Have More Efficient Movements to Become a More Efficient Runner
How does one train their proprioception to more effectively control body movements and improve power, speed, agility, and durability?
Proprioception (PROH-pree-o-SEP-shən), a.k.a. “kinaesthesia” or “kinesthesia”, is the sense of self-movement, force, and body position.
It is what enables people to touch their finger to their nose with eyes closed, walk without watching their feet, or catch a ball by looking at the ball and not one’s own hand. It seems magic, but there are sensors in the body that can detect changes in the length, speed of movement, and stretch in muscles, tendons, and joints. Even the skin is thought to have some sense of this.
Proprioception is mediated by proprioceptors, mechanosensory neurons located within muscles, tendons, and joints. There are multiple subtypes of proprioceptors, which detect distinct kinematic parameters, such as joint position, movement, and load.
Proprioceptive signals are transmitted to the central nervous system, where they are integrated with information from other sensory systems, such as the visual system and the vestibular system, to create an overall representation of body position, movement, and acceleration. Sensory feedback from proprioceptors is essential for stabilizing body posture and coordinating body movement.
Do you enjoy hiking up mountains and fly back down?
Most poeple do fine on the ascent but have issues on the descent. Whether you can’t see what you are stepping on or trip/slip often, how do many people run so confidently down mountains or through trails without hurting themselves? It’s not the shoes!
Many have purposefully or inadvertently trained their proprioception
In the case moutain runners, good proprioception enables them to sense how feet interact with an unseen surface and adjust quickly to tilted terrain or roots and rocks. This instinct or skill is not just for trail runners. It’s important for everyone from kids and seniors to marathoners and track speedsters.
The Benefits of a Well-Tuned Response
Every time the foot hits the ground, it has to be able to receive feedback. Proprioceptors in our feet send information about their position and the forces they encounter to the brain, which processes them and tells the muscles in our feet how to react—automatically, within a matter of milliseconds.
When honed, this ability reduces risk of tripping and provides more power and/or speed. Good proprioception enables rapid control over the pliability of feet, allowing them and connected tendons in legs to absorb impact energy and rebound perfectly for the next stride. Well-tuned proprioception makes people more efficient, and in running, efficiency means greater speed and endurance.
Good proprioception also helps reduce the risk of injuries, not just by making runners more responsive to an incipient misstep, but because better control the body’s movements the less likely a runner will make errors that add up to overuse injuries. Quick reactions enable runners to use small muscles in the feet and ankles to correct balance before you get too far out of line and have to engage big, propulsive muscles for stability, a task they are ill-suited for and which quickly overtaxes them.
How We Damage Proprioception and Run Less Efficiently
Like everything else in the body, proprioception diminishes with age due to the accumulation of injuries/damage to joints or ligament (tendon). when that happens the body has altered its proprioception and compensatory changes.
An ankle sprain is a classic example. From the moment of the initial twist, people alter their movement to avoid pain. Eventually, the pain recedes, but the alteration has become a habit without the person realizing that they have changed their pattern of movement.
This isn’t irreversible. When you damage or lose proprioceptors, other proprioceptors can make up for it.
How to Improve Proprioception to Run More Efficiently
Proprioception is something everyone is born with. Simply put, runners should slowly and gradually practice on rough, unseen surfaces to improve the skill of sensing and reacting.
Whether a runner is recovering from an injury or simply honing their athletic skills, proprioception can be improved with training. A consistent five to ten minutes of work two or three times a week is enough to make a difference.
For runners who want to improve foot and leg control, exercises that challenge one’s balance on an unstable surface are best. Those particular exercises force the body to learn how to react. The simplest exercise is to close one’s eyes and stand on 1 foot. The proprioceptors in the feet will collaborate with the inner ear to help the brain know if the body is swaying and determine what to do to stay balanced. At first, most are able to hold it for a few seconds but should be able to work up to 10 to 15 seconds at a time. Aim for a total of around a minute per leg during each session. Any exercises that require one-legged balance will help too.
An option specific to running is called runner touches: stand on one leg with the other knee raised high and your arms positioned like a sprinter in mid-stance, then bend over and extend the free foot behind you as you touch your hand to the ground. These are also considered to be “single-leg squats” or “single-leg Romanian deadlifts”. Remember to keep posture tall and knees aligned over the feet.
Other options include hurdles (tall or short) work, skipping sideways up a hill, mimicking skating on flat ground, or jumping side to side. When those become easy, make them more difficult by raising the arms over the head (maybe hold a small weight if manageable).
A more advanced option is to stand on a wobble board. When that is mastered, have someone throw you a ball.