Master the Art of Running; Raising your performance with the Alexander Technique

by Malcolm Balk and Andrew Shields

Interview with Malcolm Balk, Canadian Alexander Technique teacher, Level 4 athletics-coach and, together with sports journalist Andrew Shields, writer of the book: Master the Art of Running; Raising your performance with the Alexander Technique.

Malcolm, these days many people are running for instance for having fun or health reasons. Many runners dream of running a marathon. Few people will say that they want to compete with Rembrandt, Bach or Coltrane. What do you mean by saying that running is an art?

By seeing running as an art I mean that you need to approach it actively and creatively, that you need to learn and develop certain skills. The art of running is to be found in the process and you need to find it again and again; each time you put on your running gear. What you did yesterday is not important, not even what you did two minutes ago. It is all about the step you are making now and the step that you are going to make. Otherwise running will become boring and mechanical, especially if you plug in the ipod and close off the awareness of what you really are doing.

What needed to be written about running that hasn't been written yet?

At some point I just started to write down my experience as a runner and as a coach. Things I saw and witnessed in athletes I coached or people who participated in my workshops for instance. The reasons that were causing their injuries were dealt with in a constructive and preventative way and they understood why. Through the years people tell me that they like my book because it teaches them about running in a simple, common sense and unpretentious way which they find refreshing after all the crap you read in most runner's magazines. They know how to enjoy running better after reading it.

What can you say about the Alexander Technique in short?
It is a method to become aware of unnecessary muscle tension that you can put into anything you do. A technique to change that and benefit from it. It is the lifework of the Australian actor F.M. Alexander (1869-1955). You can see it as a skill in itself that, if you take a course of lessons, can help you learn or develop any other skill, such as running, easier.

What can it mean for runners?
The Alexander Technique can help runners by enabling them to make better choices about how they run and react to all the interference that seems to come with it when you run on a regular basis such as injuries, lack of form or development etc. If runners take a series of AT lessons, they become more quiet in themselves and less focussed on and stressed by results for instance. They become more aware of themselves and that gives them the opportunity to look at their running problems more objectively. For the ambitious runner, the period of recovery between two training-sessions can become more effective. Most runners know that real recovery is just as
importance as practice.

Why is that so few runners know of the Alexander Technique?

It has been around for over a century by now, but in the world of sports it still hasn't been discovered on a wider basis. One reason is because of how it has been presented to the world and how the world has reacted to that; as something difficult to describe and somewhat mysterious. The AT just can't be put in a box which most people already know. To understand it, you have to experience it first hand. It requires the ability to think outside the box. That is quite something already. Learning the technique takes time and discipline. It puts the responsibility for your life, and so for your running, back to you. Nowadays, we live in a world in which people are becoming more and more dependant and are less self-reliant.

Why and how can you improve your running-technique and have more fun in running by taking Alexander-lessons, without needing your running gear?
What you learn from an Alexander Technique lesson is how to improve your overall co-ordination, awareness and freedom of movement. This results in achieving more by doing less. By being more aware of the way you move, you will soon notice that you integrate this co-ordination in your running. For instance the ability to create more length and width (and with that more freedom) in yourself by changing your way of thinking is something that every Alexandertechnique-student learns in a very simple way. By guidance and explanation of a qualified teacher, you learn to apply it to ordinary movements; such as rising from a chair. If you have grasped the principles of it in those activities, you will apply it more and more to any activity that you choose to apply it to; for instance the activity of running more efficiently. Knowing how your body relates to the space surrounding it, will result in a softer landing; which is something that many runners will appreciate because it will reduce stress and loading on their joints.

So, what you learn in a series of Alexander Technique lessons, you can continue to use and develop in your running?
Yes, that is right. It gets even better if you read my book as well; especially in Chapter 2 'Developing Awareness' and Chapter 3 'Thinking into movement', I explain more of that.

What do you want to make clear by using the pictures of for instance Haile Gebrselasie in your book?
With those pictures I want to appeal to the 'inner runner' in us all. Besides being a great athlete and human being, Gebrselasie demonstrates a level of skill and poise while competing at the highest level.

How do talent and practise relate?
By practising it, we can develop the talent that we are born with. Everyone has a certain level of talent that will develop through the discipline of practice. On the wider level, some people are born with certain genetic gifts that will give them an advantage. Whether they also have the motivation and perseverance to develop this talent is another matter.

What is your experience as a level 4 coach?

I worked for eight years as head of track and field athletics at the McGill and Concorde University in Montreal, five years at the Montreal 'Peloton Athletic Club'.

Who are your main influences?

Bernard Godbout; my first coach. FM Alexander; Australian actor and developer of the Alexander Technique. Percy Cerutty; the great Australian coach. Frank Horwill; English coach, writer and founder of 'the British Milers Club'; the invasion of the British runners in the '80's: Coe, Cram, Elliot, Moorcroft. The Kenyans and Ethiopians. Nicholas Romanov; who developed the 'Pose method of running'. Author John Jerome. Owen Anderson, founder of the journal running research news.

What happens in your 'Art of running workshops'? How do you proceed?

By now I have over 15 years of experience organizing these workshops. They keep on developing, just like I do. I think it is important to see people as individuals. I want to know what they think and want of running. What can I teach them in those three hours, so that they can keep on developing? What can I learn from it? I start with a short video-recording; 30 meters is enough. A few items we can work on are the thorny business of how and where to land with the foot. What are the possibilities? How can you be friends with gravity? What is needed to move forward; what is not? How do you use your eyes or arms? Which muscle-groups need what kind of training, without causing new problems? There are many excercises that you can practice. I use the 'stretch-cordz' a lot. With the aid of those elastic bands you can learn and experience very clearly what running as an art can mean. How can you with the right kind of less achieve more and have more fun? That is the 'Alexander-story' in my workshops; how a better co-ordination in general results in a more efficient way of running. How can you develop more speed with that more efficient technique, without getting injured? I think that too many top-athletes get too many injuries. Too many people who just run for fun as well. After working on these subjects, I take another video-recording and then we will analyse the before and after images in slow-motion. In such a way of course that they can get something positive out of it and, if they
choose to, can keep working on. Then it is up to them to agree with it or not.

What do you think of shock absorption and support in shoes?

I think that some people have more need for that than others, just because of the terrible state of their feet and their 'overall use'. As a general principle I think it is a good idea to let the foot do its own work by reducing outside 'assistance'.

What is your experience with running barefoot?

I enjoy that very much. Together with John Woodward I teach it in a 'natural running' course in the Lake District in the North of England. We run on various terrain, without shoes.

You have been influenced by many ideas, both inside and out the running-world. What do you think of all this rivalry between training- and running-methods, systems of shock absorbtion etc?
I think that anything that makes running more interesting for people and helps them develop their passion and interest for the sport is a good thing. Since, as far as I know, all methods and systems have been developed by men, who can have a hard time controlling their ego, discussions about running can sometimes change into a bit of a pissing contest. But as Nicholas Romanov once said to me: 'I will listen to any asshole talk about running, you never know when you might learn something new!'.



Master the Art of Running; Raising your performance with the Alexander Technique and many other books and DVDs about the Alexander Technique are available at: The Alexander Technique Bookstore (USA and Canada) and at The Alexander Technique Bookshop (UK)

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique