What does the evidence show?
A new study suggests that running on autopilot is the most efficient approach.
Have you ever tried to explain to someone how to tie your shoes? It’s a task you do smoothly and automatically—so smoothly, in fact, that you may find it impossible to break it down into a series of discrete steps that you can teach someone else. The best way to tie your shoes, it turns out, is not to think about it, and simply let autopilot take over. And some new research bolsters the controversial claim that, in this respect, running is a lot like tying your shoes.
The new study, published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, was led by Linda Schücker of the University of Münster. Twelve runners ran at a moderate pace on a treadmill in a virtual-reality set-up with a large video screen simulating the experience of running on a path around a lake. Their running economy, a measure of much energy you burn to maintain a given pace, was measured in three different conditions: when they were told to focus on their running form, their breathing, or simply on their virtual surroundings.
The experiment was designed to test a theory in motor learning that distinguishes between directing your focus internally or externally. A large body of research suggests that focusing externally, on the consequences of your actions rather than on the actions themselves, produces better results. For example, you’ll do better shooting a basketball free throw if you’re told to focus on seeing the ball go through the rim than if you’re told to focus on the angle of your elbow or the motion of your wrist. Focusing internally on the details of your movements disrupts the “automaticity” of these familiar actions.
Back in 2009, Schücker published a study very similar to the new one which suggested that the same thing applies to running. When runners focused on their running form, they ran less efficiently than when they simply watched the scenery go by; when they focused on their breathing, they got even worse. That’s exactly what the new study found, too. On average, they burned 2.6 percent more oxygen when focusing on their form, and 4.2 percent more when focusing on their breathing.
The twist in the new study was that Schücker tried to understand what made the runners less efficient. When they thought about their running form, they had more vertical oscillation from stride to stride, which may have cost extra energy. There were other subtle differences in individual runners; several, for example, bent their knees more when they thought about form. When they thought about breathing, they took longer, slower breaths: just 28.7 per minute compared to 34.0 in the scenery condition.
The message seems pretty straightforward here: you know instinctively how to run and how to breathe, so stop trying to tinker with the details. But there are some important caveats. A few years ago I had a chance to chat about this area of research with Noel Brick, a psychologist at Ulster University who studies what endurance athletes think about while running, cycling, and so on. One of the points he made was that not all ways of thinking about running form are equivalent. In Schücker’s experiments, the runners are told: “Pay attention to the push-off and the forward movement of your legs.” Does that correspond to advice that any running coach would actually give? Perhaps it’s the specific details of this advice that hurt your efficiency, and you’d get a different result from thinking, say, “Take short strides and don’t lean too far backwards.”
Another point raised by Brick is that even staunch advocates of trying to change your running form don’t suggest thinking about form all the time. Instead, it’s something you might do as part of a periodic self-check: run through a list of form cues that you’ve identified as important for you personally, rather than generic guidance to pay attention to the forward movement of your legs. Then relax and think about something else.
There are two other caveats that always come up in discussions of changes in running form. One is that trying to alter your form may make you less efficient in the short term, but more efficient in the long term as the new motion becomes automatic. The other is that efficiency may not be the outcome you care most about. Lots of people might be willing to accept a 2-percent penalty in efficiency if it makes you less likely to get injured. Both of these points are entirely reasonable; but both assume that you know what changes to make to your form to make yourself more efficient and injury-proof—a proposition that remains hotly disputed among running researchers, to put it mildly.
Another important distinction in the motor-learning literature is between novices and experts. Actions like tying your shoes, shooting a basketball, or putting a golf ball all begin as a series of discrete steps that you have to consciously focus on. As time goes on and you get better at it, the sequence gets combined into a single step stored in your procedural memory, which no longer requires conscious control. That distinction has interesting consequences. If you tell novice golfers to hurry up, they’ll sink fewer putts than if you tell them to take as much time as they want. They need to focus on the discrete steps of their putting motion to be successful. In contrast, if you tell expert golfers to hurry up, they’ll actually sink more putts. They do best when they rely on their internalized procedural memory, rather than thinking too hard about the detailed steps of their motion.
With this in mind, I think there’s a high bar to clear before you tell experienced runners to start messing with their form. They may have apparent imperfections in their motion, but to improve on their current form you’ll need to overcome deeply ingrained motor patterns that have already been self-optimized to some degree. The unanswered question is whether less experienced runners count as novices or experts. You could argue that we’ve all been running for most of our lives; but you could also argue that someone who’s been mostly sedentary and then takes up running as an adult is essentially learning a new skill—or at least, is capable of learning from scratch in a way that someone who’s been running daily for a decade no longer is.
In the end, it’s probably best to steer clear of absolute pronouncements. Thinking about form isn’t always bad; neither is it always good. But I do think this research should tip the default option toward just getting on with it. Unless you’ve got a good reason to think your form can be improved, and a solid basis for knowing which changes to make, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle. And as for breathing, where the potential benefits of meddling are unclear, I think the case is even stronger: stop thinking about it and just do it.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.