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MOVEMENT AWARENESS AND

MUSCULAR PERCEPTION IN THE


LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT
OF RUNNING TECHNIQUE
By Ants Nurmekivi

Prominent sport scientist at the University of Tartu, Estonia, presents a detailed


analysis of the importance of movement awareness and muscular perception in
the development of distance running technique for basic imaginary conception to
rational proficiency. Re-printed with permission from Modern Athlete and Coach.

Running is one of the most natural modes of human locomotion. An elementary


running skill is acquired very early and therefore the task of a coach is not to
teach a runner to run, but to improve above all his running technique. At the
same time, there is a common opinion that it is virtually impossible to change an
established running technique. However, practical experience has proven that it
is possible to both change and develop an existing technique. The first
prerequisite in this case is that the athlete is sufficiently motivated to change his
technique and has the physical and coordinative capacities to do it. The coach
naturally must have the knowledge and skills to achieve this.

There are two basic approaches in contemporary teaching. The first is based on
demonstration, during which the external kinetic structure of the technique is
explained and followed by attempted trials. In this case the coach has some kind
ofan ideal model ofthet echni queheat tempt st opassont ohi
schar ges.This
method can be effective in the early stages of teaching when it is not necessary
to consider all the concrete individual features of an athlete.

In principle, it is possible to find a different approach which is based on the laws


of activity dynamics. This method also makes in the beginning use of explained
demonstrations, but to this are added explanations on the effort perception and
ways and means to acquire it. The approach to this method is rather complicated
because there is no sufficiently precise dynamic model available and the
teaching of muscular perception requires a high level of professionalism from the
coach. A competent teacher of technique must have a good knowledge of
muscular conception. This is equally important for the athlete, as well as the
coach.
TEACHING STAGES

Teaching and development of running technique takes place in five stages (Fig.
1):

1. Image Creation

The teaching of a contemporary technique depends right from the start on the
awareness of the athletes. Bogen (1985) stresses the importance of the
awareness of movement activity, because a movement itself is acquired from this
knowledge. The creation of imagery begins from the demonstration of a
technique. This can be assisted by viewing videos, films and photos. The visual
image from such observations helps to supplement the logical image developed
from verbal explanation and the kinetic image that is based on previous
movement experiences. There are three levels in the description of technique
(Tihhonov, Papanov 1987):

1. Description of the external picture positioning of the body parts, when


and in which position is a leg or arm extended etc. This can be easily
achieved by viewing videos and films.

2. Description of the movement mechanism from a visual picture. It should


be noted here that actual reasons frequently fail to correspond with
external expressions. For example, a leg flexion is not the result of
contracting flexor muscles but occurs from the movement inertia force.

3. Description of the movement mechanisms by muscular perception. While


this is apparently most important for an athlete, it is not easily
accomplished.

The coach must in learning draw particular attention to the basic elements
required for an effective performance. It is important to distinguish from the basic
elements those reflecting a rational action as a whole. This applies in running to
theper cept ionofa for wardpul l
or l
ossofbal ance ,resembl ingtot hes ensat
ion
in downhill running. It guarantees, above all, an appropriate body position to be
followed by such elements as the position of the head, foot placement, driving
and arm action.

2. Preliminary Ability

The basic pedagogical methodical task of this stage is to acquire technical


foundations and a general rhythm of the action. Running pace is kept slow in
order to maintain control over all basic elements. At the same time the athlete
should attempt to explain himself optimal solution modes for the activity. This is
assisted by an imaginary orientation guidance of the action. Such an imaginary
guidance contains mental emphases that help t oor i
ent atether unners
conscious, as well as subconscious, movement activity. Mental perceptions
make it easier to distinguish between exertion and relaxation. Specific running
exercises are therefore effective training means at this stage.

3. Ability

A rational temporal, spatial and dynamic structure of movement is formed at this


stage.Ther unner smi ndacc ept
smov ement smor ecompl etelyandatt hes ame
time less in detail. Single movement phases stabilise as corrections take effect.
Proprioceptional feedback becomes now increasingly more important. Essential
at this stage is to learn the execution of the correct action as a whole, proceeding
from its dynamic structure.

