Research has shown that technique is an important factor that can influence running economy, performance and injury risk. Running technique has many facets making it complex to understand and monitor. It can be very challenging to dissect and understand where things can be changed to overcome specific challenges. However, this could improve performance or reduce specific injury risks. One element that you may or may not be familiar with is called muscle activation, or muscle firing.

You may or may not have heard about this before, many people are still unclear on what it actually means. Essentially we use this term to refer to a muscle or muscle group that is not being used effectively. Our nerves are responsible for telling our muscles to contract and therefore activating or firing the muscles. When a muscle group is not effectively being used it can have consequences to your running performance and injury risks. How considerable the consequences are depends on the extent of the inactivity and the role that the muscle group is performing for the motion.

Different muscle actions and relevance to muscle activation

Muscle groups can be categorized by the role they play during the motion.

  • Synergists assist with guiding, assisting or helping the motion
  • Fixators hold joints or other structures in place
  • Agonists actively pull in the direction of motion
  • Antagonists work in the opposite direction, slowing or controlling the motion.

We will discuss more on the roles of muscle groups in a future post. What’s interesting for now is that for any one motion, the roles of the muscle groups can be differently distributed depending on how your muscles are activated. For example, for certain motions, it may be possible to utilize primarily the quadriceps (thigh muscles) or whereas a similar motion may alternatively be executed by engaging the glutes (buttocks) much more actively. In either case the overall motion can be (more or less) successfully executed, but the way the muscles are recruited for the motion is rather different.

Over time the muscles that are recruited more regularly and more actively will develop and adapt to the motion. This often results in muscles that are bigger and stronger or relatively overdeveloped. The muscles that are less actively engaged can become smaller and weaker or relatively underdeveloped. Imbalances can become more and more pronounced over time. The related tendons, ligaments, muscles and other structures will be loaded differently, causing different stresses and strains. This influences where the highest risks of injury may occur and the efficiency or effectiveness of the motion.

How can we identify whether muscles are activated or not?

Visual, and often tactile, assessment is important for physios and coaches who may look at the current sequence of muscle recruitment and assess that one group is overcompensating for another, or that a particular muscle is not activated enough. Of course it can be of great value if we can objectively measure this, which may be achieved with sophisticated instruments such as an EMG which can directly measure muscle activity or through motion tracking and gait or biomechanical analysis. In the case of running there are multiple examples of research studies that have shown that running technique can influence muscle activity. Thus by monitoring running technique itself it can be possible to estimate which muscle groups are more likely to be recruited.

Essentially the running technique utilized can dictate the activation of the various muscle groups which will produce a certain result that will be more or less efficient, or create higher or lower risks of injury. In running, perhaps the most important phase in relation to the loading experienced by the body is the time the foot is in contact with the ground. This is the moment when the body experiences a kind of collision, all of the weight of the body is born through its own structures and excerpts pressure and force on the ground. When this can be measured we can see the result of all of the technique elements that contribute to this result. Certain traits, or clues in the data can help us to understand where these results come from. When we make changes to technique the result will also change, allowing us to visualize the progress we are making when we change elements of our running technique or as our body develops and changes over time.

So what can be done to improve muscle activity?

In most cases this can be considered to be a neurological, or motor learning challenge. This might sound intimidating, but in simple terms it means teaching yourself to use your muscles differently. The consequence of appropriate retraining will be that the newly recruited muscles will become exposed to new loads such that, in time, they adapt to become stronger and bigger so the motion can be executed in a more balanced, efficient and effective manner. In more extreme cases it can be that the muscles are so under developed that strength training is required before retraining can begin, but in many cases it can be something that develops in parallel. It is common for physiotherapists, and in many cases even coaches, to prescribe exercises that need to be practiced regularly to help teach your body how to engage specific muscle groups and build up strength. In the context of running, whatever approach is adopted to get there, ultimately it will mean adapting your running technique in such a fashion that the appropriate muscles are recruited in sequence at the appropriate time.

Changing running technique to influence muscle activation

As we discussed above there are multiple examples of research studies that have shown that changing elements of your running technique can influence the extent to which certain muscles are activated during running. Essentially this means it is possible to stimulate the body to more actively engage muscles by adjusting overall running technique. We can think of this as “top down” versus “bottom up” solutions. Of course it makes a lot of sense to work together with a physio on specific exercises that can help you to strengthen and retrain certain muscles, but there can be a lot of value in tackling the technique as a whole from the perspective of running technique. As with many things the optimum solution can be to address the challenge of muscle activation with a combination of approaches, and the right mix will depend a lot on how extreme the case is and your own body’s ability to adopt technique changes. In more extreme cases it can be important to build a good foundation together with a physio before re-engaging with running and your running technique, but other cases it may be that small technique adjustments can bring the resolution you are searching for.

It almost goes without saying that anyone engaging in new forms of physical exercise, and especially those with existing or a history of injuries or other health concerns should consult with a health professional for advice. However from what research can tell us, when we can build up an objective picture or baseline of your running technique, it is possible to identify elements of your profile that can be indicative of increased injury risks, at least statistically speaking. A nice example of this related to muscle activation, was a research study which showed that increasing step rate increased the activity of certain muscle groups, and particularly the glutes. Similar increased glute activity was observed in another study measuring muscular recruitment during hill running. In essence, whilst it is certainly an over simplification to say that running technique is the answer to all your problems, it is certainly something that research has shown can help you on your way.

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