Neuromuscular Fitness: The Secret To Improving Your Pace
Most runners are aware that in order to improve distance running performance, weekly mileage needs to increase.
Research supports this: in the 2007 study ‘Training Characteristics of Qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials’, exercise physiologist Dr. Jason Karp found a strong correlation between training volume and performance in male and female qualifiers.
But the journey of increasing weekly volume is paved with potential pitfalls, as considered in our piece 8 Challenges to Increasing Mileage – How to Safely Get to the Next Level.’
In the quest for ramping up mileage, many runners forget that distance running is not just about being able to run further.
It’s about being able to maintain a certain pace for longer.
Most of you reading this could quite happily run 100m at 5min/mile pace, but sustaining that pace for a whole mile would be another matter.
Paula Radcliffe was able to maintain that pace for 26.2 miles in 2003 and for that reason is still the current women’s marathon world record holder (2:15:25 hours).
How she manage this?
Well, you can be sure she didn’t just add a few miles on each week!
Todays running fitness tips will help you get better at running quicker than your other runner friends who just add on a few miles each week. We will give you three ways to get better at running without running, and show you how to run more efficiently, so you can become a great runner, even if you do not run any more miles.
What Makes a Good Runner?
Although any type of running will have its benefits, successful preparation for distance running requires a combination of two components of running fitness.
These components are inter-related but are nevertheless stimulated and developed by different types of training:
Aerobic fitness refers to the ability of the body to use oxygen.
In order to develop it, you need to ensure that you are running at an intensity that is low enough for your body to make use of oxygen as a fuel, i.e. the aerobic system.
Your long runs, as long as they are indeed done at easy pace (typically measured by whether you can maintain a conversation), will develop your aerobic fitness.
By being able to breathe slowly and steady, your body is supplied with a large, consistent supply of oxygen and the aerobic system happily uses fat reserves (the body’s most abundant energy source) to release a long lasting supply of energy.
If however you raise the energy demand by running at too fast a pace, the body is forced to find a more rapid way of producing energy, i.e. the anaerobic system.
As its name implies, the anaerobic system does not use oxygen; it’s very effective at quickly producing a high amount of energy to meet sudden high intensity demand but it’s also short lasting and definitely not the main energy system you will be relying on for distance running.
Having a tank full of fuel is obviously important if you are going to finish a marathon.
However, if it’s performance you are after, you are also going to need to be able to move efficiently and resist fatigue. We explained this further in our article Bonk vs. Cramp vs. Fatigue as most runners actually use these words interchangeably, when they are in fact very different, and require different approaches to overcome.
Sustaining a desired pace over a long distance depends upon efficiency of communication between the brain and the muscles, something we refer to as neuromuscular fitness.
Your ability to maintain optimum cadence (total steps per minute) and optimum step length (distance between initial contact of one foot and initial contact of the other) are both a product of neuromuscular fitness (see our article How to Improve Your Speed: Step Frequency and Step Length and neither will improve just by doing long runs.
Resistance to fatigue is itself a product of neuromuscular fitness.
Though we typically think of fatigue setting in when biological thresholds are crossed, modern research shows us that a large element of fatigue is down to the brain’s perception of how much effort is being made, as opposed to actual physical thresholds being exceeded.
The brain continuously monitors numerous sources of sensory feedback whilst we are running and bases its output of pain, movement modification and fatigue on its perception of threat.
This explains why despite feeling totally exhausted in the latter stages of a race, we very often feel a sudden surge of energy when we see the finish line.
The brain has received visual confirmation of how far there is left to run and responds by opening up the reserve tanks a little.
How To Improve Neuromuscular Fitness
To improve communication between brain and muscle, you need to challenge your body in a way that demands such communication.
As the S.A.I.D. principle states: the human body Specifically Adapts to Imposed Demands.
In other words, you will need to stress the body neurologically if you want it to improve neurologically.
Three great ways for runners to achieve this are: speed work (flat), hill sprints and strength training.
Maintaining good form whilst running at near maximum pace imposes huge demands on the neural system and can be a great way to develop neuromuscular fitness.
The accelerated timing and coordination, critical components to optimum cadence & step length, carries over to distance running and will help you be able to maintain a faster pace without fatiguing.
The speed intervals used to target neuromuscular fitness are typically referred to as Strides.
The duration and number of repeats will vary according to the runner’s experience and fitness level, and though it is important that each rep is run at near maximum pace, beginners should take care to ease into these sessions slowly as the shock to the system can be enormous.
In time, most runners work up to doing something along the lines of 8-10 repeats of 20 seconds, with a minute jog recovery time between each rep.
As long as you are forcing your body to maintain a good form during every repetition, your neuromuscular fitness will be targeted and improved.
Although ‘strides’ can be a fantastic way of developing neuromuscular fitness, running maximum speed on flat ground can increase risk of certain injuries, e.g. hamstring strains.
For that reason, it is imperative to have a thorough dynamic warm up prior to strides.
