Spring is here – chirping birds, snow-free trails and the annual debate about whether you run with the "right" technique. But before you start grappling with knee angles and foot-strike positions, consider the following curious result.
Researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, put two groups of volunteers through a test of running economy, a measure of how much energy it takes to travel a given distance, much like the gas mileage of a car. One group received no feedback, while the other received positive (but totally fake) feedback every two minutes, such as, "You look relaxed. You are a very efficient runner."
Bafflingly, the second group became more efficient when they started receiving positive feedback – confirmation, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Sports Sciences, of the "social-cognitive-affective-motor nature of motor performance."
In other words, traits that we consider purely physical actually depend on what we think and how we feel – a finding with interesting implications for how we coach sports and learn to exercise.
There's plenty of evidence that positive feedback helps people learn tasks such as throwing or golf-putting more quickly and effectively. It's usually assumed that encouraging words boost confidence and motivation. But the improvement in running economy is harder to explain: You can't just "decide" to run more efficiently, no matter how hard you try.
Instead, Dr. Gabriele Wulf, the senior author of the UNLV study, points to the detrimental role of "self-regulatory processes" in the mind. The more you worry about whether you're doing things right, the less fluid and efficient your movements become; positive feedback helps to quiet these ever-present doubts, while negative feedback makes them worse.
Similarly, Wulf has explored the difference between "internal" and "external" focus of attention in motor learning. Basketball players told to focus on the motion of their wrist (an internal focus) will hit fewer shots than those told to focus on the rim of the basket (an external focus). The same is true for a long list of other activities, from dart-throwing to balancing on a beam to kicking a football.
A German study in 2009, also published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found this pattern also holds true for runners. When subjects were told to focus on their breathing or their running form, they ran less efficiently and burned more energy at a given pace than when they were simply told to focus on their surroundings. These two factors can be stacked together for greater effect. A new study by Wulf and her colleagues, recently accepted for publication, compared the effects of positive feedback and external focus in learning to throwing a tennis ball with the non-dominant arm. Both together produced better results than either one alone, which in turn was better than neither.
All of this seems to add up to a depressingly nihilistic view of skill development, in which any attempt to identify or correct errors in your technique actually makes you worse by triggering negative internal focus. But not all efforts to improve your running form are doomed, Wulf says.
"It is possible that corrective feedback might initially cause a decrease in efficiency," she acknowledges. "But hopefully the 'right' feedback – external and positive – would minimize that, and perhaps lead to greater efficiency relatively soon."
For runners, the challenge is to think of ways to promote better running form using external positive cues, rather than fixating on what the knees and ankles might be doing wrong.
Wulf points to research at Southern Illinois University, where runners are instructed to think about "clawing the ground" with their feet; researchers at the University of Delaware and Harvard have also investigated the effects of telling runners to focus on "running quietly" – a positive message, rather than the equivalent negative message, "Stop making so much noise when your feet land!"
The message also applies beyond the world of sports coaching. For example, studies have found that instructions with external focus improve learning and function in people with motor impairments from strokes and Parkinson's disease.
Of course, efficiency isn't the only goal for those seeking better running form. Many people would gladly accept worse efficiency in exchange for a reduced risk of injury. If you're struck down by shin splints every time you lace up your running shoes, then it may well be worth trying to identify and correct problems with your running style.
But don't lose sight of the ultimate goal of any gait retraining, which is to eventually be able to head out the door and clear your mind, forgetting all about stride length and trunk posture, and simply enjoy the spring. It's not just more efficient – it's more fun.
Researchers have found that focusing on cues outside your body produces the best results when learning motor tasks. Try the following tips to improve your running:
Run quietly: Make each step as noiseless as possible, avoiding a loud slapping noise when your feet hit the ground.
Claw the ground: Instead of extending your front leg as far forward as possible, begin to bring it back before it hits the ground, as if you're clawing a carpet toward you.
Hot tin roof: Minimize the time your feet stay in contact with the ground by taking quick, short steps.
Alex Hutchinson blogs about exercise research at sweatscience.runnersworld.com.