Research has shown that the brains of skilled performers in any sport are less active, or quieter, than the brains of novices. Experienced athletes have learned to narrow their attention to the key elements of their task—whether it's shooting a basketball, driving a golf ball, or running—and let most of their body movements to be choreographed around this task unconsciously. Regardless of which sport you do, the more unconsciously you're able to do it, the better you will perform.
Many running coaches teach runners to concentrate on and control specific elements of their body's movement as they run. The research I've just discussed suggests that this is a bad idea, and, sure enough, studies have shown that when runners consciously modify their stride in any way they become less economical.
Does this mean that you should never think about your form when you run? Not quite. Many running injuries are caused in part by correctable abnormalities in stride mechanics. If you are injured or get injured frequently, you may need to change your stride under the supervision of a physical therapist or coach. Such changes can significantly reduce the risk of subsequent injuries, but they do come at the cost of reduced economy.
I know this from experience. A few years back, I changed my stride to overcome a nagging Achilles tendon injury. It worked. But when I visited an exercise laboratory for some testing, I learned that my new stride was significantly less efficient than my natural stride, even though I'd been practicing my modified stride for a few months by that point.
So I do not recommend that healthy runners consciously change their stride for the sake of improving their performance. There's a much simpler approach to form improvement that actually does work: All runners become more efficient automatically and unconsciously through the simple accumulation of running experience. The more you run, the more "shortcuts" your brain finds in terms of how it fires your muscles. Some researchers believe that these efficiency-boosting shortcuts are most likely to occur when a runner runs in a fatigued state (such as in the last mile of a five-mile tempo run). Here's where a little conscious technique work may be beneficial.
When you get tired, your stride changes—your form "breaks down. In order to maintain form and keep going at a desired pace, you have to make a stronger conscious effort than you do when you're still fresh. No matter how hard you try though, your form will degenerate anyway, but this is precisely what affords your brain an opportunity to find new and better ways of firing your muscles. You may be able to increase the likelihood of benefiting from fatigued running by using certain "proprioceptive cues" to hold your stride together at these moments. But, for the reasons we've discussed, these proprioceptive cues should focus your attention externally rather than on your body.
Here are four proprioceptive cues to try. Use them during any workout or race when you begin to feel that a serious mental effort is required to maintain your normal running form.