I started running in the mid-’70s to accompany a friend who wanted to lose weight. I had been cycling for several years and was in decent aerobic condition. I soon fell in love with the simplicity and elegance of running, and within a month I was running 5 to 6 miles a couple of times a week in my Adidas SL72’s, shoes that would today be considered minimalist. I began to look for advice on improving my running and slowly began ruining what began as a fairly natural forefoot striking running stride. I read that I should be landing on my heel and rolling through my foot, that I should keep my elbows at 90-degree angles, lead with my knees, and that my head should be over my shoulders, my shoulders over my hips. Following this advice, I soon developed tendonitis of the peroneus tendon, at the outer foot beneath the ankle. This resolved with icing, but, failing to see the cause of the problem, I continued my heel-striking ways.
In 1979, I was nearly finished with a four-mile tempo run, when I felt a cramp at the outside of my right knee. I tried to run through it, but the pain increased and I had to stop. After stretching for a few minutes, I was able to jog home. The knee felt fine at the beginning of my next run, but quickly tightened up less than one mile into my run. To make matters worse, the left had begun to cramp in the same manner.
I was soon unable to run at all, and decided to take some time off. Thus began a period of several years during which I was unable to run at ll. I tried everything; stretching, massage, acupuncture — I visited podiatrists, chiropractors, physiotherapists – all to no avail. I resigned myself to my fate and continued cycling and swimming, but periodically, I would try to go for a run. Even if I had not run in one full year, the cramping would recur within a half-mile.
During this time, I was pursuing a career in theater and dance, performing highly demanding physical works and touring extensively abroad. Injuries began to accumulate, including torn patellar tendons, chronic bursitis in both knees and shoulders, arthritis in hands and cervical spine, herniated disks in the lumbar spine, and, of course, I still could not run. In addition to other problems, I had developed severe insomnia and was in a constant state of fatigue. I was able to cycle and swim, at least. I had taken some Alexander classes as part of my dance training, but they were group classes, and, although taught by a teacher trained by Alexander himself, were not very profound, and certainly did not help me to address my knee problem.
In 1985 I followed my dancer girlfriend (now my wife and an Alexander Technique teacher), to New York City. She was taking private lessons in the Alexander Technique and encouraged me to do so (in fact, she pushed me to train to teach the technique). I discovered that the muscle tone of which I had been so proud, was, in fact, overtone – that my muscles were in a constant state of contraction, even when I was doing nothing. My neck, in particular, was over-stabilized. I learned that the work I had done on alignment in dance and sport countered the adaptive work of posture, leading to misplaced and excessive effort in all my movements.
Gradually, through the A.T., my myriad problems began to disappear. No more insomnia or arthritis and bursitis. I was swimming regularly and had completely changed my swimming strokes. Cycling, however, presented problems; the 60-mile rides that I loved taking on weekends soon became unpleasant as it became apparent that the racing bike forces one into a condition that requires misuse of the body. I sold my beloved racing bike and was resigned to swimming and rollerskating (this was pre-rollerblade). Sometime in my third year of training, I decided that I ought to be able to work out my running difficulties. I bought a new pair of shoes (again) and set out on a nice dirt road, with what I had learned from the A.T. in mind. I soon began to feel the familiar twinges at my outer knees, but this time what I was doing to cause the problem was as clear as day. I was lifting my foot to recover my leg, and, in doing so, contracting a long band of tendon and muscle (peroneus longus) that extends from the outer knee and wraps under the foot from its outer edge. This was the same band in which I had developed tendonitis when I had begun heel-striking. Now the problem was at the upper end of the band, behind the outer knees.
I discovered that if I focused on extending my whole body forward as I ran, I could allow my leg to recover without the tell-tale lifting of my toes. After about an hour of running and walking and stopping, I was able to prevent the misuse. After another two weeks, I could run three miles, only occasionally stopping when I lost awareness of myself. In the 24 years that have followed, I have never again had the problem that prevented me from running for nearly ten years. In fact, I have had no running-related injury of any kind since that day.
During the years that followed my running “rebirth”, I made a study of running, and, through competition, came to appreciate racing flats and minimalist running shoes. When I turned 40, I began to win and place in the masters’ division of local races, and continued to do so into my 50’s, when I gradually lost interest in racing, preferring instead to run alone, at the speed that appealed to me on the given day.
Soon after I turned 60, I got another push that made me further question running form and the shoes that we use to run. My appendix burst and I spent over a week on intravenous antibiotics after an open-cut appendicitis. I was sent home with the incision open (so that it could be daily checked for signs of infection), and with orders to do nothing for 3 months. After a couple of days, I sneaked off to the gym, where, to the horror of my caregivers, I began to work out on the stationary bike and elliptical trainer. A week of that and the indoor track called to me. I started to run barefoot. I had done some nice 5 mile barefoot runs on the beach in the Dominican Republic a couple of months before my appendix burst, and that had piqued my interest in barefoot running, and I already had several pairs of “barefoot” running shoes. But running on a hard surface barefoot really opened my eyes. I realized that I had not truly been doing what I had been teaching others to do.
My discoveries led to, among other things, a change in my left foot, which had been, all my life, nearly a size smaller than its twin. Now I have a matching pair, although the transition, which involved a shift of all the major bones in my foot, was difficult and painful. [Here’s the whole story: Injury or adaptation? ] However, at age 63, my passion for running has been recharged, and the joy of running naturally like a child is something new for me. Abandoning technique, I have discovered how to run, and I hope that this blog can help you to remove impediments to your joyful running. This blog is not a “how-to” running blog, but more a “how-not-to” guide to allowing natural running to happen. I hope that it will be helpful for Alexander Technique teachers, as well as for those who have no experience of the Alexander Technique. I do believe, however, that private lessons in the A.T. are the very best way to begin to remove impediments to natural running.
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