Re-thinking skill acquisition for the endurance athlete



Triathlon season and the running season are coming to a close, which means the quantity of swimming, biking, and running endurance athletes perform will be greatly reduced. For athletes that race regularly during the months of May-September, there really isn’t much time for many other movement hobbies, especially if there are work and family obligations (and, while blowing off work for a 5 hour bike ride so you can spend time with your significant other after work is awesome, it doesn’t always bode well with the boss on a regular basis). For athletes that have been nursing injuries or aches and pains, the off-season is an excellent opportunity to add movement variability and improve efficiency.

In an Australian survey of 113 triathletes, the factors that commonly led to injury in both short course and long course athletes were biomechanics/technique, training factors, demographics, designated training regimes, health and medical monitoring, and preparation (Gosling,, 2013). Now, while demographics aren’t exactly something that can be changed, the off-season can be a great time to look at several of the other factors on this list. It is easy (and a bit of a no-brainer) to work on your weak link during the off season. But what if part of working on your biomechanics included stepping back from the perceived weak link, interspersing novel stimuli to look at the movement in a different way, and getting away from the idea that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to perform movement?

There are two factors that prevent us as athletes from moving forward in our ability to perform a task in a more efficient manner: motor control, or how our brain signals our body to coordinate the muscles needed for the task at hand, and physiological barriers, which include everything from tissue adaptations to cardiovascular limitations. Mark Latash points out in his book Fundamentals of Motor Control our body never signals the exact same intramuscular coordination for a task, so if you go for a 5 mile run, each step isn’t always exactly the same as the previous one, despite the fact the steps may look quite similar. As we fatigue, our movements tend to get sloppy and we no longer have the muscular endurance (physiological ability) to support our earlier gait pattern; to run the same speed, we need to find a different strategy. If we want to get better at a skill, it is important to train both motor control and the physiological aspects of strength and endurance. It is important to allow the musculoskeletal system to adapt gradually to increased demands in order to reduce injury risk. (Research supports this. A survey of 662 marathon runners found a correlation between injury and those training less than 30km/week, while those that trained 30-60km week reported less injuries. Physiologically, the runners that ran more were prepared for the demands of the marthon distance. It is worthwhile to note that previous injury also correlated to greater injury risk, (Rasmussen,, 2013)).

The next question, of course, is how to apply this? Imagine you have an $8000 mountain bike and you only know how to use 2 gears. On the flat, paved road. What a waste of a great machine, right? This is how many of us treat our bodies. It is capable of amazing things, in a variety of environments, but we don’t really take the time to know how it works. And if you are thinking you know perfectly well how your body works, thank you very much, are you holding any tension in your neck, jaw, low back, feet, or hips while you are reading this? Without thinking too much about it, do you know if you are sitting mostly on your right sitting bone or your left? Do you have a tendency to sit in the same manner all of the time? Do you carry the same tension discussed a moment ago while you swim, bike, run, walk, or vacuum? Most of us don’t really have a good idea how this incredible tool works or how one thing might affect another, and even those of us that study and think about it all of the time are constantly discovering new things and new connections, just like an expert mountain biker who knows how to use his expensive gear is constantly learning how it handles on different terrain and at different speeds. Spend a month on the off season and make it your goal to learn how your body works, where you habitually hold tension, and how you can make it stronger. This means doing something new, that you can’t do on autopilot (this will help mentally prepare you for the running skill acquisition suggestions I describe later). Take Pilates, study yoga, try Gyrotonics, do some Feldenkrais, hire a personal trainer that focuses on how your body moves and what you are experiencing. If you don’t have the finances to afford learning how your body works because you are saving up for 2015 gear and races, spend $30 and buy either Better Movement by Todd Hargrove or Move your DNA by Katy Bowman (there are other books out there, but these are the two best that I have read this year on movement efficiency). Read them and DO THE EXERCISES. Even if they seem tedious. And don’t do them just once. Do them regularly for a month. Figure out your gear, how your body moves, and how you can make it move more efficiently.

While figuring out how your body moves, it is possible you will find places you can’t access. These might be places that don’t move as well or seem sticky, or you might notice a lack of strength. Learn how to address these areas through a comprehensive, individualized strength and mobility plan. Remember, tissue elasticity and strength is necessary to explore moving in a variety of different ways, on different surfaces. If you have suffered from injury in the past, it is important to make sure you didn’t continue to move around the injury once the injury healed. If this is the case, it is worth the money to have an outsider (i.e., physical therapist) assess how you move. As noted above, previous injury increases risk of future injury. If there are weak links in your movement patterns, take the time to strengthen and mobilize, improving tissue quality and overall strength.