Although you may think sprinting up a hill is even more risky than performing strides on a flat surface, hill sprints can actually be safer.
The beauty of adding an incline to your sprint interval is you can push your body to the max without actually running that fast.
On a hill, you are never going to reach the pace you would do on flat, so as far as running related injury goes the risk is actually lower.
Hill sprints are a wonderful way of challenging your nervous system to generate high force whilst resisting fatigue.
Another advantage of running uphill is it stimulates form improvement by imposing demands that flat running does not: bringing the knee a little higher each step, lifting the toe more prior to landing – both traits of running styles associated with greater power generation and increased stride length.
Bear in mind that when we say ‘hill’, we are only talking about a slight gradient (between 6% and 25%).
If you are new to hill sprints, start with just one or two 8-second sprints (with 2-3 minute recovery in between), and always warm up thoroughly before them.
Though this may sound too easy, you will soon discover that explosive sprinting up a hill pushes your body in ways you have never before experienced.
Two sessions a week should be sufficient and gains are normally rapid.
The number of sprints performed in each session can typically be increased by 1 or 2 every week. Once you are doing 10 sprints each session, you could increase the duration of the sprints to 15 seconds. For more details, see our article The Benefits of Hill Sprints for Novice Distance Runners.
Research has shown that strength training can ‘reduce sports injuries to less than a third and overuse injuries by almost 50%’ (Laursen et al. 2013) and it is highly likely that this is due to the fact that strength training improves neuromuscular fitness.
As long as you take yourself to failure (10-12 repetitions is generally recommended for distance runners, although some recent research is challenging the significance of rep number), the neural demand needed to lift heavy weights will help you maintain good form whilst running and resist fatigue.
Research also highlights the benefits of proprioception training (exercising in an unstable environment to stimulate development of coordination of joint motion and acceleration).
By ‘unstable environment’ we are not suggesting we all jump on a wobble board, but rather ensure we are performing at least some exercises that involve standing on one leg.
Specificity (performing exercises that mimic as closely as possible the movement you are trying to improve) has been shown to play a large part in improving performance, but this does mean that exercises failing to meet the ‘functional’ criteria are useless or detrimental.
All exercises can have a carry over.
Just try to be mindful during each lift; feel what is happening in the body, breath consistently throughout.
Practice movements that involve moving the body in all three planes of movement: forwards (sagittal), sideways (frontal) and rotational (transverse).
Add a twist to a lunge, an overhead lift to a squat, mix it up. Coordination, proprioception, balance, skill, agility – all of these are vital to runners and will not be improved by just adding to weekly mileage volume.
Once you have a good foundation in strength, consider progressing to some plyometric exercise, i.e. explosive jumping such as box jumps.
Plyometrics are thought to be an excellent way to improve neuromuscular fitness for runners as they develop the Stretch-Shortening Cycle (SSC) of running, the ability of the muscles and tendons to use ground energy for propulsion.
Research has shown (Paavolainen et al., 1999) that replacing one-third of your running over nine weeks with plyometrics can improve 5k race time.
One of the elements that potentially aided Paula Radcliffe get her WR in 2003 was a specialised weight-training program that she employed in her training, that saw her maximum vertical jump increase by 10cm.
Why Do You Need to Warm Up to Run?
Despite the fact that most runners dread the idea of devoting more than two minutes to a warm up, this time actually presents a wonderful opportunity to do a little neuromuscular training.
Many runners fall into the trap of thinking that by skipping the warm up they have more time to add to that weekly mileage, but by choosing suitably challenging exercises, runners can use the warm up to stimulate the brain and nervous system, encourage them to communicate, activate more muscle fibres and improve timing so that the movements involved in stride mechanics become more coordinated and efficient.
Once you learn to view the warm up as an important, productive part of the session as opposed to an extra bit forced upon you by your coach or therapist, we are confident you will see your running move to a new level.
For more information, see the piece 3 Common Myths About Warming Up Before a Run
Why does neuromuscular fitness help me run faster?
We hope this article has encouraged you to see the value in adding some neuromuscular fitness sessions to your training.
It is all too easy for us distance runners to forget how good it can feel to run at near maximum speed if only for a short moment, and our performance will certainly benefit from it.
If anything, neuromuscular fitness is testimony to the importance of having variety in our training, which is why we also encourage you to experiment with different shoes and running surfaces.
Our brain and nervous system thrives on variety – different paces, gradients, durations, intensities.
Yes, keep an eye on the race you training for and think specificity, but in the process don’t forget you have a fantastic menu of easy runs, moderate runs, progression runs, threshold runs, speed intervals, hill intervals, ladder intervals, hill sprints, and more.
Neuromuscular training encourages you to listen to your body and see how it responds to different stimuli, which ultimately is a vital part of reducing injury and increasing performance.
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Matt Phillips is a Running Injury Specialist & Video Gait Analyst at StrideUK (http://www.strideuk.com/) & Studio57clinic (http://studio57clinic.co.uk/). Follow Matt on Twitter: @sportinjurymatt