TrueForm Runners lining the front window at the Pursuit Training Center
As many of you know, we are fortunate to have five TrueForm Runners (non-motorized treadmills made by Samsara Fitness) in our Pursuit Training Center (PTC). If you haven't listened to our original podcast about the TrueForm (with the owners of Samsara Fitness) you can find it here.
In the next few months we are planning a series of articles on what we’re learning from using the TrueForms (running on them ourselves and coaching with them in a variety of our classes and 1 on 1 personal training). Most importantly, we’ll also share how using on a TrueForm Runner could help YOU improve (perhaps even more than you thought was possible!).
While today’s first-in-a-series article revolves around running on the TrueForm, the discussion will center on the nervous system: how it works and how integration, timing (and the Chinese philosophy of yin-yang) can powerfully (and positively!) impact your running speed, strength AND endurance. We will also examine how the TrueForm Runner can help you “connect the dots” and put it all together.
Note: the concepts we will discuss now and in the future will be born out of our experience and should be of great value to you, whether you have a TrueForm Runner to run on or not. We hope however, that should you have the chance to run on one that you jump at the opportunity.
In the time that the TrueForm Runners have been in our facility, I’ve probably spent more time running on them than any other person. I have also coached some individual runners through a “rebuild” of their running using the TrueForm Runner as it was truly intended, NOT as a treadmill per se, but as a run trainer. I’m also teaching an ongoing class at the PTC using the TrueForm which focuses on speed development and on learning and refining sprint mechanics.
What am I (and others who have used the TrueForm Runners) learning?
The first thing anyone who runs on the TrueForm for the first time may learn is getting the belt to even move so they CAN run on it can be difficult, especially if they have had a history of injury and are not moving well. It is really eye opening to see someone struggle; the look of shock, dismay and even a tiny bit of embarrassment on a person’s face is priceless. The fact is, the reasons for this struggle are virtually all nervous-system related.
(In the past, we've written frequently on our blog about the fact that running is a neural activity, and that running well truly has an important skill component to it. If you haven’t listened to our podcast with running expert Owen Anderson, Ph.D on this very topic, check it out here.)
So when someone experiences difficulty running on the TrueForm, what is actually happening? The answer to that question is what this first in a series of articles is all about.
To begin, let me first ask a question: Have you ever watched a highly accomplished elite runner and noticed how fluidly he or she seems to run, or how they seem to be able to effortlessly fly through the air bounding from one leg to another?
Stop for a moment and picture in your mind’s eye, a race horse in slow-motion rounding a turn at the track, or a dressage horse stepping out like a ballet dancer. Or gaze up at the sky and watch a bird in flight. What about a top-notch symphony orchestra: strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, all playing perfectly together to create a rich beautiful sound, or a scull with its entire crew perfectly and synchronously propelling the boat at breakneck speed. What you see (or hear) is the near-perfect integration and timing of muscle contraction and relaxation (yin-yang). It is fluid – synchronous – graceful – powerful, like poetry in motion.
This seemingly fluid-like blend is categorized by something a neuroscientist named Sherrington told us about in the early 20th Century - what has become known as Sherrington’s Law of Reciprocal Inhibition or Innervation. You know this simply as one way of describing how a muscle group relaxes as its opposing muscle group is stimulated. For example, imagine you grab a dumbbell and curl it. As you curl the weight, firing the biceps and thus reducing the angle at your elbow, the opposing muscle group, the triceps, are relaxing to allow for this curling movement to occur.
Also known as rhythmic reflexes, the key thing to remember is that the simple act of running is Sherrington’s Law in action. And the act of running well (fast, efficient, powerful) is Sherrington’s Law in action at a very high level! In other words, running requires integrated activation and reciprocal innervation of muscles in order to happen. In effect, this rhythmic reflex which is inherent in compound movements like running, result in a meshing, somewhat like the cogs in a precision instrument or fine watch.
Perhaps the next questions to ask are, do we all “mesh” or blend like a precision instrument when we run? What are the real differences in how each of us puts Sherrington’s Law into action? Most importantly, can we improve our own run coordination and timing? If we could, wouldn't these changes result in improvements in speed, power and efficiency?
Before we delve into the possible answers to those questions, let’s look a little deeper at the importance of this yin-yang relationship of tension and relaxation and review the concept of Superstiffness.
