by Dr. Russ Ebbets
The title of this article is the phonetic spelling of neuroplasticity. It will help to develop your understanding of this concept if you take a moment and copy the title (the phonetic spelling) on a scrap piece of paper.
You are all done and it was no big deal. Now put the pen in your other hand (non-dominant hand) and write out the phonetic spelling of neuroplasticity. It’s a safe bet, to a person the writing bordered on scribble and the task was slow and arduous to complete. This is a telling example of how neuroplasticity works.
Remember when you were a child and you first got to walk to the corner store or school alone? For many there was a corner lot that one made a diagonal cut, a short cut, across the lot. Over the course of time that short cut became a defined path that your predecessors (older siblings, neighbors), you and future generations would use to get to their destination. In many ways that is how one’s nervous system develops.
We are born with our nervous systems intact and to a degree, functional. A baby can feel numerous sensations, hot and cold, hunger or fear that registers as either a painful or a comforting stimulus. One’s level of sophistication is rudimentary. Movements, forget skilled movements for a moment, mark growth milestones and may include rolling over, crawling, and eventually walking. As any parent can attest these actions develop over the course of time versus suddenly and are often the result of much trial and error. With “normal” development these milestones are reached, and the next milestone becomes the challenge.
Crawling is one of the critical movement patterns for an infant as it programs, then develops the “cross-crawl” pattern that humans use to walk normally. In brief, the cross-crawl pattern is where the left leg steps forward as the right arm swings forward to counterbalance the body. The opposite action results when the right leg leads. Ultimately this action “wires” or programs the nervous system of almost the entire body. Infants that developmentally miss this step due to illness or injury often suffer movement challenges as adolescents and adults. Interestingly there is even a school of thought that attributes cognitive thought processing problems such as dyslexia to poorly developed, early movement patterns.
Running is an extension of the walking cross-crawl pattern with the opposing movements of the arms and legs. Ideally a runner should exhibit a symmetry of motion, a tic-tic pattern of a metronome as they progress forward. Close inspection of any 5k clearly demonstrates the havoc injuries, adaptive patterns, hand or leg dominance can have on symmetric motions.
But all is not lost. Fortunately, the body has the ability to develop new (or improved) patterns of movement throughout one’s life. This is the concept of neuroplasticity. While the old adage of teaching an old dog, new tricks has some validity research has shown that one can re-program (a.k.a. – learn) new patterns with diligent efforts.
This is not to say change is light switch easy. Conscious effort must direct the changes that may come through stretching or strengthening areas of the body. The changes may lead to some temporary setbacks that will test one’s commitment to the change.
What we are talking about here are habitual movement patterns or simply, habits. Changing one’s habits can be difficult. Adopting new habits is an easier and more productive choice. Adding certain drills to one’s warm-up, periodically doing some weight training and a full body flexibility program can go a long way in creating the desired body symmetry. Detailed below are several suggestions that focus on common weak links that frequently present with asymmetric movement patterns.
Arm Drills – Asymmetric arm actions may be the most obvious running fault and the easiest to correct. Two simple drills can teach correct action. The first drill is to draw a “Ɨ” on a bathroom mirror with a bar of soap. Let the centerline bisect the trunk and commence the running arm action. Swing the arms through an arc from the “hips to the lips.” Asymmetries or deviations from the midline should be obvious. Use the visual cues to create the desired symmetry.
A second drill is to sit on the ground, legs extended and commence the arm action. The “bump-bump-bump” one feels on the rear end is evidence that the arms contribute to the forward drive of the legs. Swing the arms through the same “hips to lips” arc. One hundred arm swings daily will quickly engrain this efficient arm movement pattern.
Leg Swings – Strength deficits, specifically strength deficits at the hips may contribute to asymmetric leg movements and even pelvic instability when in single support. Leg swings will target the smaller, intrinsic muscles of the hip. Rhythmically swinging the leg in a sideways and front to back (kicking) movement helps tone the intrinsic muscles in the sagittal and frontal planes of motion. Leaning against a wall and simulating the hurdle trail leg action addresses the rotary component of the hip movements. Attention should be paid to create symmetric movements between the right and left sides. Ten repetitions with each leg for each drill is desired.
Skips – For many skipping is a lost art. The repeated “hop-step, hop-step” challenges the body in several ways. Because of the one leg action this is a great drill for developing balance and power. This drill also allows one to coordinate the arm actions between the upper and lower extremities. Skipping may be done with the hands on the hips, arms straight forward (like Superman) or with the traditional “hips to lips” arm action of the Arm Drills noted above. Three sets of 25m should bear results.
Lunge Steps – The lunge step is also called the one-legged squat. The basic action is to step forward and gently drop the back knee to the ground. One can return to the starting position and repeat or one can slowly lunge step forward right to left and left to right, etc. The caution is to begin easily and slowly increase the step count. Five times may be a good starting point eventually completing 10 repetitions.
If one steps back for a moment to review the recommendations, you’ll see there is something for the arms, legs and trunk. In reality this is a classic example of Maslow’s “whole-phase-whole” method of teaching. Running integrates the “parts” into the larger “whole,” the action of running itself.
Running Posture – Proper running posture can be taught with a simple three-part drill, “Stand tall, lean forward …and Go!” This drill cues the desired trunk angle for running. One simply rises up on the forefoot (Stand tall), leans forward (until balance is lost) and strides out with the fall’s momentum. One leg will reflexively come forward to break the fall and initiate the running action. One can stride out for 30-40m with the “Go!” command. A consistent regiment of planks, sit-ups and back extensions is recommended to develop the core abdominal musculature that helps maintain the desired body posture.
A final area for consideration is that of flexibility. I have written several times on the effectiveness of yoga for the maintenance of overall body flexibility which helps one attain body symmetry. Hittleman’s 28-Day Guide to Yoga is a safe, progressive method that teaches the essentials of the discipline. Beyond body symmetry the secondary benefits of yoga include balance (both upright and body symmetry right to left and top versus bottom), poise (the sequencing, timing and execution of movement) and grace (the elegance of movement that allows for one to realize personal potential).
But the reality for some is that “outside” help may be necessary to recover or attain the desired symmetries. Finding a message therapist (for Rolfing) or a chiropractor (with Active Release-type skills) may be necessary to address problem areas. The problem areas may be the result of birth defects, childhood traumas, motor vehicle crashes, work injuries or emotional issues. Any one of these issues may manifest in restrictive body postures that in turn cause aberrant movements that more than likely will require professional help.
Continual change is one of the great constants of life. The concept of neuroplasticity hints at a potential that change can be directed along a desired path. This possibility must be coupled with the desire to change. Fortunately, through directed efforts neuroplastic changes occur that enhance performance and make more effective the time, effort and energy that goes into training.
Training should be a mindful activity. Exercise is often touted as an escape mechanism from a hectic life, a few moments of “me” time and a welcome break from daily stresses. But a mindless approach to training promotes the perpetuation of unproductive, even harmful habits that can be a waste of energy and promote injury. For one to improve directed efforts are necessary. This entails understanding what these efforts are and exerting the will to make them happen.
And when does one realize these benefits? In the later stages of a race when one crosses the lactate threshold (when the heart rate exceeds 170 beats per minute) or one exhausts glycogen stores (hitting the wall) it is one’s habitual default motor patterns that will delay the onset of herky-jerky movements for a precious few moments that may make the ultimate accomplishment worth all the hours and hours of preparation.
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Russ Ebbets, DC, is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His most recent book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running is a finalist for the Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year 2019. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.