Thursday, November 10, 2011

Neurology, Psychology and Pedagogy: Running on your Brain

In working with the folks in my Miserable Runners Group (MRG), and in the additional studying I've been doing, I've come to realize that there are only a few fundamental things a body must do to run comfortably. Remember, I'm talking about comfortable running here, with a stride that is merely effective, not necessarily fast or efficient.

But if you look around at all the "learn to run" methods out there, you'd think there were hundreds of different ways to run, with each one claiming the others are wrong or misguided!

Sure, there are differences, but mainly in style or order or emphasis, not, I now believe, in principal content (allowing for minor variations and additions/omissions between them).

Why then are there all these different approaches, if they all boil down to essentially the same thing? And why does each have its 'to the death' proponents and detractors?

I believe a big part of it comes down to psychology (how we think) and pedagogy (how we can be taught), both of which combine to determine how we, as individuals, will learn best. The study of learning has resulted in the description of several "Learning Modalities" ("LMs" from here on).

Depending on who you talk to, and in what context, there are up to 8 different LMs humans use to acquire skills and knowledge (just ask Google). Since running is a physical skill, we'll focus only on the LMs related to learning a physical skill, which include:
  1. Linguistic/Logical/Verbal/Auditory: "Tell me what to do."
    This would be either Oral (a lecture or audio recording) or Reading (a book without pictures).
  2. Visual: "Show me what to do. Let me watch someone do it right."
    Live demo, or video, or detailed images in a book or website.
  3. Tactile/Proprioceptive/Kinesthetic: "Walk me through the motions."
    Literally taking the student by the hand, with continual hints and corrections.
  4. Naturalist/Experimentalist/Intrapersonal: "I'll figure it out on my own."
  5. Intrapersonal/Social/Observational: "Let me watch others learn it."
You'll notice I used lots of synonyms above: Each of the various communities involved with the study of learning (psychology, cognitive science, educators, etc.) has evolved its own specialized lingo, and splits hairs in different ways (mainly on how others do or don't participate in the learning process). Most groups do agree on a basic trio: Visual, Auditory, and Tactile. However, I find these three to be too simplistic to be useful in actual learning environments.

We each use all of the above LMs, but seldom all at once. We each tend to have one or more dominant or preferred LMs. However, the LMs used in any specific situation will generally depend on the task at hand, the environment, and the available resources.

If you look at the content of the various running instruction and coaching systems, you will see many of the differences between them boil down to different levels of emphasis placed among the various LMs. It can be almost comical to watch authors attempt to invoke other LMs within the context of a book: Way too often it can fail miserably (which is why there are so many DVDs and YouTube videos out there). Quite often, the author's own least-favored LMs can limit or restrict what can be taught and how well it can be taught.

When the student's dominant LMs align with the instructor's, Magic Happens! It can feel like the instructor or author or coach has climbed into our minds and bodies to directly and rapidly implant knowledge and skills. But it would be silly to have to wait for such magic before we can learn: We must be adaptable, both as students and instructors, and try to make the best possible use of all available LMs. When it comes to learning, the integrated use of multiple LMs is always greater than the sum of using individual LMs.

So then, do variations in the use of LMs account for the differences between, say, "Chi Running" and "The POSE Method"? Combined with, perhaps, a different ordering of the chapters?

To a significant extent, yes, but not completely: The LMs are mainly concerned with getting knowledge into our brains. Getting our bodies to do what our brains want them to do is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

It turns out, not only do we each use a different range and combination of LMs, but each of us has different ways of using our minds to control complex body motion. For example, if I want to encourage you to use a short, quick stride, I could say any of the following, some of which may work better for you than for others:
  • Put your foot down sooner.
  • Lift your foot sooner.
  • Take smaller steps.
  • Don't put as much weight on your heel.
  • Be light on your feet.
  • Swing your arms faster.
Each of the above may sound like a very different thing, since each describes a different portion of the stride. I used to think they were different things. To an elite athlete, perhaps they are. For a beginner, in reality they are different views or perspectives (not parts), of the same thing.

When watching various coaches in action, I'd occasionally see them get frustrated when advice that works for one beginner fails miserably for another with the same problem. They'd spend time teaching it using all available LMs, but the athlete would still prove unable to put that specific piece of advice into action.

