The Vault

Running and the Alexander Technique

By Malcolm Balk

 

The idea for a workshop on running and the Alexander Technique originated at the 1988 conference in Brighton. Hearing that I was a runner, several teachers expressed an interest in going for a jog. Before long we had a group of six or eight out there working up a thirst and talking about running in its various contexts, i.e., hills (up and down), running fast, running slow, running injuries, racing, and so on.

The enthusiasm and interest generated in these sessions convinced me and Michael Frederick that running and Alexander might interest other teachers, either because they themselves run, or because they would like to know more about their pupils who run.

Runners, like other performers, often get into binds where the focus is on results such as running faster, or longer. This is frequently based on the assumption that more speed, mileage, or effort is better, and will result in improved performance.

This can lead to an unproductive cycle of over-training, injury and poor results which then leads to frustration, anxiety and despair. Like the archer in Zen and The Art Of Archery, the runner is faced with the dilemma of changing a familiar approach in order to find a new way of achieving his/her goal.

The challenge of helping a runner ‘getting on the path,’ is worthwhile, but not easily achieved. However, the seeds of another approach can be planted by a teacher and these will grow with time and experience.

What can Alexander teachers offer a runner? While we may all harbor lofty ambitions with our running students, the fact of the matter is that even after twenty or thirty lessons, our pupil will probably not flow like Carl Lewis. Some things are subject to the vagaries of talent, genetic endowment and plain luck.

Attempts by an Alexander teacher to get a runner to fit some variation of ‘the Greek ideal’ will he non-productive and frustrating for both teacher and pupil. In my view, it will prove more fruitful to focus on the basics: improving awareness of misuse, establishing a pattern of good use, clarifying conception, strengthening the connection between intention and actualization, and so on.

The workshop at the recent Congress was designed to give Alexander teachers an idea of how runners misuse themselves and to go through a few practical procedures designed to highlight or change these patterns. I will briefly describe one of these procedures.

Participants were paired up, with each person getting a chance to play either runner or teacher/observer. In my experience as a track coach, I have noticed that many runners tend to lean their upper body from side to side, as they run, in what is technically known as horizontal displacement. This shifting of weight is unnecessary, inefficient, and something many coaches and runners try to eliminate. You may observe it in people when they are walking.

While one person observed, the ‘runner’ would attempt to lift a leg without compensating to the opposite side. The idea being if he/she could do it standing, he/she would be more likely to do it when running. ‘Teachers’ were then given a chance to guide the ‘runners’ into a less distorted state. To make it more fun, runners were asked to sing their national anthem while balancing on one leg as teachers checked for stiffening in the neck. This produced some interesting insights for both teachers and runners.

In conclusion, Alexander teachers can be confident in their ability to offer something useful, and often unique, to runners and other athletes who come for lessons. Allowing the athlete to be the expert on his sport, establishing a dialogue and assisting the athlete to re-establish the basics through inhibition and direction—what a treat. And they pay you for the privilege! 

BIOGRAPHY

Malcolm Balk trained with Patrick Macdonald. He lives and teaches in Montreal where he is an assistant track coach at McGill University.

 

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