Body Mapping for Runners: Tapping Into Your Brain’s Potential for Speed

Running form practice

Running ability is largely determined by fitness, but there is a skill component to the sport that’s often overlooked by athletes and coaches. To run well means to move with as little wasted motion as possible. Achieving that level of efficiency requires as much skill as just about anything in sports. 

Very few runners make skill development a component of their training, instead putting their focus entirely on fitness. This approach leaves a lot on the table in terms of improvement. You can always bend over backwards to squeeze an extra bit of fitness out of your training, but once you’ve maxed out, the real meat on the bone comes from making your stride as efficient as humanly possible. 

The Power of Body Maps for Runners

One of the most effective ways of improving your stride is through a technique called body mapping, which is used by musicians and athletes in other skill-heavy sports. Body maps are ever-changing blueprints used by your brain to help you navigate through the physical world. Runners, whether they realize it or not, are developing new body maps all the time.

To better explain the relationship between body mapping and running, imagine your body as a car. Your fitness is your vehicle’s components and specs – your tires and transmission, your horsepower and acceleration. Your body maps are your ability to drive the car quickly on a limited fuel tank. Perfect driving takes incredible efficiency. You need to handle high speeds seamlessly, navigate in and out of traffic, and constantly return to a steady state for fuel economy. 

The best runners aren’t just the fittest – they also have the best body maps, allowing them to cover ground using the smoothest movement patterns possible. Look, for example, at the stride of marathon great Eliud Kipchoge. There is not a single motion wasted. Every bit of energy is propelling him forward. 

Developing Your Own Body Maps 

Every time you run, you give your brain real-time information it must use to make dozens of simultaneous decisions. If you think about every step you take across the course of a run, it’s staggering to realize just how much work your brain is doing to propel you from start to finish. Proper body mapping involves optimizing your mind-body connection so every step you take becomes increasingly efficient over time.

Here are three of the literally endless ways you can practice to enhance your own body mapping ability. 

Targeted Pace Practice – If you want to run well at a certain distance, you need to hit your specific race pace in training repeatedly. But pace practice isn’t as simple as running a bunch of 800s at your goal speed. In fact, doing workouts incorrectly will teach your body the wrong movement patterns. Examples of this mistake include:

  • Running too many fast intervals, which (poorly) teaches your body to use its lactate threshold system and associated stride length.
  • Overworking the same energy system through lack of workout variety.
  • Running marathon-paced workouts too quickly, which recruits muscle fiber combinations that are unsustainable for a full 26.2 miles.

The proper way to work on pacing is through workouts at effort levels that specifically target the right energy systems and their associated running form. Ideally, these workouts will parlay off of each other over the course of a larger training cycle. Runners who train with See You At The Finish are given personalized workouts designed to optimize pacing in the build up to a race. Through the right stack of workouts, runners can develop highly efficient body maps and feel comfortable at target race pace.  

Varying your Surfaces – Different running surfaces, whether a smooth track or an uneven trail, send unique signals to your brain, affecting your leg movement. You can utilize this feedback variety in your training to develop better body maps. 

 “The soles of your feet have touch receptors that send signals to your brain every time you stand and put pressure on the ground. These signals are combined in higher brain maps with vestibular, visual, and other touch information to keep your nimble on your toes.”

The Body Has a Mind of its Own, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee

A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society showed positive physical outcomes from barefoot cobblestone walking when compared to conventional walking. The uneven surface and unpredictability of cobblestone likely led to better body maps. While I don’t recommend runners actually train on cobblestone, there’s a lot we can glean from the benefits of varied biofeedback from the ground we cover.

So be creative in how you mix up your surfaces. You can check out a complete guide to surface variation for runners here

Teaching your Body to Relax – Power in distance running comes through fluidity. Just like a professional golfer stays relaxed when driving a ball, a good runner will avoid tensing up at faster speeds. 

But being relaxed at race pace is easier said than done. The discomfort associated with pain causes most runners to tense up, which leads to poor body mapping. Thankfully, however, avoiding this tension is a skill that can be trained. 

One of the most common ways runners have practiced fast, relaxed running for decades is through “strides” or “striders”. These short bursts of speed, when done correctly, can be a great way to fine tune your body maps.

But by far, my favorite workout for teaching fast, relaxed running are alternators and their many iterations. With the correct “float” pace in between faster bursts, alternators are so effective in increasing aerobic threshold that runners will oftentimes find their paces improve at multiple race distances simultaneously.  I used alternator workouts in the first block of my buildup to the Myrtle Beach Marathon in March, and like clockwork, my efficiency improved rapidly:

Flux training running
Alternator workout
Marathon workout strava

The mind is your most powerful tool as a runner. Train it the same way you train your body, and your results will follow.

If you’re looking to get faster through a comprehensive training strategy, updated in real time, check out my coaching plans. For more running tips, check out the blog section of this site.