However, attention should still be paid to the single basic elements and phases
of the technique. If the action in some basic elements is correct, it becomes
automatic and no conscious control is necessary. This allows tackling new
elements in the aim to improve movement ability. The runner not only
apprehends the quality of the activity and learns to correct it, but also endeavors
to deviate as little as possible from optimal parameters.

It is essential for the athlete to be aware of and regulate the level of exertion
because conditions change regularly in the real activity. This can be best
developed in various contrasting situation, such as uphill running, downhill
running, running of flat and a variety of contrasting tempo perceptions.

4. Proficiency

This stage aims to achieve:

An optimal freedom and economy of movements.

A reduction in energy expenditure.

An automation of movements.

The control of movements now takes place more under subconscious control and
becomes automatic and stabilized. It is essential that the technical preparation is
associated with the development of physical capacities, as well as tactical and
psychological preparations. Keep in mind that it is possible to achieve complete
proficiency only with specific activities. This means for a runner the use of
specific racing speed.

A change of an already established skill begins with the separation of faulty


elements to bring them under conscious control. The creation of a successful re-
learning procedure requires that the athlete knows and after this apprehends the
differences between correct and incorrect movement variations. An exercise
sequence in which incorrect and correct variations are alternated until the correct
variation predominates, leads to a new proficiency.

5. Modified Proficiency

A modified, flexible and movable proficiency is developed through the creation of


supplementary coordinative connections. A complex perception, the so called
t
racksense ,isdev elopedatt hisst age( Torim 1987) .Thismeansanal l
-round
apprehension of running technique. To the most basic apprehension of muscular
perception are added the sensations of the foot placement, balance,
acceleration, sight etc. This feel of fast running in training and competitions
should be memorized and not allowed to fade. An athlete with a good perception
of running has several advantages in being able to adjust this technique better
and faster in different conditions.

CRITERIA OF RATIONAL RUNNING TECHNIQUE

The general criteria of a rational running technique are the effectiveness of


mechanical work and the running economy. As it is rather difficult to apply these
criteria to everyday training, single indicators, that allow evaluating running
technique indirectly, are frequently used. Most suitable for this is a visual
evaluation of the essential parts of the running stride support and flight
phases.

In the support period it is necessary to differentiate between amortization and


impulse phases. The evaluation criteria for the amortization phase are a minimal
si t
ti
ngposi t
ionandmi nimalv eloci t
ylosses.Essent i
alisacor rectpl acementof
the lead leg with a gripping mot ion.Themagni tudeoft hesitti
ngdowni nt he
amortization phase depends on the vertical fluctuation of the body during the
flight period and the rigidity of the leg placement. The shorter the flight period, the
more rigid is the leg placement. Elite runners, according to the studies by
Cav anaghet .al.(1977)f lext hei rs uppor tl
eg
skneel essthanat hlet es of lower
performance level.

The criterion or rationality in the impulse phase is an optimal leg drive at an


advantageous angle, making use of elastic energy and reactive forces of the
driving leg. The drive must be sufficiently long to secure an optimal angle and at
the same time sufficiently short in order to produce a well timed forward
movement of the driving leg.

It is desirable to keep velocity losses minimal during the driving phase to use as
little effort as possible for the restoration of speed. Important here is the flexion of
the ankle (Fig. 2A) because it creates favorable conditions for the performance of
the horizontal component of the drive. This requires good ankle flexibility. Many
distance runners snatch the heel off the track too early in the support phase. This
indicates a lack of ankle flexibility that leads to an increased vertical component
of the drive. An over-bent knee joint can not be justified as this makes it rather
difficult to bring the lead leg forward.

It also is essential in long distance and marathon running to lean in the support
period, even only for a moment, on the full sole of the foot to distribute the load
more evenly between the upper and lower leg muscles. This is followed by a
quick roll on the instep and the extension of the ankle joint. It should be noted
that the ankle is a link in the movement chain that can in comparison to the upper
and lower leg perform a faster movement. A complete ankle extension is
therefore one of the most essential aspects of running technique (Fig. 2, B).