Athletes experimenting with the TrueForm Runners at the Pursuit Training Center
Respected back expert and professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Stuart McGill, introduced this concept and has written often about it. I once heard Dr. McGill, in a presentation he gave at a strength and conditioning conference, say that in his work with many different athletes, the single largest difference between the elite and the average, was in the way that an elite athlete is able to tense AND relax at exactly the right time, at a higher level than the average athlete. It would seem that the regular among us seem to be tense when we should be relaxed, and relaxed when we should be tense!
When speaking about this concept of Superstiffness in his book, “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance,” Dr. McGill states:
“Breaking the board by the martial artist requires the skill of compliance (relaxation) to build speed but with rapid super stiffness just at impact. The professional golfer who has a relaxed backswing but rapidly obtains super stiffness at ball impact (followed by an astounding relaxation rate) is the one who achieves the long ball. The one who tries to swing too hard too soon actually decreases speed of movement with inappropriate stiffness. We have measured the creation of “pulses” of muscle force in athletes used to create “shockwaves.” Precise timing, the rate of relaxation, joint buttressing together with all of the principles of Superstiffness are optimized.”
In case we needed to hear from even more experts on the topic of the tension/relaxation curve, well known Soviet sport scientist, Dr. Leonid Matveyev observed “the higher the athlete’s level, the quicker he could relax his muscles." It has been said that the soviet scientist observed an 800% difference between novice and Olympic level competitors. Without a doubt, there is clearly a very important relationship in elite performance between well-timed tension and relaxation, with mastery of relaxation being a hallmark of an elite athlete.
And what of the TrueForm as it relates to these concepts?
Because the TrueForm is non-motorized, the runner is forced to create and maintain their own momentum. A runner can't easily compensate (fake) their way to good running form artificially. As a result, the more coordinated, synchronous and “mesh-like” your running, the more easily and effectively you’ll be able to run on the TrueForm.
For example, as your skill and coordination improve:
- Your ability to create tension at the right time and in the right place (your leg/foot in mid-stance phase applying force to the belt) improves.
- Your ability to relax certain parts of your body, such as the leg moving forward through the swing phase of the stride, also improves.
- Your ability to take full advantage of the elastic component of running (where more than 50% of your forward propulsion in running comes from) also improves. (More about this aspect in a future article).
What is happening as coordination and skill improve is not from conscious thought - it happens unconsciously in the brain and nervous system. (It should also be noted that it is not in the cardiovascular system either, where runners typically look for improvements in fitness).
It is MUCH more about timing and integration, than effort or pure strength, just like the rowers in that scull or the dancing dressage horse. You don’t have to force it, as much as simply (and patiently) allow your nervous system and brain to figure it out - to learn better how to do their thing more efficiently and effectively.
To summarize to this point: The improvements aren't about a single muscle or body part (no, not even your butt!) What it IS about is everything from your fingertips to your toenails working together as a single, integrated, holistic unit. With repeated practice, the TrueForm can help you and your brain and nervous system, “connect the dots” more completely.
Some of the benefits of a non-motorized treadmill like the TrueForm are:
- Near perfect application of force into the ground at the exact right time, resulting in a longer more powerful stride.
- Relaxation of all other parts of your body that aren't applying that force, resulting in less energy use.
- Enhanced posture, mobility, and stability with repeated training and practice, resulting is greater resistance to fatigue over the long haul.
- Yin-yang: the perfect balance of relaxation and tension.
Tension and relaxation in all sports, including and especially running, are the two sides of the performance and durability coin. Tension is force production into the ground: it’s a powerful stride that lifts the body over the ground against the forces of gravity. On the other hand, relaxation is leg speed and endurance. To be the best runner you can be, you need both.
In future articles, I will discuss how we are actually training on and progressing our training on the TrueForm Runners, as well as other movement related components and how they can be enhanced using the TrueForm. I will also present some strategies on how you can enhance the effects of the TrueForm without actually having one to use. Stay tuned.
PS: in order for all of the improvements that have been discussed above to occur completely and to the full satisfaction of the individual runner, the runner also must possess appropriate mobility (ankles and hips), true dynamic core stability, and solid functional strength inside a balanced body. No tool, treadmill (motorized or not) or training protocol can ever substitute for mastery and maintenance of movement quality fundamentals.