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Running: Intuitive Activity or Complex Motor Pattern?

– Derek M. Hansen – August 7, 2008 –

Running tends to be the most common training activity for individuals seeking to improve their fitness. It’s cheap and everyone knows how to run – left-right, left-right. For some, it’s right-left, right-left. Coaches of sport teams use running to condition their athletes whether it is running around a field or court, running back and forth in shuttles, or running up stairs or hills. And, young children run around for hours as a part of normal playtime.

All active, able-bodied human beings have engaged in running activities throughout their life to some degree. Yet, despite the popularity of this activity, very few individuals know how to run well. A very small percentage of individuals are considered “natural” runners, and are able to hold stride comfortably and effortlessly. But even these individuals need technical training to fully realize their athletic potential.

Thus, the answer to the question, “Is running an intuitive activity or is it a complex series of motor patterns?” is yes. It is both. This reality does have significant implications for how we instruct athletes and non-athletes on how to run properly. The teaching progression for runners, whether they are sprinters or long-distance athletes, must take into consideration the duality – natural and complex – of this activity. Coaches who approach running instruction from only one of these dimensions will likely be missing integral pieces of the running puzzle.


Distant ancestors of the human race walked upright over 4 million years ago. Australopithecines were “bipedal intermediaries between the apelike and the subsequent homo-like forms, and were unlikely to have been able to outrun most large predators,” as cited by Bernd Heinrich in his book Why We Run. It is obvious that running bipedal – even if it was slow running – has been occurring amongst the human race for a very, very long time. Thus, to some degree, running is hard-wired in our species.

I would argue, however, that good running is not hard wired. Running athletes from 100 years ago cannot compare in their performances versus athletes from the 21st century – in most part due to better training and better technical awareness. Athletes from the past still knew how to run and could cover the competition distances in Track and Field events relatively fast. But if you examine film footage of pre-1930’s sprinters, the technique being employed by the most athletes could be compared to what you would see at a local high school competition in the current era: athletes straining to reach the finish line, with possibly the first two or three finishers holding form for most of the race. Modern day elite performers have greater resources to provide them with better technical execution over the entire race. Additionally, equipment advances in the form of better footwear and competition surfaces have also helped to advance performances. The question is how do we advance beyond the evolutionary hard-wiring stage to the point of a “software” upgrade that enables individual runners to clean up their mechanics?

Feel: Moving Beyond Rote Instruction

rote – n. (rot)

  1. A memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension: learn by rote.
  2. Mechanical routine.

Part of the challenge of moving beyond our hard-wired condition and toward elite performances is achieving technical optimization through gaining a sense of trust and awareness with athletes. When teaching someone how to run properly, it is important to get the individual to feel comfortable when running. More importantly, it is critical to get an athlete to feel comfortable while performing the correct technique. This is done through constant repetition of the proper mechanics. The accumulation of proper technical work – either through the use of drills or the actual movement itself – will lead to a greater sense or feel of the proper mechanics, providing a frame of reference for the individual. Video review of their technique will also help to reinforce the proper running mechanics. It allows them to connect what they feel with what is actually happening when they run. The kinesthetic feel of proper running must be ingrained into their sub conscience so that good running is intuitive and reflexive, not cognitive.

This is much like a golf swing, where the novice, when learning how to drive a ball, will feel awkward regardless if their swing is mechanically correct or incorrect. They have no frame of reference for good or bad technique because they have little or no experience at all. If left to their own devices, the novice golfer would most likely continue with poor technique and become accustomed to the feel of bad mechanics. However, if a golf instructor intervened early on in the process and provided proper instruction on a consistent basis, the novice golfer would then become more comfortable with good technique and gain a better feel for a mechanically correct golf swing. This is why it is always harder to “teach an old dog new tricks.” Old habits are hard to break.

What I typically encounter when teaching athletes how to run is a condition of comfort with poor technique. Unfortunately, good running technique in the sports world is the exception rather than the rule. Most athletes have never received proper running instruction through their developmental years in their sport. Hence, poor mechanical habits are ingrained over the years and become comfortable for the athlete – even if that technique has resulted in sub-par performance or even injury. Thus, part of the evolution of teaching one of these athletes how to run mechanically correct is having them trust the discomfort of running properly. A common comment I receive from individuals when have them perform optimized technique is, “This feels strange!”