The criteria of rationality in the flight phase are a limited vertical fluctuation and a
minimal energy expenditure for the impulsion movements (Fig. 3). The
effectiveness of the flight phase movements is influenced by the nature of
mov ement si nt hepr ec edi ngphases.Anear lybraki ngoft hel eadl egst hi
gh
helps to avoid an excessive backward- upward pendulum of the lower leg.
Increased movement trajectories increase energy expenditure. Therefore, it is
consi deredopt i
mali nl ongdi st
anc er unningt okeept heswi ngi ngl egsankl ein
thebackwar dmov ementbel owt hesuppor tlegskneej oint.Incont r
ast,at ypical
upward swing of the lower leg in sprinting helps shorten the pendulum and
speeds up the forward movement of the lead leg.

According to Tihhanov and Papanov (1991), long distance runners are


recommended to employ an arm action in which arms are well bent in the elbow
joint. It is a variation that requires minimal energy expenditure and has a positive
influence on shoulder muscles, as well as hip and leg movements. Middle
distance runners, who need more power, employ a wider elbow angle.
The rationality of a running technique can be indirectly evaluated from a general
visual impression. A good running technique is characterized by the ease of
running, lack of excessive tension, simplicity of movements and relaxation even
at a fast pace.

TEACHING OF MUSCULAR PERCEPTION

Proprioceptive feedback helps to achieve a high level of muscular perception as


the performance level of an athlete improves. Steinhaus (1966) went as far as to
claim that muscular perception is the most important sense factor in humans. An
effective movement perception assists in the guidance of locomotive activities,
because it is closely related to the knowledge and conception of the planned
execution of movements. An adequately developed muscular conception is a
prerequisite for the perceptivity of correct body positions and helps to reduce
defects.

The actual learning of muscular perception starts with the apprehension of the
most favorable body position because it reflects the rationality of the running
technique as a whole. The runner stands relaxed, feet shoulder width apart,
before rising on the toes and lifting the hip girdle. The body begins to lean
forwardwi thouta br eakinthehi ps.Thes tager eachedi nthef orwar dlean
before balance is lost represents the most efficient position for driving and
forward movement with a minimum of effort. This position is first apprehended
standing, followed by slow running and finally transferred to running at racing
speed.

It should be kept in mind in describing and teaching the perception of leg work
that every unsupported part of the body begins a movement with acceleration
and completes it by slowing down. For this reason the body has a pulsating
motion that creates inertia and reactive forces that act in opposite directions.
When correctly exploited these forces can assist movement but incorrectly
applied will hinder it.

Lead leg action perceptions vary among athletes. Kristiansen, for example, used
a variation in which the lead leg thigh dropped after the completion of the drive.
The forces created by this action pull the driving leg forward. The lead leg
becomes active only when it has crossed the vertical (Fig. 2, A). This active part
of the lead leg, and the load it applies on the driving leg, can be easily
apprehended in the performance of high knee lift running.

The braking movement that follows an active knee lift creates an inertia force that
reduces the load on the driving leg and makes the extension of all joints in the
lower extremities possible. This can subjectively apprehend from a gradual
reduction of tension, the extension of the leg and the beginning of the flight
phase. It would also be necessary to apprehend that the lead leg has another
function in bringing the centre of mass away from the support point. By directing
the drive forward the lead leg pulls the hip girdle after itself.

From the viewpoint of muscular perception, the coordination of lead and driving
leg work is best apprehended in the performance of bounding. This exercise
stresses both phases. In the perception of the foot placement it is necessary to
be aware that the leg moves backwards in relation to the hip joint and is slightly
benti nthek neeandankl ej oints.Asthel eadl egswor khasal readybeen
discussed, it can only be stressed that the essential phases are: an active
forward snatch (after the vertical movement) braking active placement.

It should be remembered in the temporal perception of the lead and driving legs
action that the swinging movement and braking of the lead leg takes place ahead
of the drive. It is followed by a minimal pause and relaxation. A convulsive
extension of the knee joint of the driving leg must be avoided. The continuously
changing sequence of exertion and relaxation in the performance of bounding
creates here good conditions to improve and apprehend relaxation.

While the teaching and learning of muscular perception is rather complicated and
time consuming, the effort still pays dividends. Muscular perception helps to
improve relaxation, allows for a better exploitation of inertia and reactive forces,
as well as the use of the elastic energy of the muscles. All this makes it possible
to improve the rationality of the running technique and adjust the technique to
different conditions and demands.