Hi, friends! Welcome back to the third installment of Form February. As a refresher, this month I’m talking about running form. There is quite a bit to cover so I won’t get to tell you about every single aspect of running form, but I’ll certainly cover the basics — and some of the easiest and most important things you can do to improve your form and decrease your risk of injury.
If you suspect your form is in jeopardy, have it checked out either by a sports medicine physician or a running coach.
Last week we talked about cadence. I challenged you to check out your current cadence and then to run with a metronome or music with 180 beats per minute to see how you measured up. I’ve heard from several readers that it’s been tough for you to get to 180. I’m here to tell you — no sweat! It takes a while to get there if you’re not there already. The average runner takes anywhere from 160 to 180 steps per minute and that range is perfectly normal, so if you’re somewhere in there and not suffering from any injury, you’re all good. If you’re actively seeking cadence adjustment, stick with it either using the metronome or check out this awesome app I’ve been using called Spring. You can set it to whatever cadence you’re going for and it will play songs within your settings. It’s pretty sweet.
Today let’s switch it up and talk about muscle imbalance and muscle memory. What is muscle imbalance? And what is muscle memory? And what do they have to do with running form?
Muscle imbalance occurs when one area of the body (or muscle) works more efficiently than the other. For example, if you’re right side dominant, you use your right side most of the time and your left sides gets little practice at any given skill. Make sense? In some cases, like mine, a person can be right handed but almost all muscular strength is on the left side. I hold my kids with my left arm. I hoist things with my left arm. My right arm is used for fine-motor skills like writing and carrying small items. When I run I’m even left side dominant.
Muscle memory is a crazy wicked mechanism our bodies utilize when it comes to building and growing muscles. When we work muscles, they break down and repair themselves, and each time they repair themselves, they grow a little more. Once you’re in a solid workout routine for a while, your muscles cells have increased dramatically in both size and number. If you take an extended period of time off from working out, as in with injury for example, your muscle cells decrease in size but not in strength. Once you return to activity, your muscle cells will increase in size again fairly quickly because they remember the work they used to do and can get back at it right away. Hence the name “muscle memory.”
What do muscle imbalance and muscle memory have to do with running? Let’s take my above example of the right side vs left side dominance. For me in particular, since my left side muscles are dominant, this causes some other muscles (mainly on my right side) to slack off and do less work. I can start off with perfectly even-effort lunges but as soon as my right side gets tired, I can see my form begin to falter and my left side takes over.
Try it: stand on your right leg for 5 seconds. Now stand on your left leg for 5 seconds. If you wobbled on one leg but not the other, you’ve found your dominant side. Which one is stronger?
When you continue to reinforce the dominant-side behavior (such as in lunges, push-ups, running, etc.), your muscles begin to form memories. Not memories like thought memories, but they know which muscles to fire and when. They’re worked more, they grow more, and they become more dominant.
Running the same route reinforces muscle imbalance. When we run the same route repeatedly over a prolonged period of time, our muscles know what to expect. They are worked at the same pace, they are used in the same manner, and there’s very little change. You may adjust your dominant side to the camber of the road, for example. Again, this little change is reinforcing your muscle imbalance and creating a muscle memory. When these actions are repeated for a prolonged period of time — weeks, months, even years — we’re reinforcing muscle imbalance through muscle memory.
One simple way to combat muscle imbalances and possible running form disparities is to run a different route. Simply switching your running route will keep your muscle memory fresh and guessing. Varying your route will force you to use different muscles which may help correct any muscle imbalances you may have, thus improving your form over time. You’ll continue to build and grow new muscle cells the more you work them, and you’ll end up being stronger in the long run. Pun intended.
Tips to work on muscle imbalance:
- Run a different route.
- If you can’t run a different route completely, run your favorite route backward.
- Throw in a treadmill workout every once in a while.
To be sure, changing your route isn’t a catch-all running-form-fix. The bottom line here is that if you are chronically injured or feel your running form is suffering, you need to get it checked out by a professional. But small changes, like switching your route every couple of days, will not only keep your mind engaged and interested, they’ll also help to correct and stave off muscle imbalances that are compounded over time.
Ready for some homework? Try a new running route this week. A change of scenery is good for the soul, and you may surprise yourself by challenging your muscles in small but profound ways. Let’s talk about it next week!
TALK TO ME!
Are you right or left side dominant?
Can you feel or see any obvious muscle imbalances?
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