorization, but actually learning how to do new things at any age! When you learn, your brain makes new connections from one cell to another. The more you practice, the more robust these connections become. It’s the old practice makes perfect thing. Your nerves are literally building skill by laying down connectivity from nerve to nerve.
The wires that connect your systems are dynamic. They adjust their signals depending on your needs. Running on asphalt, concrete, grass, and over trail irregularities present different inputs, and all require different outputs in terms of muscle action and timing. Changing pace requires modifications as well. Your nervous system makes all of the necessary adjustments behind the scenes. The same thing happens when you get a new pair of shoes—your body makes slight changes to account for the new environment your foot now sits on. All of this learning that your body does to account for these differences is evidence that it can also learn and adapt to run better. The Running Rewired program uses neural plasticity to train your body to run with more control for better durability and better performance.
Moving with precision and force
A lot of coaches will tell you that runners self-select their own efficient running form. Well, kind of. There’s optimal form, which we’ll call Plan A. And then there’s making the best of what you’ve got, or Plan B. Most runners figure out how to compensate for any shortcomings in their current make-up of mobility, stability, strength, and power. In other words, your brain’s ability to adapt is being hijacked by your body and its limitations. You refine and practice Plan B over years of purposeful practice. Plan B can certainly get the job done to log your miles. But I’d argue that Plan B is second rate.
It’s not my intention to come at you with guns a-blazing and tell you everything you know about running is wrong, but given the fact that your brain can be rewired and your running form can actually change, why not work on recovering your own personal Plan A? Movements that feel awkward today can become instinctual. Through deliberate practice, Plan A can also become instinctual. Settle for Plan B and you will leave performance on the table because Plan B stops short of harnessing your durability or capacity.
If you have problems or injuries that affect the way you run, it’s time to fix them. Take your aching back and painful knees and throw 35–50 miles a week at them, and running won’t help. Neither would soccer, basketball, or ice hockey. Placing a huge load on top of existing problems only makes things worse. Your injury cycles demand rest time that prevents consistent training. Break the cycle. You don’t need to be a freak of nature to be successful, but you do need to improve your movement quality.
There’s another issue I frequently see in runners that compromises movement. Many will tell me, “I can’t jump.” Here’s what this really means: “I can’t coordinate my body well enough to deliver a solid chunk of force down to the floor to blast me up and forward against gravity.” This is a big problem because this is exactly what running demands of us. In fact, research shows that people who drive more force down to the ground in a shorter period of time run faster. Period. Every runner, at every level, can train and improve this skill.
We are going to open up the black box of running and establish a system for making you a better runner. Your body drives your running form. Build a better body and you will improve your running form. By focusing on the specific skills that improve running, you can move with precision and strengthen your spring. To move with precision you need enough mobility to move unencumbered and enough stability to control the path your body takes over each mile. Building the skills of mobility and stability will reduce your “stress per stride” and ensure your body symmetry is dialed. Moving better makes you more durable as a runner, which allows your training to be more consistent. A stronger spring leads to better performance because your ability to deliver more oomph down to the ground makes for a faster stride.