You’re driving to a friend’s house in a different city .  You were there years ago, so you decided to wing it without a map or navigation system.  You need to be on time, and you haven’t left much margin for error.  The city has changed, and your recollection is a bit fuzzy.  Would you imagine that the trip would go smoothly?  Would you get there on time?  Would it be stressful?

The analogy is appropriate for how you move athletically.  Your brain requires detailed, current information to plan and execute efficient movement.  When you don’t have it, you are stressed, tentative and prone to movement mistakes.  You may even not be able to move at all (sensory motor amnesia).  It’s like getting to an intersection and not knowing which way to go.  When you have the information you need, your movements are decisive, efficient and often effortless.  Contrast the previous scenario with driving home from work.  You’ve done it so many times that you automatically adjust routes for traffic and accidents.  You may not even think much about what you’re doing and be able to carry on a conversation or solve a nagging problem at the same time.

Where does your navigation system get the information it needs?  All information comes to your brain through your senses.  Your senses capture a broad range of information (see Changing Inputs Changes Outputs) – what’s going on inside of you, outside and how your body is positioned.  The accuracy and completeness of that information depend on your sensory acuity.  If you can’t see much out of your dirty, cracked windshield, you may still be tentative and stressed even if you have perfect directions.

So, your brain is constantly building, updating and, unfortunately, forgetting sensory maps.  Just like any memories, it’s “Use it or lose it”.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t consciously think about building our maps.  We just let them happen.  We move throughout the day, probably sit a lot and run a lot.  We don’t consider the quality of the movement usually, just the quantity.  It’s a pretty good recipe for inefficiency, injury and dysfunction.

The quality and completeness of your maps will ultimately dictate how well you can perform in your sport because they will affect your form, your threat (and therefore more access to your fitness) and your risk of injury.   If you are a beginning runner, you may need to create a map of good linear movement.  Eventually adding in other movement patterns can make a huge difference in performance.  We’ve seen elite endurance athletes who can barely stay upright when doing side-to-side shuffles like a football or tennis player might do.  They had huge libraries of linear movement.  Adding some lateral movement skill to their maps made a significant difference to their results, even though they didn’t often use those skills when running.  But having that abiliity for whenever it might be needed mattered a lot.

Like any other form of learning, focus, or mindfulness, is essential when building maps. Tuning out when we run (listening to music, podcasts, solving the problems of the word, etc.) is a great way to enjoy and benefit from running for many of us.  However, it’s not a great way to become a better runner.  So it may be important for you to separate training (working to intentionally improve) from performance (satisfying your reasons for running). 

  • You get plenty linear movement every time you run, so your training focus should be on quality form particularly at the end of your run when most people let their form deteriorate.
  • Good maps may require specificity, so running at different times of day, in different weather and wind conditions, at different speeds and even on different sides of the road may benefit you.
  • Lateral training can be a grueling set of shuffle drills or as fun as a game of soccer, Frisbee or tennis as long as you focus on quality movement from side to side.
  • You can add significantly to your movement maps by doing yoga, tai chi, dance or Z-Health. Again it’s key to intentionally try to control your movements through varied ranges of motion and speed. 

If you focus when you are training you will perform better when you are not.  And if you consciously try to build and maintain a good map of movement, you may find surprising and disproportionate improvement in your running because you took the brakes off.