If, despite warming up, stretching and following your training programme to the letter, you still have frustrating aches and niggles from running, it might be time to revolutionise your running technique.
One way to do this is by applying the principles of the Alexander Technique (AT). By fostering what AT teachers call ‘good use of the body,’ you could increase the efficiency of your stride, reduce your risk of injury, boost performance and most importantly, enhance your enjoyment of running.
The AT technique teaches you to release the tension in everyday movements and undo bad postural habits built up over years. Its central premise is that by promoting ‘good use’ of the head, neck and back, the rest of the body will relax and work more efficiently.
Traditionally used by musicians and actors, the AT was pioneered by the late 19th-century Australian actor FM Alexander. It is now cited as an effective treatment for low back pain in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines and is being increasingly adopted to improve the efficiency of our workouts.
Steven Shaw (of The Shaw Method) has been using its principles to improve swimming strokes since the 1980s and runners are now using it to revolutionise their stride. Malcolm Balk, a Canadian expert on Alexander Technique and running is holding ‘The Art of Running’ workshops in Bristol on May 12, just in time for the Bristol10k.
According to Susannah Baker, a Clifton-based AT teacher who has organised the workshop, we’ve lost our ease of movement and our sense of what feels natural in our slumpy, slouchy, sedentary, smartphone-addled lives.
“Throughout our lives, all these layers of habits creep in,” she says. “The idea of the AT is to strip away those bad habits, and there’s a specific process we use for accomplishing that.”
AT teachers help you observe your stance and movements and gently use their hands to help read what your body’s doing. In a taster session, Susannah asked me to sit on a chair and stand up again repeatedly, noticing what I did with my body as I did so. I leant slightly to the right, my toes came up and rested my hands on my knees as I stood back up.
Then she rested her hand gently behind my neck as I moved. I felt my head tilt backwards and my neck tense as I sat down. It was amazing how a hand placed behind my neck alerted me to the inefficiency of one movement – something I was completely unaware of before.
“Like many people, you tilt your head back,” said Susannah, pointing out that the average head weighs five kilos, and when I come to stand, I’ll need extra oomph to drag that five kilos with me. Perhaps that’s why I pushed down on my knees as I stood – to give myself extra leverage to lift my lumbering head. She guided me to sit and stand, and this time to think about guiding my head in a ‘forward and up’ direction.
“We need to stop the habitual way of doing things by changing our thinking,” says Susannah. “It’s about bringing your consciousness into everyday activities.”
How do you apply all this to running?
“Many people tend to use way more effort than they need to run at a certain pace,” says Malcolm Balk, co-author of Master the Art of Running (Collins & Brown, £9.99).
“People sometimes use the wrong muscles and make the wrong kind of effort trying to run faster or maintain their stride. It’s like they’re running with the brakes on which sounds like an easy thing to fix but it’s not.
“In the workshop, we get everyone to warm up and then video them running. Mostly when you tell people what they’re doing, they don’t believe you because they don’t feel it. We play the video back in slow motion. Most people are visual learners, so when they see what’s going on with their bodies, they start to believe it. We then give them the tools to make better choices about the way they move their body. We’ll film them a second time to see what changes have happened. In a relatively short time, niggles that have resisted physiotherapy seem to get better.”
By unravelling my running technique, being mindful of my body’s movements and stopping doing all the things I shouldn’t be doing, can I stop doing my physiotherapy exercises for my knee?
“The Alexander Technique is a complementary approach,” says Malcolm. “It doesn’t replace physiotherapy, but maybe the way you run puts additional pressure on your knees that you’re just not able to take. It’s a bit like a car or a bike. You can put new tyres on it and strengthen the brakes. But if you drive it the same old way you’re going to get problems again.”
The workshop is a week before the Bristol 10k – is that time enough for anyone to make a difference to their 10k experience? “You can get enough out of it to make a difference,” says Malcolm. “One guy came the day before a half marathon and took eight minutes off his predicted time.”
Can he sum up the ideal running technique for anyone who can’t make it to the workshop? “Yes,” he says. “Take short, quick, light steps.”
I think if you want any more than that, you have to come along to the workshop. I might see you there.
- For more on Malcolm Balk, see www.theartofrunning.com
- The ‘Art of Running’ workshop with Malcolm Balk is on May 12. It costs £65 for a morning or an afternoon session. To book a place, call Susie on 0117 946 6742. Or see her website www.learningthealexandertechnique.com. It costs around £25 to £35 for an Alexander Technique lesson for 30-40 minutes. Around 10 lessons will give you a very good foundation.
- For more information about the Alexander Technique or to find a teacher in your area visit www.stat.org.uk
- Steven Shaw is coming to Nuffield Health,Bristolto on 24 June to for half day workshops on using the AT to perfect your front crawl and breaststroke. See www.artofswimming.com for more details.