Proprioceptive cues are images and other sensory cues that enable you to modify your running stride for the better as you think about them while running. I have used proprioceptive cues in my training for the past four years and have found that they really work.
Using proprioceptive cues effectively requires concentration and discipline. Our natural tendency is to let our thoughts wander aimlessly while running. If you're serious about improving your stride, you must fight this tendency by forcing yourself to concentrate on and execute a particular proprioceptive cue for hundreds of consecutive strides.
The stride improvements that proprioceptive cues facilitate do not happen overnight, because the motor patterns that underlie your current stride habits are deeply ingrained, to the point of being almost completely automatic.
You'll get the best results from proprioceptive cues if you use one at a time throughout the entire length of a run and you use them generally at least three times a week every week. Because proprioceptive cues require you to use your muscles differently than they are accustomed to being used, certain muscles may fatigue more quickly, so it's best to begin using each specific proprioceptive cue only during short recovery runs.
It's not necessary to "master" the stride change associated with any given cue before moving on to other cues. In fact, no matter how perfect your stride becomes, you can still benefit from using each cue regularly as a reminder to keep your form sharp, especially when you're fatigued. Therefore, I recommend that you cycle through the following cues in an endless rotation, never neglecting any one of them for long.
Tilt your whole body slightly forward as you run. Don't bend at the waist. Tilt your entire body from the ankles. When you're first getting a feel for this proprioceptive cue, feel free to exaggerate your lean to the point where you feel you're about to fall on your face. Then ease back to a point where you feel comfortable and in control, but gravity still seems to be pulling you forward. This cue will help you correct overstriding, because when you're running with a slight forward tilt in your body, your feet will naturally land close to your center of gravity.
Navel to Spine
Concentrate on pulling your belly button inward toward your spine while running. Using this cue will activate the deep abdominal muscles that serve as important stabilizers of the pelvis and lower spine during running. As a result, you will reduce wasteful (and often asymmetrical) rotations of the hips and spine, maintain better stability in the hips and pelvis on footstrike and transfer forces more efficiently between your upper body and legs.
Running on Water
Imagine you're running on water, and your goal is not to fall through. To do this, you must overcome the squishiness of your running surface by applying maximum force to the water in minimum contact time, like a skipping stone. Try to make your feet skip across your running surface in a similar way: quickly, lightly, yet forcefully. This proprioceptive cue will teach you to stiffen your stride, minimize ground contact time, and begin the thrust phase earlier.
Pulling the Road
Imagine that your running route is like a giant non-motorized treadmill. On a non-motorized treadmill, you are able to run in place by pulling the treadmill belt backward with your feet. Envision yourself doing the same thing with the road as you run outdoors. You're not actually moving forward--you're simulating forward movement by pulling the road behind you with each foot. This proprioceptive cue will teach you to begin generating thrust earlier, to stiffen your stride and to minimize ground contact time.
Run in a "scooting" manner by actively minimizing vertical oscillation. Don't exaggerate this action to the point where you are reducing your stride rate or increasing ground contact time. Just think about thrusting your body forward instead of upward while running. This proprioceptive cue will help you run with greater stability by reducing vertical impact forces.
Pounding the Ground
Most runners are taught to run as softly as possible. In fact, running speed is almost entirely a function of how forcefully you hit the ground with your feet. The typical runner--especially the typical overstriding runner--allows her foot to fall passively to the ground with each stride.
Instead, practice actively driving your foot into the ground. Be sure to give a somewhat backward pull to this driving movement rather than a completely vertical movement. Also, if you are currently a heel striker (overstrider), work on shortening your stride and landing heel first before using this proprioceptive cue, which teaches you to stiffen your stride, thrust earlier and minimize ground contact time.
Driving the Thigh
Concentrate on driving the thigh of your swing leg forward a little more forcefully than you normally do. The more forceful forward/upward movement of this leg will create a counterbalancing downward/backward action in your opposite leg as it comes into contact with the ground. (Think of the way your free arm moves in opposition to your throwing arm when you throw a ball hard.)
Feel free to concentrate on driving only one thigh throughout a workout or, if you can manage it, to concentrate on driving both thighs. (The average stride rate being in excess of 150 per minute, it can be difficult to focus your attention properly on both legs when using this proprioceptive cue). This cue will help you refine the coordinated timing of movements between your two legs and enhance your stride stiffness.
The human foot contains 27 bones and dozens of muscles and ligaments. This structure enables the foot to deform in an intricate, wavelike pattern while it is in contact with the ground during running. Unfortunately, shoes greatly restrict this natural movement. You can get a lot of it back by wearing a running shoe that allows greater freedom of foot movement, such as the Nike Free.
You can get even more back by concentrating on running with relaxed, "floppy" feet. When practicing this cue, continue to strike the ground forcefully with your feet, but use the muscles of your upper leg to generate this force while keeping your foot relaxed, enabling it to absorb and transfer impact forces in a way that will minimize stress on specific tissues and increase the amount of free elastic energy you are able to store and reuse.
In the instant before your foot makes contact with the ground, contract the muscles in the hip and buttock on that side of your body and keep them engaged throughout the ground contact phase of the stride. This proprioceptive cue will enable you to maintain greater stability in the hips, pelvis, lower spine and perhaps even the knees as you run. It will also minimize wasteful (asymmetrical) long axis rotations.
Focus your attention on a specific part of your body, or stride, on both the left side and the right side. Concentrate on the feel of your arm swing, the forward movement of your swing leg, the moment of footstrike, push-off, etc.
Compare the feeling on the left side of your body to that on your right side. If there is a discrepancy, adjust your stride in a way that eliminates the discrepancy, if possible, or at least reduces it. Specifically, alter your stride on the side that feels less comfortable, natural, or "right" to make it feel more like the side that feels better. Obviously, this proprioceptive cue helps you reduce asymmetries in your stride.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005) and his newest, Brain Training for Runners.