Many runners spend hours every week in the gym performing a variety of strength training routines designed to help them improve power and reduce injuries. We know from research that this strength training is effective and pays dividends when it comes to performance and injury prevention.
However, there is often a missing component when it comes to transferring these gains in strength to running mechanics. You can have the strongest hips and glutes in the world, but if those muscles are not “firing” or activating properly during the running stride, then it doesn’t matter how strong you are, your running form is still going to suffer.
This inhibition or lack of activation (often “referred to as firing”) is why some runners still get injured, despite doing all the right core, hip and preventative exercises. In this article, we’re going look at muscle activation and inhibition in more depth to help you bridge the gap between strength and running mechanics.
How Muscle Fibers Work And Why They Become Inhibited
To understand the connection between muscle strength, inhibition and running form, it’s important to start with the basics. How do muscle fibers work and how do they become inhibited?
A muscle “fiber” is what we call a muscle cell. Muscle cells contract and relax in response to messages from our central nervous system. This signal is transmitted from your brain to the muscles via the nerves. These nerves then fire specific muscle fibers (called motor units) together to move the leg forward.
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As you contract specific motor units, opposing muscle fibers must relax. If relaxation of the opposing muscle fiber is not complete, then the contraction will be inhibited. This is what coaches mean when they say you’re not “firing” or activating a muscle group.
Lack of relaxation in the opposing muscle group can happen for two reasons. First, your central nervous system might not be coordinating the right signals at the right time — it is out of sync. Second, there could be a structural limitation — like an injury or a reduced range of motion.
By improving our ability to coordinate contraction and relaxation and eliminating any structural limitations, we reduce inhibition and thus run with more efficient and better mechanics.
The Disconnect Between Muscle Strength And Activation
This takes us back to the relationship between muscle strength and muscle activation. An inhibited muscle means that the muscle is not firing properly because the neural signal is not reaching the muscle or its movement is hindered. On the other hand, a weak muscle indicates the muscle is firing normally (not inhibited) but is lacking strength.
Most runners focus on the strength side of the equation since it’s the easiest to understand. But the activation element is equally important. Let’s use a commonly inhibited muscle group, the gluteals, to demonstrate how this disconnect works.
The glute muscles often become inhibited due to the adoption of poor posture, both during running and in everyday life. If you spend long periods of time sitting in a chair or if you run with your pelvis leaning slightly forward (anterior pelvic tilt), then the front of the hips (the hip flexors and psoas) become short and tight, while the back of the hips (gluteal muscles) become elongated and unable to fire properly.
Soon the body “forgets” how to use the gluteal muscles because it’s more efficient in the short-term to divert the neural signal intended for them to a stronger muscle close by to do the job instead.
This means the hamstrings, lower back, piroformis and even your knees and feet have to handle more of the load and force generating power to help you run faster. The result? Overuse injuries and inefficient mechanics.
How To Unlock Your Inhibitions
As mentioned, most runners address the strength issue, which is very important and cannot be ignored, but neglect the neural recruitment and inhibition aspect.
I believe addressing and eliminating muscular inhibitions is a process that should progress from conscious incompetence (understanding the basics of running mechanics and taking steps to improve through strength, stretching and drills); to conscious competence (running with a better awareness of what you are doing and using cues to remind yourself during a run); and finally unconscious competence (having eliminated the inhibitions and not needing to think about running with the correct form since it happens naturally).
To advance on this journey from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence, it’s critical to add the right exercises in a progressive manner to help train your body and nervous system to coordinate contraction and relaxation and eliminate any structural limitations.
I think the first step to improving form is eliminating any limitations to the proper movement and firing of the muscle groups. A full range of motion will help you take full advantage of the stretch reflex and ensure you have the flexibility to execute the proper movement patterns.
For example, if you can eliminate tightness in the hip flexors and develop a greater range of motion, your body will be able to fire the glute as intended and not have to bypass in favor of other muscle groups. So, you should start by adding some active stretching (AIS) before or after your runs.
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The next step is adding in running-specific drills designed to mimic the specific characteristics of technically sound running form in short, compartmentalized sections. By breaking form down into isolated, specific sections using drills, you’re able to focus on one element at a time (i.e. your hip extension) without confusing yourself with everything else going on in the kinetic chain (i.e. your arm swing).
Moreover, drills help to develop the important proprioceptive awareness needed to make the shift from conscious incompetence to conscious competence. You can start by adding some basic running drills, like the a-skip, b-skip after your runs two to three times per week.
The final step is implementing mental cues during specific parts of your run or while performing strides (or other running-like activity). With range of motion no longer an issue thanks to your stretching work and the drills developing and reinforcing the proper neural firing patterns, mental cues aid in slowly moving the changes in your form from isolated elements to the running gait itself.
One of the simplest and most effective mental cues is to count your cadence. If you have a cadence of less than 165 steps per minute, work to increase this number by five percent until you’re comfortable at the new number. Over time, you’ll need to implement fewer mental cues as they become more ingrained and part of your unconscious running mechanics.