I began this blog by writing ‘actions follow desires’ because this tenet represents the key to understanding the importance of placing a cultural context around an analysis of any topic – including running. If we want to understand ‘what we are doing’, we naturally look back to the root cause of those behaviours – the belief or desire generating those actions.
At a biomechanical level, we need to adjust our terminology ever so slightly. Traditionally our motor actions and the muscle activity generating these actions were perceived as controlled by some ‘Overseeing Will’. Today, we understand this not to be the case. Rather we have found that our muscle activity is triggered, almost entirely subconsciously, by the expression of an idea or a thought – usually shaped as a desire or an intent to accomplish something. For example, your subconscious may register a rock flying towards you triggering the ‘idea’ or ‘intent’ to ‘move out of the way’. Likewise children’s insatiable appetite for exploration triggers many thoughts and intents activating the wide variety of movements upon which adult motor skills are developed.
The Darkness That Comes Before
Just as we are blind to many of the beliefs that control our daily actions, so we are largely unaware of the constant stream of ideas that generates muscle activity and then motor action (or simply ‘movement’). This causes many challenges in the teaching of and correcting of movements including the skill of running. You see: your brain has a very strong ‘idea’ of what the label ‘running’ means. It has similarly strong notions about getting up from a chair, walking or standing. The moment I, or any other coach or trainer, tells you to ‘stand up’ or ‘run’, then this idea is spontaneously generated in your subconscious in parallel with all the muscle firing patterns your brain has come to associate with this idea. So if I tell you to ‘run without tensing your calves so much’ or ‘run with your neck more relaxed’, I am fighting a losing battle because your brain has a firm idea of the activation pattern it needs for the ‘idea’ of running.
In one of my favourite non-fiction book series, author R. Scott Bakker presents the reader with a sect of monastic monks who study what they call ‘The Darkness That Comes Before’ where the darkness represents the causes of our actions and ‘comes before’ refers to the fact that our actions are dictated by what automatic behaviours our past has inculcated in us. Because we are essentially blind to this darkness we cannot recognise what ideas are triggered to match what movements nor are we generally conscious or aware of how we deviate from the optimal movement in each situation. The second part of this ignorance – of our own flaws – comes not just from being unaware of what ideas our subconscious holds but also because we lack a standard to compare with. In addition, even if we understood the ideal standard movement – such as the ideal running technique for a particular situation – we generally lack to observational skills to recognise the deviations.
The environment provided by Mother Nature in traditional hunter-gatherer society would have circumvented this limitation because failure to meet the standard would have been constantly punished – move incorrectly and harm or discomfort would follow. As an additional advantage everyone around you would display near-optimal movement patterns because they grew up in a similarly optimal environment for motor skill learning. The human brain is flooded with so-called ‘mirror neurons’ which allow us to very effectively replicate the behaviours of others (even animals). This advantage turns against us in a society where the majority of the population display dysfunctional movement patterns – your mirror neurons are being fed junk on a daily basis. We also no longer have a perfect environment for learning without external feedback from others – chairs and cushioned shoes are often our main interaction points with the world around us.
The wreckage of modern culture- us
While technology has wrecked this disaster upon us, some of our modern inventions can help alleviate the damage: the camera lens, preferably coupled with an observer who understands what deviations he is looking for and how to address them (a coach). ‘The camera never lies’ is an old adage holding very true for the observation of athletic movement. Because we are blind to the ‘darkness’ (the causes of our poor movement) that ‘come before’ and we do not know what standard to aspire to nor how to recognise how we deviate, we need help. The ‘shock treatment’ method is to remove the filters of modernity – no more chairs, no more cushioned shoes, no more sedentary living. This approach has some merits but is not totally practical for most people and also violates the most important rule in coaching (to my mind) – ‘stochastic tinkering’, a primary directive that all changes we make to athletes should be small and incremental. You cannot simply release a domesticated animal back into Nature full hog – and man is today the ultimate domesticated Beast.
