How to master the art of running

How to master the art of running

Using the Alexander Technique, Malcolm Balk has developed a unique approach to help runners improve performance, increase enjoyment, and reduce risk of injury.


The Alexander Technique is named after Frederick Matthias Alexander who developed it to address his recurring voice problem as he had breathing issues during public speaking.

But it has universal applications, and I got interested in it when I was learning how to play the cello - it didn’t happen overnight, but I did get quite a lot of improvement.

I was a runner too and throughout my training I noticed that I didn’t get injured too much despite training with plenty of intensity, and I realised that the Alexander had given me something which made a difference.

Generally, people think of the Alexander Technique as focussing on posture, and it has clear benefits in that area. But just as important is how it plays with your self-awareness. 
 

Eliud Kipchoge - fluid and flowing
Eliud KipchogeIt’s amazing that people can be hunched up looking like an 80-year-old when they are running and yet have no sense that it’s going on. I’ve shown so many runners videos of themselves to make them aware of what they’re actually doing and not what they think they’re doing. Their stride is not what they thought it was, and they are not flowing like they thought they were.

Contrast that with the 2016 London Marathon winner Eliud Kipchoge - watch the last couple of miles when he’s broken away and is running on his own.

He’s fluid and flowing - he’s got a ‘long’ back, and his head is nice and easy on top of his spine. It’s completely conducive to good performance, that primary connection between the neck, head and spine.

If the head is out of balance it affects not only the quality of stride, but also your breathing, and your perception of what’s going on. And as you get tired, it makes matters worst. So bringing the awareness and the ability to think through an activity can make a huge difference. It takes a bit of time, and it’s a bit of a skill, but it’s really useful.

Here are some key pointers to think about next time you go out running:

1. Try and run tall

If your back is collapsed a little bit then it makes it harder to breathe as easily and as freely as you might. You want a back where your spine is lengthened but not stiff or exaggerated like the military stance. We call it an upward direction in the body. That takes the pressure off the ribs, off the diaphragm and you breathe better. 

2. Carry and balance your head correctly

Your head weighs around 4.5kg and if you don’t get it nicely balanced on your neck and spine then it can create a lot of strain. You should be upright and looking forward. You don’t feel so tight or cramped in your shoulders when you are in this position and you have a greater range of arm movement too. It also helps psychologically not to be looking down at the floor when you get to the point where your legs are complaining.

3. Feet and arms in sync

By working on the first two points, you’ll find that your feet are landing directly underneath your body rather than shooting out in front of you. This reduces the braking forces, promotes a more efficient stride pattern and helps you run lightly. And you’ll start to use your arms better too - you want your elbows bent at 90 degrees, with wrists and hands neither floppy nor rigid, while you move your arms backwards and forwards slightly across your body. When you use your arms in this co-ordinated and rhythmic fashion, they are a wonderful source of power.
 
A before and after example of position
Before and after running form

The more aware you are, the better chance you’ve got of dealing with the point in the run when it becomes a little tough and the legs are wanting a lot of attention.

When this happens to me I start to focus on my back - I make sure my rib cage isn’t dropping too much, get it to lengthen and suddenly my legs are able to move more freely and with a bit more elasticity. I’m able to maintain good form for a bit longer. Form gets worse with fatigue for most people, so you can really see the difference.

Incorporating it into your training

Use your training to think about your form. Whatever level you’re at - from beginners upwards - don’t just plug in music and switch off. Instead think about running tall, running easy, flowing. Start paying attention to that when you are fresh - and let it become habit forming and more instinctive. 

To start with try and notice three things about how you’re moving – are your arms doing what they should be? Is your back lengthening or tending to be heavy? And are you seeing things as you go along? That’s a little checklist to keep you more in the present and connected to what you are doing. And then find three more when you’re on top of that.

By working on these improvements to the way you run, your enjoyment of the activity will only continue to increase. Running with greater ease, efficiency and grace is the key to sustaining this wonderful physical activity throughout our lives.

(all photos, except Eliud Kipchoge, courtesy of Malcolm Balk)

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