Now that you have a better connection with your body, you can move on to skill acquisition. I am going to suggest some things that are going to seem odd and contradictory, and I am going to suggest you do them for a month. The first thing I want you to do for this month of your off season, is to not run your “normal” run. I am not talking about the run that you do once in a while, or even the run that you do once a week. I am talking about your go to run, the one where you know every turn, every sight and smell, every stop sign. If you always walk out your door and turn left, I want you to turn right. If you love running by the ocean, that is great, but do it from a different direction. It turns out that transfer of learning works really well if you aren’t always studying or practicing in the same spot (Carey, 2014). This will allow you to be a little more mentally alert and focused on what you are doing, leading us to deliberate practice. When we run, we tend to focus on the numbers on our watch- how fast, how many miles, average heart rate. These are all great markers for fitness, but not so great when working on skill. Rather than running your normal 45 minutes/5 miles/same run/4 times a week, try running 2-3 times a week, with at least one day between, and split your run up into 2 times a day. If you are used to running 40 minutes, that is great; you are still going to run 40 minutes, just 20 in the morning, and 20 in the evening. This is the same amount of load on your tissues, but it will allow you to focus better mentally and begin to transfer what you learn. We tend to focus on the “right” and the “wrong” way of doing things. Below are some learning ideas that remove “right” and “wrong” from the picture, focusing instead on efficiency and increasing amount of ways we are capable of running.

Week 1: Remember where you were holding tension earlier? See if you are holding that tension when you run. Focus on that area, and see if you can find a way to relax it. That might mean adjusting shoulder position, playing with rib position, or unclenching your jaw or glutes. It is really difficult to focus for long periods of time (another benefit of the short runs), so focus for a little while, give yourself permission to day dream for a couple of minutes, and return to your focus. Did the tension come back? Can you relax again doing the same thing or making a different adjustment?

Week 2: Play with your running stride. Remember, for the purpose of this month, there is no “right” or “wrong.” The first 2-3 minutes of your run, notice how you run. What happens if you change your foot stride? Is it easier or harder? Do this for 1-2 minutes and then return to your normal running style. Does that feel smoother, or less smooth than what you were just doing? Continue playing with your running stride throughout your run, playing with length of steps, width of feet, how your feet land, spending 1-2 minutes playing and 2-3 minutes of “normal.” You can play with arm swing in the same manner, swinging the arms not at all, swinging them close to your body, across your body, far away from your body. Notice how this feels and notice how it feels to return to your “normal” stride. By the end of the week, see if your normal has changed at all to feel more efficient.

Week 3: Watch video of world class marathoners. Find one that resonates with you. You don’t have to put words to why you like this person’s gait better than another’s. Study it. Watch how he moves, watch his foot strike, watch his leg turnover, watch how his hips move. Try to internalize this person’s running stride. Periodically throughout your runs this week, try to run like that person. Is it easier or harder than your normal running gait? Similar to week 2, spend 1-2 minutes imitating and then 2-3 minutes returning to your normal gait. Again, at the end of the week, notice if you feel like you are running any differently.

Week 4: Practice running efficiently. For your runs this week, if at all possible, pick some different terrain than you are used to and every 2-3 minutes, try to run find ways to run as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Remember the area of tension you worked on in week 1? Make sure that area is relaxed and focus on running smoothly up hill, down hill, on trail, on the sand. Pick up the speed a little bit. Can you maintain that smooth and efficient feeling? What about when you slow down? What is required for you to move in an effortless manner?

After your month is over, return to your normal, 45 minute run, taking a left out your front door. Does your run feel differently than it did one month ago?

Verrell, examined the differences between how novice cellists played versus how professional cellists played. The novice cellists used their entire arm to move the bow, allowing them only one way to play their instrument. The expert cellists, on the other hand, used a much finer wrist motion to play, allowing many more variations and expressions of moving the bow to be expressed. If we only have one way to run, we are like the novice cellist. If conditions call for something different, we are unable to adapt and if we don’t practice in a focused, engaged way, we will never advance. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), our lives don’t require movement for survival, so are tissues aren’t always adapted to handling the load required to run well and our movement vocabulary is often limited. Make it your goal to change that. View movement as a skill and know that you are capable of so much more than you think.

Yours in health and wellness,

Gosling, C.M., Forbes, A.B., & Gabbe, B.J., (2013). Health professionals’ perceptions of musculoskeletal injury and injury risk factors in Australian triathletes: a factor analysis. Physical Therapy Sport, 14(4), 207-212.
Latash, M., (2012). Fundamentals of Motor Control. Academic Press: New York.
Rasmussen, C.H., Nielsen, R.O., Juuls, M.S., & Rasmussen, S., (2013). Weekly running volume and risk of running-related injuries among marathon runners. International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy, 8(2), 111-120.
Carey, B. (2014). How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens. Random House.
Verrel, J., Pologe, S., Manselle, W., Lindenberger, U., & Wollacott, M. Coordination of degrees of freedom and stabilization of task variables in a complex motor skill: expertise related differences in cello-bowing. Experience Brain Research, 224(3), 323-334.