You’ve probably heard the saying “running is 90 percent mental, the rest is physical.” Of course you need the muscular strength to propel you forward, but without your brain, you won’t get far. It’s not just about motivation; your muscles are literally linked to your mind. Trainers and coaches call this the mind-muscle connection.
“The mind-muscle connection refers to the fact that muscles do not contract unless initiated by the central nervous system,” explains Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., author of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple. Nerves are what give your muscles the capability to contract, and nerves are controlled by your brain.
There are two primary ways to stimulate muscle contraction, says McCall: as a reflex— meaning this occurs at the subconscious level without thought—and in response to conscious thought—i.e. flexing to show someone how big your arm muscles are.
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Conscious thought can be a powerful stimulator. Just thinking about moving a specific muscle can strengthen it, even if you don’t actually move it, says Kevin Vincent, M.D., Ph.D, director of the University of Florida Running Medicine Clinic. In fact, study participants who had their wrists wrapped in surgical casts for four weeks but visualized flexing that immobile wrist for 11 minutes a day, five times a week had wrist muscles that were twice as strong as those who didn’t think about flexing during that time when the casts came off, according to 2014 research published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
What makes the mind-muscle connection so interesting during exercise is the fact that “just thinking about which muscle is working while a movement is being performed can help increase overall activation,” says McCall. When subjects performed a bench press while concentrating on their pectoralis major (a prominent chest muscle) or triceps muscles, their muscle activity increased compared to when they didn’t focus on any specific muscle part, a 2016 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found.
If your brain can supercharge your strength, what can it do for you on the run?
Why The Mind-Muscle Connection Matters for Runners
Part of the beauty of running is its meditative nature—once you find your flow, you can zone out and let the miles fly by. But staying present to some degree will help you run stronger for longer.
“When you’re running, you’re doing one motion 850 to 1,000 times per leg per mile, multiplied over miles and days,” says Vincent. “If you’re not activating muscles correctly, you start overloading other parts of your body.”
For example, if your glutes aren’t firing, your hamstrings, quads, and lower back have to overcompensate for that lack of activity, and that can lead to a breakdown in form and efficiency that could up your risk for injury. Plus, the harder your body is working to stay upright, the less you’ll be able to push it in terms of performance.
That’s especially important in distance running, when you’re trying to avoid hitting the wall or letting fatigue slow you down, says Corey Lewis, C.S.C.S., founder of 1AND1 LIFE. “Training the brain to better communicate with the muscles can offer an advantageous edge when it comes to stride power and running economy,” he says. “With an improved mind-muscle connection—a.k.a. focusing on the mechanics of each stride—runners can improve their oxygen economy, therefore saving energy to run faster.”
On a run, you probably already check your splits and your heart rate and maybe even your breathing. But looking a little deeper can really help you dig into that mind-muscle connection. “Checking in during a run can help you become more intuitive,” says Vincent. “Is your footfall louder than normal? Has your cadence changed? Has your stride length changed? Do you feel a tug in the back or your leg, or like your knee is caving in? Those are all signs that something may not be firing correctly.”
Your body is giving you signals with every step—whether you listen to them or not is up to you. When you do listen, you can better understand what’s happening to your body and how you can course-correct if necessary.
How to Create That Mind-Muscle Connection
The mind-muscle connection is so important on the run for all the reasons above, but you don’t actually learn it on the run. It’s in the weight room where you train to fire the right muscles and learn what that feels like. “Then you’ll be able to use it in a dynamic setting like running,” says Vincent.
For example, “during single-leg balance exercises, think about pushing the foot into the ground to create stability,” says McCall. While running, driving the ground away from you could help to increase overall stride frequency, which could improve your speed, he says. “When doing core exercises like planks or side planks, visualizing the deep core muscles that envelope the spine like a corset could help increase activation and improve stability when the foot hits the ground while running.”
So many times during strength training, runners are barely focused on what their muscles are doing—it’s just another thing to check off the training to-do list. But when you’re performing an exercise, you want to ask yourself what muscle you need to fire and understand what that feels like. Let’s say you’re doing a fire hydrant. You want to actively squeeze your glute to lift your leg. If you’re not sure whether the muscle is firing, “put your finger on it—then keep doing that motion until you tweak it enough to get it to fire,” Vincent says. Another tip: Look in the mirror. Bodybuilders preen for a reason; by studying their reflections, they can isolate what muscles are firing (or not).
What this really requires is patience. There’s no gains to be had from going through the motions or rushing through a workout. (FYI: This is equally as important when you’re warming up, to make sure you’re activating the muscles you’ll be using on a run.) Beyond thinking about the muscles you’re working with each movement, “perform your reps slowly, focusing on technique,” says Lewis. “At the end of the rep, take a pause and refocus if necessary.” It’s about quality, not quantity—rushed and shaky movements won’t help you; each rep should be smooth and stable to get the intended benefit.
This intentionality is what’s going to help you develop coordinated movement patterns where your muscles develop and work together, says Vincent. Ideally, after enough time spent activating your muscles via conscious thought, you’ll start to fire those same muscles as a reflex—and keeping the right muscles activated and engaged on the run will become second nature.