Fixing Bad Running Habits can be Done! Turn Off Your Autopilot!
Our lives run on habits (pun intended). They are wired and built from birth. Ever notice how difficult things can be when you begin a foreign activity? For example, how tough an aspect of your job might be at first, but then becomes ‘automatic’ overtime. Our actions seem to run on auto pilot.
Have you ever exited the thruway for work on a day that you don’t work? Mindlessly driven to your destination but forgot how you got there? Or realized that you don’t have to determine which shoe to put on first, right or left? You seem to “zone out” or shift to autopilot. Your actions become automatic. Well, it’s because you have formed a habit from repetition. This auto pilot is a necessary action taken by our brain to limit how much thinking needs to occur throughout the day. I suppose you can make the argument that some think more than others… but that may be by choice.
Think of your brain as a muscle. If it had to constantly analyze and select the appropriate reaction of every given situation it would be exhausting, similar to muscle hammering repetitions 24 hours a day. Instead, the brain develops these ‘habits’ deep inside the brain in a portion termed the basal ganglia. When a cue is signaled the brain it sends a message for the basal ganglia to run the predetermined action. It’s automatic. Notice how you put toothpaste on your brush without having to tell yourself to do so. A cue, such as morning breath, will be a cue to your brain that’s time to brush your teeth. You walk to the bathroom as a mindless drone and brush your teeth. Pretty neat, huh?
Ok. So how does this relate to running? Just think of how often we run on autopilot. We crank the tunes and just go through the motions and reflect on our day. The longer we’ve been running, the more powerful the habit. The good news—habits can change.
A habit loop can be summarized as follows:
An environmental cue – Habit Action – Reward
With every run completed the action becomes more automatic and further engrained inside your basal ganglia.
Changing habits are difficult, just ask any smoker. To change your form you need to get inside the habit loop and find ways to break it or find cues to run a different habit loop. A helpful trick is recognizing a new environmental cue, which will then change your habit response. Your habit response should entail your improved run form. If you run with music you can use a song change cue. Those who run without music can use something as simple as sighting a stop sign. Every time a song changes or the stop sign appears you train your basal ganglia to fire a new habit of evaluating your run form and making the necessary adjustments. With time, the cue of song changes or stop signs will automatically cue you to fix your run form. It will become automatic!
A word of caution: Running is a high load activity. Drastic changes to run form in short periods of time can lead to injury. Once your muscles are strong enough to withstand your new form a strong habit loop can be developed.