In a nutshell: Tune in to the act of running to boost efficiency, avoid injuries...and simply enjoy it more.
The guinea pig: Myself, Sam Murphy – a coach, author and RW columnist. The Alexander Technique has changed both the way I run and my whole approach to the sport.
Inner workings: I cannot categorically claim that the Alexander Technique (AT) has made me a faster runner. But I believe it has made me a better runner: one who views running as a journey of self discovery. One who knows when to push, and when to back off. One who finds enjoyment in the sheer action of putting one foot in front of the other, regardless of the outcome. One who, like a good captain, can monitor and adjust her vessel’s controls to stay on course. And one who, by way of all that, has clocked up some satisfying PBs this side of 40.
So what is AT? ‘The Alexander Technique is about learning to do something more efficiently, with less unnecessary effort and strain,’ says Malcolm Balk, an Alexander teacher, running coach and author of Master the Art of Running (£9.99, Collins & Brown). ‘It can be applied to any activity, not just to running. It works along several lines, often at the same time.’
One that resonates with me is the notion of awareness. ‘Improving awareness gives people a better sense of what’s really going on and not what they assume is happening,’ says Balk. ‘As a result of our largely sedentary lifestyles, we often adopt faulty movement patterns or positions without knowing it. We might think we’re “running tall” when we are actually bent at the waist or hunched.’ Which brings us on to posture – the word most commonly associated with AT. The term ‘primary control’ is used to describe the relationship between the head, neck, back and legs. ‘It’s what many people commonly refer to as posture, but it should be viewed as something more dynamic,’ explains Balk.
Runners usually come to AT for two reasons: injury and performance improvement. I had both in mind when I first attended one of Balk’s Art of Running workshops 12 years ago. I remember him asking me, ‘What part of your body is leading your stride?’ and me replying, ‘My feet,’ in a tone that implied he was being a bit dumb. But let your feet lead your stride, and you’ll be running with the brakes on.
Applying the principles of AT means leading with your head, not overstriding, spending less time on the ground and not pushing off with the toes. ‘It’s about eliminating the unnecessary,’ says Balk. ‘AT improves our sense of how much effort is required to get the job done versus what habit decides.’ While learning to run better has been hugely rewarding, I’ve also gained a lot from the AT philosophy. If you’re a ‘results’ person, you’re interested in achieving your desired outcome, not the process of getting there – which is what Alexandrians call ‘end gaining’. This approach means you’re likely to run through fatigue and pain. The result? Less gain, more pain. Think of it this way: you can push a bike with a wonky wheel harder and faster, and get it to the finish quicker, but why not straighten the wheel?
The Alexander Technique has helped me in three ways: firstly it showed me that the wheel was wonky; secondly, it helped me straighten it; thirdly, it made me appreciate how much better life is without a wonky wheel. I’m no longer willing to ignore the kinks and glitches that get in the way of my newfound flow.
Get tips on how to try this at home and read up on how Emotional Freedom Therapy, Meditation and Rolfing can help you avoid and overcome injury.