I've been through it myself, while trying to help beginner open-water swimmers include key motions in their stroke. For example, if I wanted you to increase the amount of body roll in each stroke, I could say any of the following:
  • Breathe by turning your body to get your face to the side, not your neck.
  • Get a shoulder out of the water with each stroke.
  • Get an eye above the water even on the non-breathing side.
  • Roll your hips more.
  • Swim "skinny" in the water, more on your side.
Some swimmers would 'get it' from one description, while other swimmers would 'get it' from another. I'd go through the sequence until finding the one (or combination) that worked best. Quite often, it seems we are searching for a 'trick' that suddenly makes the desired motion 'make sense' and 'just happen'.

What's going on here? Why do we often need to use different descriptions (within the same LM) to achieve a given result?

My first thought was that it had something to do with differences in how we each process language. But that can't be it: Neither the language being used, nor the concept being described, are complex enough to be affected by differences in language use or comprehension. Not even by those for whom English is a second or third language. I rarely have had anyone appear to be confused by what I meant by the phrases I used. They just didn't know how to make their bodies do what the words meant!

I did some reading about how our conscious thoughts are turned into physical action. It turns out, we have direct conscious control over only limited parts of our musculature. For example, if I tell you to wiggle just your little finger, it is easy. But if I tell you to wiggle just your little toe, it may well be impossible for you to do.

We have significant conscious control over our hands. Commands to the rest of the body get processed in unconscious ways before the relevant muscles get activated. While it is easy to blink both eyes on command, it is much harder to blink just one eye. And we barely have control over our arms: Try patting your stomach with one hand while rubbing the top of your head with the other. Then switch. Even such simple motions have a large degree of unconscious processing involved, and overcoming that processing can be very difficult.

This is why we often need to do repetitive drills to teach our bodies to perform new motions, such as playing a complex Bach piece on the piano. Such training processes actually lay down new neural pathways within the conscious brain, and between the brain and the muscles involved.

Repetition is not always needed: In many instances an appropriate pathway already exists, but we lack direct conscious access to it. But if we think about a thing in different ways, then different pathways get activated, and we may find that one way of thinking suddenly produces the desired action when other ways of thinking failed.

This is what I believe happens in many beginner athletes, but the extent to which this can happen appears to diminish as athletic performance improves. Simply put, as experience builds, then if a desired pathway exists, at some point it would already have been accessed. So as you become more proficient, you may find that repetitive drills are more often needed to implement even a minor technique change.

I believe beginners are poised to make immense gains from the outset, mainly because thinking a different thought can have a rapid and direct physical response.

It is almost as if the nerves to our muscles comprehend only a subset of the language we think with, and we need to keep trying different thoughts, using different wordings, until we stumble upon a conscious thought the motor neurons 'understand'. And if we fail to stumble upon one, then we need to create it through repetitive drills.

There is lots of literature about how repetitive drills work. One important aspect is that much of the processing that controls our muscles happens far outside of our conscious brains. The spine performs a massive amount of processing: If we stub our toe, our leg muscles start to pull the foot back long before we consciously feel the pain. If we touch a hot pan with our hand, the same thing happens. Much 'reflex' action occurs in the spine, not the brain.

Reflexes are, by definition, involuntary actions. We are presently concerned with voluntary actions. These, too, require significant processing in the spine and 'lower' parts of the brain in order to happen. When we walk, we aren't consciously thinking about our balance, or how we will move our feet to react to changes in balance. We do control our walking to the extent that we set the speed and direction, yet we have no conscious involvement in making the individual muscles fire, or in integrating balance signals from the inner ear with muscular actions.

This processing occurs in parts of the brain and spine that are only mildly affected by conscious thought. Many repetitions are needed before the conscious thought will be able to cause the desired physical action on command. Or, conversely, to replace one automatic motion pattern with another.

When trying something completely new, when not trying to make only a tiny refinement in an existing motion, it is worth applying the effort needed to try thinking differently about the desired motion from every possible perspective, to see if we can stumble upon an existing pathway we can use to aid our efforts.

I believe this is why you will find that some beginner running technique books contain advice that 'just works' for you, while other equally well-written books do little or nothing for you. Part of it may be due to how the LMs are used. But a significant part of it is not about how the book teaches something, but it may instead be more about how the phrases the author has chosen interact with your specific brain-body connections.

The books that work best for the most people seem to do lots of repetition, not only to employ multiple LMs, but also to say the same thing in as many different ways as possible. The more advanced a book gets, the less often repetition is used for any purpose: Elite athletes and coaches are expected to do the work of using the appropriate LMs and finding the best ways to describe the concepts.