We must reintroduce him gently into the optimal natural environment for his learning – such is the scale of his dysfunction. Coaches can observe how we move on camera and show us the truth allowing making us aware of the deviations of our actions from the optimal action we should be making. The knowledgeable coach can further explain the full chain of events (‘The Darkness’ turned to light) causing the deviations you see. It is tempting to look simply at the ‘deviations’ and attack them head on. But the deviations often have root causes that are part of a causal chain going back many steps. When trying to fix movements, we are better off going as close to the root as we can. A coach may notice, for instance, that entire upper body is not ideally placed for mechanical advantage when you run – shoulders are rounded, chest constricted and head slopes forward and down. We could attack the muscles and joints involved directly and try to move them back what we consider the ideal position but this approach falls short of tracing the problem back to the root. We arrive there by asking ‘why do we see this shape’? One answer may be ‘the shoulders are rounded and the chest constricted because of the forward head position’. This prompts another question (familiar to Six Sigma practitioners as the ‘5 whys technique’): ‘why is the head in this position?’. Knowing that this athlete is an office-worker and having observed them sit, the coach may deduce ‘because the runner spends most of his day with his head in this position and the brain thus considers this the default position’.
Wrong ideas? no way out!
Now we have a working hypothesis that seems to trace the problem back to a habitual pattern strong enough to make itself known in a variety of movements including running. The hard work begins here: breaking the pattern. A few simple exercises can raise the awareness of the athlete (enlightening the darkness) allowing them to correct ‘on the fly’ when they feel a deviation. But again this approach has limits because your brain’s ‘idea’ of posture is wrong (it includes a non-optimal default head position). Over-riding the idea is forcing a tug of war between the conscious and the subconscious brain meaning we have merely built a compensation on top of a wrong idea. You are actively trying to override the subconscious program instead of changing the subconscious program at its source. Because the subconscious programming – your ideas about what things should be – are created by habit they can also only be broken at that level. This means we need to establish a new normal but removing the habitual sitting pattern and replacing it with another. But the habit itself is a product of the environmental signals. If I sit in front of a computer all day that is in a certain position then I will continue to revert to the incorrect position. Conscious awareness will merely allow me to constantly fight this urge but it does not change the default. To change the default we must instead change the environmental stimuli that creates the idea in the first place. Subconscious routines are believed to have evolved as the primary driver of our daily activities because they take less energy (thus are more efficient) than higher level brain functions. This makes sense as you would otherwise need to bring your attention to every little movement you make (such as taking a cup out of the cupboard).
As you will quickly notice constantly bringing your attention to the execution of this task is onerous. Rather if you suspect you pick up the spoon incorrectly, why not place the spoons in a cupboard and in a precise position in that cupboard that forces you to pick it up correctly? This is the corrective strategy most likely to result in sustainable long-term changes when it comes to deviations in running technique and movement in general such as a sub-optimal default head position. This could mean changing the position of the computer, adapting a dynamic desk to a place that encourages the optimal position to emerge or to
Today, we see a lot of effort going into ‘changing your brain’s perception of centre’. This is very laudable and as general movement practice probably not a bad practice. But we cannot be certain of the transfer from general training to the specific movement because your brain has an ingrained idea of that particular skill. So by doing head position drills you may be able to educate your brain correctly of the central position of the head and attain perfect range of motion. But you have no guarantee that your brain will recognise this position as the correct one of the already ingrained skill of running. If you cannot attain the head position then you must obviously work on that first and then setup an environment in which you will naturally chose to adopt the desired position.
How action really ‘acts’
The real title of this post should be ‘ideas and action follow stimuli simultaneously’. A much less satisfying name but closer to how we actually act – in life or sport. We can simplify the steps like this:
- Our body receives a STIMULI (‘alarm clock rings’)
- A subconscious REACTION (‘jump out of bed’) is triggered in absolute parallel with the formation of an IDEA (‘I must get out of bed’)
- The IDEA reaches our conscious mind after the fact but we have the illusion that the IDEA triggered the ACTION (which was in reality a REACTION)
This means that the ACT of running is not an ACTION as much as a REACTION to whatever stimuli trigger us to engage in this physical activity. John Dewey defined these REACTIONS as HABITS in a broader sense than we normally interpret the word, a key definition for trainers and coaches to understand: ‘an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response.’
