A couple of weeks ago I touched upon the subject of the need to train form, not conditioning in Injury: Recovery & The Grand Return. In today’s post, I want to dive a little deeper into the subject of Form.
What is Form?
When it comes to movement patterns, including – but certainly not limited to – squatting, lunging, running, jumping, throwing, etc, form is paramount. Break down in form is what breaks the body.
Poor form is one of, if not the primary cause of, chronic pain and injury. This goes whether you are an elite level athlete, weekend warrior, or even a sedentary couch potato. The way you move has a direct and definite impact on how you feel. It has everything to do with your form, good or bad.
Form is the applied combination of technique and skill. Form is a learned behavior. It is built through repetition (aka practice), and is embedded in the nervous system. When you learn a new movement pattern, your nervous system creates a specific neural pathway for this new skill (the connection of one part of your nervous system with another).
At first this pathway is weak; the connection is poor. But the more often you repeat the movement pattern, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Sustained consistency goes farther than sheer force of effort. It’s kind of like building a road. Over time, as more and more traffic uses the road, it is expanded. Over time, with enough use (i.e. traffic in this example), the road is slowly transformed into a highway.
Proper form takes the right movements and deeply hard wires them into a specialized skill through perfect repetition of movement patterns.
Poor form takes the wrong movements and deeply hard wires them into bad habits through the repetition of imperfect movement patterns.
Is inefficient, leaks energy, and makes tasks harder and more exhausting to perform.
Wears down the soft tissue of joints, leading to inflammation and damage.
Creates dysfunctional pain patterns throughout the body.
Increases your short and long term medical costs, by way of…
-visits to doctors and physical therapy
Poor form, in short, shortens your life!
Increases efficiency – You move smoother and faster, jump higher, squat more weight, etc., all with less effort and strain.
Minimizes wear and tear on joints, ligaments, tendons, cartilage.
Allows you to do more with your body and your life.
Speeds recovery time.
Is preventative medicine.
Reduces short and long term health care costs.
Prevents living a life of pain and injury.
Proper form, in short, lengthens your life!
Form Must Come First
This is important. Proper form and poor form are both developed through repetition. The difference lies in the quality of the movement being repeated.
Why does this matter?
Because you cannot train form and conditioning at the same time.
You cannot learn a new movement pattern (form), and – at the same time – use that movement pattern to train for endurance, strength, power, or speed (conditioning).
For example, say you are recovering from a running injury. If you are training to improve your running gait (form), you cannot use running to improve your conditioning. The two – on a fundamental level – don’t work together!
Training to improve your form and training to improve conditioning are fundamentally incompatible.
To improve form, you need practice… perfect practice. You need to practice your form perfectly in order for it to stick. When you train for form you are allowing your neurological system to develop new bio-mechanical habits. Because it is so important to have flawless form, you must repeat the movement pattern flawlessly with every repetition.
At the beginning of form training, perfect form breaks down at the first sign of fatigue. Once fatigued, you will no longer be able to maintain perfect form.
Training with imperfect form reinforces the poor movement patterns that will ultimately lead to injury.
At the same time, you cannot improve your conditioning without fatigue. Fatigue is a core component to training endurance, strength, power, and speed. You will not achieve significant improvements in your conditioning without training into some levels of fatigue.
Case Study. An example from real life:
Susan had not had the time to run in over three months. On Saturday she decided to try one mile for her first run. One mile is a pretty short distance, and a perfect place to start to get back into good running condition, right? She ran at a 10 minute mile pace.
Here’s the problem: because of her level of conditioning, she is only able to run with proper form for about 1-2 minutes before fatigue sets in. Once fatigued, it is impossible to maintain proper running form without rest. Each and every step she takes after her form breaks down is a step down the path of a poor neural pathway.
If she decides to push through and complete the mile without rest, she will actually spend 80% of her running time practicing poor form. That is 80% of her training time building upon a highway system of dysfunction and future pain and injury!
Is that what she wants? Is that what you want?
The same example can be used for all forms of movement. Fatigue affects your form in all activities, like swimming, cycling, tennis, resistance training, etc.
If you want to improve your form, if you want to reduce the recurrence of pain and injury, then you must train with patience. You must limit how much you perform the desired movement until you have fully developed your new and improved form.
You need perfect practice until you have perfect form.
Then, and only then, can you use that movement to train conditioning. It may take a few months or longer, depending on your age, conditioning level, injury history, and a few other factors.
It is very likely that you will be able to work on your conditioning in some way. However, it must come from activities in which you already have a high level of skill and technique.
In any specific movement pattern, you cannot train form and conditioning at the same time. Perfect form first. Train conditioning later.
One of the best training methods for improving form is interval training. Interval training maximizes the benefits of repetition and minimizes the instance of fatigue. It involves a series of low to high intensity exercises followed by periods of rest or recovery. Interval training includes in the vital rest and recovery your body needs to maintain proper form.
Case Study. An example from real life, Part 2:
Let’s take another look at Susan’s run. Instead of running a mile nonstop, she can do a series of one minute runs followed by one minute recovery up to ten times, or really as long as she can maintain proper form, whichever comes first. Not only will she be able to get in the distance that she wanted to run, but she will do it using proper form during a much greater percentage of her workout.
Over the course of several weeks, she can slowly add more time to each running interval and decrease the time of each recovery interval. This helps improve form, increase mileage, and prevent injury. Within a couple months, she will be able to run nonstop for the desired distance while maintaining great form.
If you have been thinking about making the switch to a barefoot lifestyle, this interval training is an ideal time to incorporate barefoot running into your training. By adding barefoot running into your training you get immediate feedback in your running form. Basically, bad form will hurt immediately, allowing you to make immediate adjustments in your form.
It is also a great way to force yourself to limit the total amount of training time each day. Your feet will be far too sensitive to train beyond fatigue and poor form. A proper barefoot running transition needs to be done slowly.
It is important with barefoot running that you do not attempt to Push Through The Pain. (Here is more reading on how to make a smooth, safe, injury free transition into a barefoot lifestyle.)
12 Week Interval Running Program
This is the same interval training that I included in the article about Injury and the Grand Return. It is an excellent interval training program and is a solid way to get back into proper running form. Jump back over to the bottom of the “Injury” article to have a look or click here to download it as a PDF.