By Malcolm Balk and Andrew Shields
The Alexander Technique is a method of becoming aware of and preventing the unnecessary tension we put into everything we do, so that we can learn to function in a more free and natural fashion. It was developed by FM Alexander (1869-1955), and can be applied to sporting activities as well as to everyday living.
When we see a great runner flowing along in full stride, we witness a connection with the sublime. But how can we capture what sports psychologists refer to as ‘peak experience’ or ‘being in the zone’?
Here are some of the key components in learning how to run well:
- Allow the arms to engage the legs. The shoulders need to remain free so that the movement of the arms can connect with the legs through the back.
- Allow the knees rather than the feet to lead the movement forward. Trying to increase stride length by reaching forward with the foot results in a braking action which will slow you down. It also causes a runner to lean back or sit on their hips rather than run tall.
- Allow the legs to move in a semi-circular pattern, with the heel approaching the buttock at the end of each stride (that is, the knee bends at least 90ƒ before coming forward). Thinking of the legs moving in a circular rather than a linear way helps a runner to develop a rhythmic pattern which is easier to maintain.
- Remember that the external direction is forward, the internal direction is up. Many runners need to understand that although they may be moving forward in space, their spine does not have to aim the same way. Ideally, as you are moving forward (that is, horizontally), as a result of the action of your legs and feet, your spine should be lengthening upwards (that is, vertically), with the head leading the way. This upward tendency produces a lightness in the body, which means the legs do not have to work so hard to move you forward.
- Let the eyes look out 30-50 metres ahead. Not only will you see more of the countryside, cityscape or parkland, but running with a lengthened spine and a poised head will encourage balance and reduce both ‘heavy’ running and much of the strain on neck and shoulders.
- Allow the wrists to remain toned rather than floppy. Runners mistakenly run with their wrists so loose that their hands flop around, in the belief that they are relaxed in so doing. They are, in fact, creating unnecessary tension elsewhere as the shoulders will often tighten to pick up the slack. Instead, runners should allow enough tone in their wrists to maintain them in a stable relationship between the hand and arm. Stiff thumbs are another indication that there is too much tension.
- Allow the elbows to remain bent at 90 degrees, and the arms to move straight forward and back or slightly across the body. Some movements contribute more to propelling you forward than others: the most effective is when the arms move forward and back more or less in a straight line.
- Learn to run lightly and quietly. Pounding is a sign that something’s wrong. You may be tired, not feeling well or simply not paying attention. Running lightly has nothing to do with how much you weigh: it has much more to do with attention (listening to yourself as you run) and intention (thinking ‘up’).
In contrast, it is also possible to run very badly:
- Don’t push the body up and let it land heavily on the legs with every stride. This takes a great deal of effort which may be useful in a training context (to strengthen the legs, for example) but is an inefficient way to move a runner forward. Some runners mistakenly believe that pushing themselves up with the legs helps them run taller. In fact, it tends to a) stiffen the legs; b) do little to increase overall height, which is a function of the length of the spine; and c) waste valuable time and energy.
- Don’t lock the arms on to the trunk or fix the shoulders. We often see runners who have allowed their arms to become heavy and un-energised, so that they do not move as easily or freely as they should. The arms then function as weights, which serve to pull the runner down into a moving slouch. The problem does not necessarily originate with the arms, but can be traced back to a poor head-neck relationship. Thinking about freeing (not holding) the armpits can help release the arms and allow them to move more easily. This direction also helps to reduce tension and pain in the shoulder blade/lower neck area.
- Don’t ‘do an Elvis’, and tuck or push the pelvis into the legs. Runners, especially those who arch their lower backs, are often advised to do what is referred to in some circles as the ‘pelvic tuck’, where the buttocks are tightened and the pelvis is tucked under. The intention of this advice is to help reduce the excessive curve in the lower back. Unfortunately, this measure often causes unwanted side-effects: for example, tucking the pelvis can produce a downward pull which must be countered with muscular effort elsewhere, often in the form of pulling up the sternum. This tightens and narrows the lower back, fixes the ribs and makes it hard to breathe and to move the legs.
- Don’t allow the head to roll, bob, wag or look down. Once you are aware that the head weighs about 4.5 kg (10 pounds), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that letting the head roll around is going to place a tremendous load on the rest of the body, beginning with the spine. Runners who allow their head to waggle are often under the false impression that this is a way to relax the neck. In contrast, it puts more strain on the neck, which must now work much harder to cope with the constant shifts in the balance of the head.
- Don’t clench the teeth or grimace. Like musicians, runners do some pretty awful things with their jaws, teeth and faces when they run, especially when under stress. Besides the possibility of frightening small children, facial grimaces do little to help you get from A to B. In fact, they can be an indication that your energy is being misdirected rather than going where it will do most good.
- Don’t bounce up and down or roll from side to side. Research has shown that Èlite runners have less vertical change in their centres of mass compared to average runners, and that reducing one’s quantity of vertical movement tends to improve running economy. In other words, don’t bounce up and down if you want to run with less effort.
Malcolm Balk is a qualified Alexander Technique teacher, specialising in working with runners of all standards, and a Level 4 track coach in Montreal, Canada. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Shields is Sport and Fitness Editor of Time Out magazine in London. He has twice been runner-up in the British Sports Journalism Awards. His email address is email@example.com. Information about their book, The Art of Running, can be found at The Art of Running Website.