Neuromuscular Habits

Each of us performs movements over the course of a day that we don’t think about but which require a highly-trained brain/muscle connection. Standing from a chair, walking, stooping to pick something up, sitting back down, washing dishes, running, typing, etc. We have been practicing these movements for something like our age minus a year or three and the patterns are pretty firmly wired between the brain and all of the muscles that have to intricately coordinate to make these things happen. Standing is a complicated task requiring constant communication and response between the brain and our foot, leg, hip, trunk, neck and many other muscles. If someone gives you a moderate shove, you probably wont fall over and you probably wont have to think about how to compensate. It will just happen. This is phenomenal when you think about it. We cannot design a bipedal robot with this capability. The best we have is the segway, yet your brain and muscles know exactly how to do this.

The interesting thing is that, because of our chair, couch, car, and bed oriented lives, our training for all of these basic postural movements is totally out of whack throughout most of white-collar western society. We are weak where we should be strong (no, not your abs think lumbar, hip and deep core stabilizers) and short where we should be long (illio-psoas, cervical muscles) and dumb where we should be smart (the neuromuscular connection). Our neuromoscular connections are faint because we use chairs and beds and cars (and even bikes) to support our weight and get us around. The human tendancy is to cannabolize systems that aren’t being used so that resource may be dedicated elsewhere, or simply put dormant to save energy. My theory is that the 10% number reflecting the fraction of our brain power that we can access for higher thinking indicates that there’s a majority dedicated to motion, recruiting muscles, and when the shit hits the fan, allowing grandma to lift the car off of her grandchild.

All of this becomes even more hilarious when us western, white-collar types get it in our heads that running will save us. We read Born to Run, we have friends running 5 ks, 10ks, marathons, ultras. trail ultrarunning is all the rage now so we decide we have to keep up. Furthermore, we are constantly bombarded by media with the very real need for more exercise in our lives for health and, to eveyone’s credit who gets out there, we do these things. We haul our shortened, weak, stooped and dumb frames onto the pavement and hammer out some miles 5 days a week. And all of the postural compensations that our bodies have adapted into for desk-sitting and car driving actually work against forward movement. We overstride, our hips tilt, we lean back or slouch forward all leading to knee pain, IT issues, shin splints, TFL pain, bursitis, or my nemisis a nasty clicking where the psoas glides over the femur in my deep hip. It’s just gross.

Because we live lives that are static the majority of the time, our brain-muscle circuits are optimized for standing or sitting still. When we stand or sit we lock our knees, we slouch into our hips, we cross our legs, we fold our arms, we collapse into our spine in a forward arch — all of these things are adaptations that allow us to do what we have practiced which is to stand or sit still for hours on end and let our brains focus on other tasks. I’ve thought about getting a standing or even a treadmill desk but shied away because I know I’d have a hard time focussing on my work, my brain is dumb when it comes to supporting me and coordinating my movements, so a standing desk would make it impossible for me to concentrate at work until those pathways were efficiently rewired. But I digress.

So we run, and we get injured and we wonder why. We do mindless hip exercises, and we buy shoes with medial stabilizers and motion control and arch support, we wear knee braces, we take time off and do nothing, we foam roll, we start to feel okay and then we are injured again. Or better yet (this is my case) we buy into the barefoot movement thinking that it will force our brains to learn what it needs to and then get injured and wonder why it works for the kenyans and not us. We marvel at the fasties, the kenyan barefooters, the raramuri, the aged gurus running into their 70s or 80s. What do they have that we don’t? Why is my right knee in a chronic state of ache? They have well-trained neuromuscular circuits. They are strong, long, and smart where they need to be and I’m not and you probably aren’t either. This is not because they do 1000 clam shells a week. It’s because they have communication superhighways between their brains and the muscles that support their frame and lead to efficient running or walking or even standing. Either their brains never went down the road of allowing their bodies to soften to the world of chairs and cars and bikes or they trained their bodies out of that mode. So, how many miles of running does it take to get this training? 1000? 5000? 10000? The ol’ 10000 hours? Barefoot running? No! Going out and hammering the pavement or trails will never retrain the brain and muscles to do what needs to be done. The secret of the fasties is that they had a coach drilling them to re-recruit these circuits, the kenyan barefooters never went down the wrong road, the aged gurus are probably a mix.

Since injuring my knee last January, I’ve been reading a lot about this stuff. Sure, you read one book or a blog post and it’s easy to brush the author off as a zealot or a faddist (paleo diet for example) but for me all of this started to converge. I semi-randomly found Jay Dicharry’s book Anatomy for Runners when reading about a criticism of cross-fit endurance training. I was researching standing desks and ergonomics at work when I came across a lecture by Kelly Starrett at Google about posture, alignment, and connective tissue health. I was researching coaches in Victoria, BC and read about Marilyn Arsenault’s Mindful Strides clinics which emphasize posture and the postural training she learned as a professional singer and relearned when embarking on her path to becoming the women’s master’s record holder for the marathon (side note: this is why racing in Victoria can be discouraging — the town is stacked with Canada’s fastest runners, cyclists and triathletes and small enough that they tend to show up at every-day races). I began to assess myself and realized that my posture totally sucks from an athletic standpoint and that this was why my injury was becoming chronic.

So, how to move forward? You have to find someone who is drinking the Kool Aid or spend a lot of time learning and feeling and doing silly exercises. This stuff is hard to learn (or I should say relearn, when you first started walking, you knew all that you needed to know or were a blank enough slate to learn the right way easily) on your own, because without an external brain to help your brain, you can’t escape your own neuromuscular trap. When you actually achieve proper posture your brain will be screaming at you that you are doing it wrong, that you are falling over, that this can never work. I think of my first 10k run and how my brain was yelling at me for the last 1/2 saying that this was rediculous and impossible and that I should stop. Training. You need to redevelop all of those pathways, relearn proper alignment and motion. I’m enthusiastic about all of this right now because I finally enrolled in one of Marilyn’s clinics and am finding a happy convergence of what I’ve read and am enjoying learning how to put it in motion so to speak. Through the course of this “running” clinic, we will probably cover about 500 m running. All of the drills are about relearning the postural foundations of all movement including running. Yesterday we spent an hour learning how to stand; yep, just stand there. And we learned a little bit about breath. It was one of the most exciting classes of my life.

So, you don’t want to spend the money on a class or coach or good physio therapist? You certainly shouldn’t have to. You need to go to other modes of feedback such as your eyes and hands. You need to shoot video of yourself and compare your posture and stance to good posture and stance. You need to touch your butt when you walk or run to see if the right muscles are engaging. Scour race photo archives to see what you do during a race, and best of all, what you do at the end of a race! Compare those photos with the race winners (one thing I’ve noticed recently is that race-leading women almost always have much better form than the men they are running near because they have to be as efficient as possible to overcome the sloppiness that a man’s generally stronger hormonal and cardiovascular system allows)! Without a new form of feedback, all your wrongly-adapted channels will be telling you that the right way is the wrong way and vice versa. You have to use other pathways to help retrain the faulty ones be they external from another person, or internal through a different sensory system until you get things back in check.

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