Beginners, on the other hand, have different needs, and can respond to methods of coaching that would be inapplicable to an advanced athlete. I believe many coaches have not yet learned this, and will often try to use elite techniques (and expect elite responses) when they interact with beginners.

Elites seem to need to break things down to their smallest components before changes can be made. When optimized performance is desired, the changes have to be customized to the athlete. The elite athlete typically learns less and less as they go on: They have mastered the fundamentals, and everything else is details. They have developed highly optimized neural pathways, and repetition is needed to change them. So it may take increased effort for an elite to learn the next 'detail'. More and more work for ever tinier improvements.

Beginners need to learn only a very small number of relatively simple things. Beginner triathletes can get along extremely well with a 'one size fits all' freestyle swim stroke, and a 'one size fits all' comfortable running gait. For the beginner to find that common stroke and gait, they will need to use their bodies in ways that have little resemblance to what they've done before. Everything is big changes: Nothing is details. But sometimes the beginner can 'get lucky' and make use of an existing pathway to rapidly learn large chunks of technique. The problem is finding those pathways.

I feel very fortunate that I started helping out with coaching while I was still very much a beginner: The instinctive way I coached was very close to how I learned, and it has only been recently that I've tried to figure out what's really been happening with the beginners I've worked with, including myself.

The key, sometimes, is just finding the right words. It's not about learning different parts of a technique (no beginner needs that), but learning a single technique by focusing on various parts until one of them gets results. The end result is the same, no matter which part 'works'!

Put another way, it is pointless to get caught up in what the 'ideal' gait for a specific beginner runner should be: There is no such thing. Only elites and experienced amateurs get to search for a personal 'ideal' gait. Beginners should seek only a 'comfortable' gait, and there is a common gait for that. The terminology and phrases used in both beginner and elite books may sound very similar, though I now understand the goals are different: For an elite, there may be one phrase that best describes a needed gait adjustment. For a beginner, there may be one phrase that can make the entire gait happen almost as a whole.

That's why I said at the beginning of this rather long post that there are only a very few things the body has to learn to become able to run comfortably. It's just a single, common, simple gait. The beginner doesn't need to be taught individual pieces and details, the beginner needs only to find the right description, which can often sound just like going through a list of details.

In other words: If you want to learn from a book, be prepared to get all the beginner books! I believe they all wind up at about the same place, despite taking paths that look very different.

I'll conclude with a few side notes, each of which should probably become its own future blog post:

Side Note #1: Based on my own experience as a patient, I believe much of Physical Therapy involves not just restoring physical range, speed or force of bodily motion, but more importantly on establishing conscious and unconscious control over that motion. All Physical Therapists will focus on improving the measurable aspects of strength and mobility: Only the best Physical Therapists will go beyond this to establish new activities and new levels of comfortable performance, even beyond what was present before the injury occurred! I believe this may be a significant factor in why some PT results 'stick' and others 'fade'.

Side Note #2: When an experienced athlete is recovering from a significant injury requiring a prolonged absence from running, rather than trying to return to a prior 'ideal' gait, it may be better to become a beginner again, to quickly learn (or re-learn) a simple 'comfortable' gait, and then evolve that gait to become a new 'ideal' gait. I suspect it will permit a faster return to running with a reduced risk of repeated injury. And it may even lead to a new performance peak, rather than trying to force a changed body to perform using an unchanged gait.

Side Note #3: I believe each of us should always keep a 'comfortable beginner's gait' in our running arsenal, even as we learn advanced techniques and build ever greater speed and endurance. I call it my 'Git Her Home' gait, which I will use whenever I suddenly find myself spent before the end of the run, and stopping or walking is not (yet) an option. This has happened to me with annoying frequency as I continually attempt to maximize my performance: I will bonk by making a nutrition mistake, or I will take a hill too hard and need to recover at the top, or I get sucked into running on the shoulder of someone who is much faster than I am, or I discover in the middle of a run that I actually do have a cold, or I stumble and have trouble getting all the pieces working smoothly together again, or I realize my new shoes aren't as comfortable as I had hoped. My Beginner's Gait let's me keep running at faster than a jogging pace while simultaneously letting my body recover and sort itself out.

I am always disappointed to see top athletes suddenly go from all-out running to walking: It seems they have just two running speeds: All and Nothing, Win and Lose, with lots of suffering and little room for recovery while running. Perhaps that's what's needed to ascend to the top. I think the rest of us should have more usable gears. For us, the first goal should always be to enjoy the experience and finish without pain or injury, the second goal should be to maintain good form and avoid walking, and only the third goal should be to win or set a new PR.

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