“The Alexander Technique is a method for improving motor performance by integrating the voluntary and reflex components of a movement in such a way that the voluntary does not interfere with the reflex and the reflex facilitates the voluntary.”
Frank Pierce Jones
The Alexander Technique is not a running method; it is a method that addresses the posture that supports running, and, indeed, all movement, and is, therefore, an excellent technique for improving running form and avoiding injury. What I have written in these pages on running, gleaned from 40 years of running and some 35 years in the Alexander Technique, are observations on how runners with excellent posture can run. It is not intended as a “how-to”, but more as a “what-not-to-do.”
I won’t attempt here to explain the Alexander Technique, as there are plenty of good books that go into great depth, including Alexander’s own. And, at any rate, there is no replacement for private lessons with a certified Alexander Technique teacher (one certified by STAT, or one of its affiliates, such as AmSAT in the U.S. or CanSTAT in Canada – one should be wary of teachers who don’t have STAT affiliate certification). I will, however, briefly explain how I understand the physiology behind the Alexander Technique and how it applies to running.
In vertebrates, movement is initiated, organized, and distributed through the spine. (see The Spinal Engine, which explains how the movement of the legs and arms in running originates with spinal movement) In fact, it is possible to measure muscle action in the upper neck preparatory to the movement of a finger (The Head-Neck Sensory Motor System, ed. Alain Berthoz). The first part of any movement, including walking, running and simply breathing [see: Breathing and running ] involves the adjustment of the head’s weight, because the movement of a limb implies a change in the balance of the whole body. Further, movement of a limb demands the support of the spine. The spinal musculature is composed of chains of smaller muscles, which, when co-ordinated, can powerfully extend the spine against the contraction of the large muscles which attach the limbs to the spine. For example, when one lifts a heavy object with an arm, that action should not compress or bend the spine – when a leg extends or recovers in running, that movement should not result in arching of the lower back, or tilting of the pelvis – the extensor muscles of the spine reflexively act to resist the contraction of the large muscles of the limbs, and, in fact, actually prepare to do so before the movement of an arm or leg even begins. At least, this is what happens when good posture is present. In actuality, what we see in many people is quite different: their necks and backs shorten and contract with the effort of moving their limbs. Runners hunch and arch, effectively compressing their trunks and retracting their limbs. They have learned to work against themselves.
At birth, we can see reflexes that will control posture and movement already at work. A normal child has the balanced and interactive muscle tone that defines good posture. Good posture is movement, not positioning. Certain extensor reflexes can be immediately tested in newborns – pressure against the ball of a foot will elicit counter pressure, demonstrating how the body has evolved to lengthen against the force of gravity (as occurs in natural running), or, indeed against any exterior force placed upon it. One can also test, in infants, reflexes that protectively retract the limbs, and completely inhibit the extensor reflexes of the spine. The Moro reflex is a reflex, studied in apes and in man, which can best be described as a grasping reflex. Take an infant and make a sudden movement as if to drop it (well, don’t actually do this, take the word of researchers who’ve studied it), and you will see a stereotyped two-phase response. The first is extensor – reaching out with the hands and arms, the second, flexor, retracting, and adducting the arms and legs and collapsing the neck and spine. In arboreal apes, the purpose of this reflex is evident – the infant must grasp its parent in a time of flight, as the parent needs both limbs available. In most environments, this reflex is only occasionally stimulated. In modern man, it is constantly stimulated.
To be precise, the Moro reflex does not persist beyond a few months of age. However, similar responses do persist and are referred to as startle responses. They look very much the same as the Moro reflex, demonstrating a strong and rapid grasping response, during which the extensor reflexes are inhibited. These retractive, grasping reflexes are stimulated by fear and pain. You can see them at work when you surprise someone. You can see them at work when someone is injured. And you can see them at work when someone is afraid, or simply worried. Children who begin to hunch over at their desks at school, grasping their pencils as if they were life preservers, are demonstrating the stimulation of grasping responses. As I mentioned, this is not a problem if the stimuli are rare and of brief duration, but in most early learning environments they are frequent and sustained. Children are afraid of not doing well, of not being liked, of not being understood. So they retract and hunch over. If they succeed in their tasks in spite of their retracted state, they learn to retract as a means of self-control. Eventually, the extensor reflexes of their spine are constantly inhibited, and all movement becomes more effortful. They over-stabilize their joints and move against the resistance of contracted muscles. Muscle work is no longer reflexively distributed through the spinal musculature, and is instead focused on individual muscles. And then we see what we identify as poor posture – hunched or arched backs, rounded shoulders, shortening necks, etc. The obvious and incorrect response to poorly positioned body parts is to “properly” position them. So we attempt, or we tell children to attempt to stand straight, to pull their shoulders back and down, and we use the incorrect notion of alignment to support our wrong conception of good posture. (see The Myth of Alignment) So much poor advice that we read about running form is about how to “hold” the body. Runners are told to keep the shoulders down, to cup the hands, to keep the elbows at 90 degrees, to recover the legs with the hamstrings, to shorten their strides, to keep the body aligned, and there are running coaches who insist that one can improve running posture by strengthening muscles (you cannot). The problem is, if a shoulder is rounded forward due to the installed pattern of constant retraction, pulling the shoulder back will simply add new effort and increase fixity in the shoulder joint. Trying to stand up straight will simply be adding more work to an already over-worked musculature.
This is where the Alexander Technique comes in. With gentle hands-on work, an Alexander Technique teacher brings a student’s awareness of stabilized articulations and guides the student to permit freedom and movement. The repeated experience of hands-on guidance increases the student’s awareness of himself and teaches him to remove retraction and fixity from neutral posture. He may then learn to initiate movement without preparatory hardening and retraction. Hands-on private lessons are essential, because habitual preparation is very difficult to inhibit, and movement initiation by a teacher removes responsibility for the beginning of movement, making it far easier for the student to allow himself to move without preparation. Actually, good posture is dynamic, a condition in which all muscles are lightly active, from which all movement may be accomplished without any preparatory hardening or stabilizing. Running begins, in all vertebrates, with a release of the head and lengthening of the spine.
Again, many of the muscles which extend the spine against the action of large muscles of the limbs are of small mass and are only strong when organized in chains. The constant habitual retraction and adduction of the limbs inhibit spinal extensors, so it is important that one learn to allow the head and limbs to release outward in order to re-establish the spinal extensors. One cannot simply “straighten-up” to good effect.
So, in no particular order, here are a series of articles on aspects of running form. Hopefully, they can serve as guidelines for what happens in running when good use of the body is optimal. My unique contribution to running is my theory of the biarticular muscles in running (see: The Biarticular Muscles in Running).
Good running! Find a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique and take a few private lessons. Here is where to find a teacher:
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (England and international members):