So habits are responses acquired throughout our life as means to perform certain intentions that we label ideas – i.e. ‘I must perform a jump (HABIT/ACTION) to cross this stream (INTENTION/IDEA)’. We wish to believe that simply by applying our DESIRE or changing the PURPOSE of our action we can improve the quality of that jump. The problem is that the moment we think of our ACTION as jumping we have already recruited the faulty habit that is already in place around your brain’s IDEA of what a jump is.
What solution have we then when most traditional methods of movement intervention and coaching are not fully able to over-ride the HABITS (again ‘the Darkness’) the comes before our ACTIONS? A new field of practice has emerged called Neurodynamics a – a new approach to the study of movement – pioneered by professor Theodore Dimon – who summarises the whole problem I hope you are coming to realise in this post:
The natural response to dealing with these problems (ed: our bodies not functioning as well anymore as they used to ) is to perform movements in order to strengthen muscles that are weak or to stretch and release muscles that are tight. Yet anyone who tries these methods is ultimately disappointed for the simple reason that the body works as a natural or atuomatic system , and methods focused on correcting it cannot restore the naural workings of the total system or help us to understand why it isn’t working naturally. Because we have not yet understood what the problem is, we blindly pursue methods that promise various benefits and provide temporary relief. But no amount of exercise, bodywork, or stretching is going to put the body right if we don’t first understand how it’s designed to work and how to move in ways that are consistent with our natural funcitoning.’ – Neurodynamics, 2015
He goes on to tease us with the solution
The key to natural movement, as I will show in this book, is not to strengthen or relax muscles, train the body, or correct movement patterns, but to understand how the body is designed to function naturally, how to restore it when it is interfered with and, ultimately, how to use it at a more conscious level in everyday living.’
Neurodynamics and Neo-humans
While it goes beyond the scope of this already long article to go through the practical fixes of neurodynamics (I recommend purchasing the book), you can identify the key aspects to over-riding the HABIT/IDEAS that your motor actions are now slaves to. First of all note ‘interfered with’. We are a natural system in an increasingly man-made world. Our bodies are thrust out of their evolutionary context and into narrow shoes and the low-gravity environment of chairs. We are bombarded by alien signals in excessive amounts – EMF, work stress, manufactured food stuff, toxins and more. All of these signals trigger HABITS/IDEAS that are not correct – ‘interfering with the natural function’ of your body.This has happened to such a point that the majority of our ideas about how we should be moving are simply incorrect at a cultural and social level. Because our ideas are incorrect our treatment modalities are also misguided and misdirected. Many of our doctors, coaches and therapists have lost knowledge of what a natural human being should look, move and act like because they deal only with ‘neo-humans’ (products of unnatural modern processes).
We have a conception that the current ‘normal’ is ‘natural’ when in fact current ‘normal’ is ‘unnatural’. A prime example is our understanding of the human foot as pointed out by the BTR coaching system, Lee Saxby and Dr Dan Liebermann in recent years and Dr Dudley Morton before them: we believe a foot with a big toe pointing inwards is ‘normal’ and thus do not act on the assumption that this represents an unnatural state – the big toe is in fact out of position because it was ‘interfered’ with. The modern fix is to manage this ‘normal state’ instead of ‘understanding how the foot is designed to function naturally’ to rephrase Dimon’s words. This ties into the prevailing cultural belief among too many medical practitioners that we are ‘born broken’ rather than ‘born largely perfect’ (the latter being the case – of course with the amendment that we are born ‘nearly perfectly adapted to our ancestral rather than our current environment’).
A quick to do list
I will end on that note and why I know it may be frustrating for those who prevailed with this long post to not yet have clear answers, I refer to the book and upcoming articles as well as the below quick summary:
- When something is not working, do not try to change it through force of will but first ask the question ‘how is my body intended to work in this situation’ (i.e. ‘how am I meant to execute running if my body had not been interfered with by modern life’)
- Ask ‘now that I know the natural state what tools are out there which I can use to return myself to that state’
- Keep in mind that stimuli from the environment writes the code of our software – the simplest thing to do is to remove as many harmful modern stimuli from your environment as you can safely do in a step by step manner (wear shoes with less interference, stop wearing sun-glasses all the time, sit less, use your technology less, do not expose yourself to unnatural light frequencies, do not eat processed foods and so on).