As I continue my own quest to become a better runner I do a lot of reading about what makes us move most efficiently. How can we best take advantage of the systems in our bodies that are designed to propel us forward with the least amount of active effort?
There are several reflexive systems that work by responding to a stretch. In other words we allow a muscle to get loaded or elongated by movement, often just by letting gravity do it’s thing, and it reacts by reflexively shortening an assisting us in completing the move we wanted to make.
A simple example is in the way that we jump or even try to lift something heavy. We don’t just pop off the ground, or grab something and just lift it, or at least we don’t get very far if we do. Instead we sort of drop down a little, to get a little extra oomph, and then we push up. What’s happening is that we are elongating those muscles that are going to give us that extra push and letting them reflexively shorten.
As a runner, one of the biggest aids to forward movement is our Achilles tendon and calf muscles. When our foot lands on the ground and our ankle flexes, we are elongating that muscle group. This in turn stimulates these muscles to reflexively shorten and push us forward. The faster and more effectively we can load up this muscle, the faster and farther we move forward with that step.
As we move further up the body, the next most effective muscle group for propulsion is those around our hip. The muscles that strongly flex one hip forward stimulate a reflexive hip extension, or backward push, of the other hip and leg. This will give us a big push forward.
Often however, we don’t effectively make use of these powerful reflexive movements. Either we have lost the mobility of our joints and muscles and we are unable to or we have developed ways of moving that over ride these innate responses. We are trying to do something consciously that is better and faster done unconsciously (or sub-consciously as I don’t mean for you to go to sleep).
The problem with how to re learn to take advantage of our powerful reflexive movement systems is that we can develop ” paralysis by analysis”, or essentially try and think our way back to moving something that does better without conscious input.
So what to do?
Sometimes we have to use the movement itself to retrain this ability, but rather than focus on trying to activate a specific muscle, we focus on trying to do something differently.
What do I mean?
Well, using myself as an example, a cue that I found very helpful in my running is to think to drive one knee up and forward. This was a completely new idea for me and something much different than I had been trying. The effect has been that my opposite hip and leg are now really driving me forward. The difference is that this forward propulsion feels relaxed and powerful and no where near as tiring as when I think to try and actively push off with my hip to propel me forward. The difference is that the push is now reflexive as opposed to active.
The interesting part is how much thought it takes to think “drive forward”, which is essentially an effortless move and the leg is not meeting any resistance, but I need to remember that I am learning a new movement pattern which, though I probably did this naturally as a child, I’ve forgotten.
Another example comes from a patient of mine. She came to see me for peroneal tendinitis or essentially pain and swelling on the outside of her ankle. She was unable to walk for any length of time without pain and had given up hiking and walking with her family.
After talking to her and examining her foot, ankle and hip mobility I found that her symptoms began not long after she had had a bunion surgery to realign her big toe. After surgery, due to the pain and stiffness in her toe she began to walk on the outside edge of her foot to avoid putting weight through her stiff and painful toe. Unfortunately our bodies are designed to use our big toe to push off when we walk.
This wouldn’t have been such a problem if she had stretched out her toe and gradually worked to put weight through it to restore her normal mechanics. Instead however she continued to walk on the outside of her foot for many months. In fact when I first talked with her she completely dismissed the bunion surgery as being related until I asked her to walk and apply pressure over her big toe. She couldn’t do it without pain, and it was very difficult to even orient her foot correctly as, after months of walking with her foot turned out and rolled to the side, her hip had become very tight. Interestingly she had developed low back pain on the same side in recent months.
Even though we think we can come up with our own awesome new way to move, and our bodies will usually try to do what we ask, when we think we are smarter than mother nature, we will usually pay for it in some way with an injury or inefficiency in the way we move.
Now, even though we uncovered some additional issues, the best part was that once she walked for a few laps up and down the hall way, forcing herself to put weight through her big toe as she pushed off, her outside ankle pain lessened significantly. The challenge became how do we get back to normal?
That’s for next time…