How Background Affects Running Development

I often question how background affects running development. Take the link between my career in Ballet and Follett into running, the fields seem unrelated and yet they aren’t. The same connection is obvious among friends from ex-bikers to soldiers, avid walkers and even MMA fighters. If an active background brought success it transferred to running.

Clearly I am no MMA expert or biking daredevil, I can not tell their story but I can share mine.

I spent years chasing a dream in Ballet and while some skills have transferred it wasn’t strength nor general fitness. I left the World of Ballet behind and for five years let go, sat back and became a slob. The legs deteriorated, stomach ballooned and I couldn’t recognise the man in the mirror. Then came part two, running.

That first run, one solitary mile induced wheezing. Years passed with incremental improvements, but my development halted around the 50 minute 10K mark. Point is fitness and strength were not present from my Dancing days, I was mediocre at best and no amount of hours would change that. So I found a coach (Cavill Coaching), started training with purpose and it all came flooding back.

How Background Affects Running Development, Its Kind Of Physical

My career in Ballet had formed a connection between body and mind, something taken for granted until Ian Mulrooney (my Physio) pointed it out. I carry out commands and tap into muscles with relative ease.

As a Dancer you are taught to move, then replicate what you see. Over time this connection happens with no conscious thought, but during the early years it can take serious effort. The more you do it, the more efficient that link from brain to body becomes. After 6 years of training, I could mimic without any conscious thought all; my legs moved while I worried about nights out and what to have for Tea. We called it muscle memory.

Muscle memory doesn’t just apply to Dance. Any physical background applies but the more deliberate your practise the better and it can take many, many hours to master. Consider walking, how many muscles must you activate in order to put one foot in front of the other? Getting all these movements to happen instantaneously at the snap of a finger is a skill, running is just walking fast, kind of. Clearly certain backgrounds will build different types of muscle memory but it all comes back in different fields which involve tapping back into those muscles.

How does this translate to running? An important – and undervalued – part of running is the activation of muscles. It is my belief that a background in any field involving focused practise to produce some form of body movement holds an advantage. Such backgrounds strengthen these neurological pathways, leading to faster development under the correct stimulus. 

Of course the answer isn’t that simple but its something I am seeing in myself and the more I look, in others also. Expert performance is achieved without conscious thought, imagine trying to control each minute muscle activation necessary to say throw a punch, climb a rope, descend a fell or pirouette. To activate all these muscles at the correct time with your conscious mind would be impossible…so surely those who practise and succeed in forming this link between mind and muscle, in any field, can tap back in during other physical activity. Muscles degrade and weaken over time, fitness can be lost, but that connection on some level sticks, lying dormant.

I wonder how often we assume fitness alone carries over and accelerates success? I see why the assumption is made. Most who develop in different fields before running transition straight into the Sport, carrying fitness with them. We understand how fitness is built, so its the simple explanation, but I believe it goes much deeper than that. As shown earlier I lost my fitness and strength before running. The body to some degree remembers but it must go deeper than a strong heart and big lungs.

It wasn’t until trying pistol squats I understood. Squats have always been a weakness for me, so I focused on improving and after lots of work can now pistol squat on a wobble cushion. That is squat on one leg, so my ass touches heel, while balancing on a very unstable surface. Strength alone didn’t make the squat possible. Deliberate practise formed the link from my brain to my legs and then RECRUITED the muscles to achieve it.

I descend well while racing and without fear, but I am not fearless and self preservation is certainly a priority. As a Ballet Dancer I used to perform crazy tricks, take a tour en l’air for example. You jump in the air, turn 720 degrees then land aplomb in the precise position you began, it was my party piece but there was no risk applied. Imagine the muscle activation and proprioception required to pull that off, all without conscious thought. Forming a connection between mind and muscle to that degree would transcend any field.

La Palma Trail running

That example is one of many, I can translate it to other fields as mentioned before.

People hear my past and go, ‘ah thats why you are a good runner.’ There is a link and yet its misunderstood. Its how the mind controls the body and projects movement more than pure physical fitness and strength. Training to develop the latter is different to develop the former. That is the reason for this post, I don’t think the un-coached runner trains movement and proprioception which are vital to development.

Again, I am no coach, Physio or Scientist. I am not suggesting this connection between mind and body is the key to running development, it is much more complicated. But, I do believe it plays a major role which isn’t often acknowledged.

Today we discussed how background effects running development in a more specific, physical area. Next I want to tap into the physiological side, so watch this space and subscribe via email or Facebook for notification.

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Darren Smith

Training with purpose since October 2016 Darren has gone from trailing the pack to winning local races and the times keep on falling. A true believer in hard work over natural talent he writes to help others realise their true potential. Darren's race schedule for 2018 includes the Hardmoors Wainstones marathon (1st place), Keswick Mountain Festival (10th place), Scafell Skyrace and Salomon Ring Of Steall (World Championship race.)

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