Awkwardness will prevail in the initial stages, particularly with drills. Your job as a coach is to ensure that drills that confuse and confound are kept to a minimum. Setting the athlete up for success is key in this process. For complex movements in sport, many times we find that slowing down the movement will make it easier to learn and assimilate. This is sometimes the case with Olympic weightlifting movements when we use a lighter bar to trace the proper sequence of movement and bar path for an athlete. With running, however, it is sometimes more prudent to keep things moving at a reasonable pace. I often see athletes agonize over the sequence of limb movements required for a Marching “A” movement (high-knee marching), putting the right hand forward with the right knee lifting, which is completely opposite of what is required. But when we speed the motion up to a running pace, limb movements sequence much more fluidly and appropriately. This is because the intuitive elements of running supersede the learned aspects. The key is to make all elements of running more intuitive and less cognitive.

This concept of making running an intuitive activity is critical. As a coach, you will have more success creating drills and running scenarios that move the athlete’s mind away from the task at hand. Many times I will focus on the action of the arms with athletes in order to correct postural flaws or lower extremity mechanics. A stronger upward arm motion will help to maintain proper posture, while emphasizing a downward pull with the arms can enhance knee drive. In both cases, you are shifting the emphasis to create an improvement somewhere else in the system.

Because running is a lower-brain function (i.e. non-cognitive), another way to improve efficiency is by enhancing flexibility and suppleness. By focusing on improving ease of movement you can facilitate the proper limb movements such as knee drive, heel recovery and hip extension without any additional expenditure of energy or effort. It is surprising how – with many aspects of biomechanics – the human body will perform the correct technique if you remove the obstacles to natural human movement with no cognitive intervention. In the example of running, improving hip mobility through both static and dynamic stretching, soft-tissue therapy and massage, as well as other muscle-tone reducing activities, can go a long way to increasing power output. Remember, almost every muscle has an opposing counterpart that can hinder movement (i.e. flexors versus extensors) and negatively impact ease of execution or even foster an environment for injury.


There are many different ways to enhance your running mechanics. A comprehensive approach is best, one which addresses mechanics on several different levels. Key methods include:

  1. Outlining key technical goals for your athletes. A checklist that identifies key technical elements and cues can help to enhance athlete awareness and guide them to achieving technical excellence. Awareness of self is half the battle when teaching someone new techniques. If the athlete knows what they need to work on, they can focus their attention on key elements rather than going blindly into the task.

  3. Breaking down the technique into smaller sub-elements that can be isolated through drills or technique oriented runs. These drills must be performed at the highest possible quality to ensure that they transfer effectively. Drills can include activities that isolate hip extension, foot recovery, ground contact, arm carriage, posture or combinations of these qualities. A drill can also be comprised of a run over a specified distance with key technical goals that address sub-components of running technique.

  5. Immediate video review to identify current technical issues and confirm prescribed technical adjustments. The quicker the review, the better. Athletes will be able to effectively connect what they feel with what they see to enhance kinesthetic awareness. Modern day flash-memory based digital cameras, which are relatively inexpensive, have the ability to provide video replays of drills and repetitions, sometimes in slow-motion.

  7. Specific stretching and therapy protocols for addressing key obstacles to efficient and free movement, as well as enhancing the availability of muscle fiber for contraction. Passive corrections (i.e. enhancing mobility to improve technique) to mechanics are always more easily assimilated than active corrections (i.e. telling an athlete to change mechanics). Many times if a muscle is tight, you will not be able to will it to do what you need it to do. This is why many top athletes have physical therapists on hand at training sessions to help with improving mechanics and efficiency, as well as minimize exposure to injury.

  9. Directed strength training to address key weaknesses in the running kinetic chain. Exercises that address body rigidity and foot reactivity during ground contact, hip extension power and upper body strength for arm carriage can significantly enhance overall mechanics. As we know, running alone cannot be the only conditioning tool in your arsenal. Other methods can enhance overall strength, power, speed and endurance qualities that contribute to better running performance.

Concluding Remarks

Hard-wiring aside, it is obvious that running athletes can improve performance through a dedicated effort to improve technical execution. The goal is to “upgrade your software” without taxing your “processor.” In layman’s terms, this means to improve your execution of technique through methods that do not require the athlete to over-think the problem and unnecessarily stress the central nervous system with laborious repetitions of improper mechanics. Methods that can be subtly introduced create greater body awareness and effect change over a gradual progression will be retained more readily. Additionally, in times where tension and stress can be maximal such as during competitions, running technique will be more stable and will not degrade. The inevitable result will be better performance, better-looking running and a reduced incidence of injuries. One might say it is an intuitive solution to a complex problem.