AT and Running
I am not an expert runner by any means. I began running 5Ks a few years ago and have taken many long breaks from running during that time. My learning in the Alexander Technique, which has been extremely intensive, started about a year ago. In many ways, these two practices are, thus, connected in that they became a part of my life quite recently.
My aim here is to provide a comparison of my running experiences before and after I began my Alexander Technique teacher training. Since these recollections are primarily from memory, they may not be entirely accurate, but they will hopefully offer an understanding of how using Alexander principles has made my running more informed, sustainable, and I daresay, enjoyable.
I first started running 5Ks in 2018, when I decided to build on my stamina as a performer by pursuing athletic cardiovascular practices. I googled a ‘good’ time for finishing a 5K and decided to set that as my goal. Even though I had, at that point, learned about prioritising form over speed, I chose to focus on the latter. I knew, for example, that slumping was not helpful, but beyond that I could only have guessed as to whether to lead with the pelvis or the head. Ultimately, I chased an ideal at an immeasurable expense. I constantly wore myself out for the sake of better performance, in this case, measured in my timing.
My timings were impressive (even if my use was less than ideal): I ran 5Ks in an average of 24 minutes. But I couldn’t actually employ the stamina training in my dance performances because the runs, more often than not, left me tired. Even if I managed not to exhaust myself during my runs, I would still overwork myself during rehearsal or performance. On days that I skipped my run, I would also experience severe mood swings. So I ran, not entirely by choice, but driven by an addiction to the high that followed. Running, instead of enhancing my well-being, started to have debilitating effects.
Jump forward to November 2020, a few months ago, when I went for my first 5K in a year and a half. A lot had happened in those 18 months, but the most critical was that I discovered the value of observing the primary relationship of the neck, head, and back during all activity. I brought a renewed understanding of the primary interplay into my running practice, and made unexpected, life-affirming discoveries.
On my return to running, I was a lot more careful. Not so much about injuring myself (for example, by spraining an ankle), but more so about exhausting myself. But I knew that I would only reach the point of exhaustion if I lost touch with my psychophysical unity; if I stayed aware, I could always stop myself from going too far. I no longer wanted to pursue running as a ‘mind-over-matter’ activity where I had to do all it took to achieve a desirable timing. I prepared better for my runs by researching more sustainable strategies. Some of this research made me realise that mind-over-matter thinking is a common issue in the running community, and can often lead to ‘red-lining’ (1).
My timing is now much slower. I finish a 5K in about 30 minutes on average. The surprise, however, is that these timings are not disappointing at all. In fact, they have helped me question the pursuit of any standard of performance that does not account for use and overall well-being. In some ways, the fact that I run slower, and, therefore, for a longer duration, is evidence that I can better sustain an activity that challenges my cardiovascular system. This real stamina is much more valuable to me as a dancer, especially as I am often required to be on stage for up to three hours at a time, performing at varying intensities. Additionally, these performances sometimes have to be repeated for days, weeks, and even months on end. Sustainability through a performance period, and not so much peaking in each individual performance, is key to a satisfying season. Even re-googling what is now considered a worthwhile 5K time has confirmed for me that there are varying versions of ‘good’, and athletic measures of success/stamina are perhaps not directly applicable to the work of a performing artist.
My second run gave me another learning point. Quite confident and energised after the first one, I felt that my second run went much quicker. Little did I know that I was in for a major discovery: I had run slower. This gave me proof of the unreliability of my feelings. Just because I felt I was running faster in the moment did not mean that I had done so, or more importantly, that I needed to.
I made a crucial observation when I felt a slight pain in my right knee during a recent run. My initial thought was that I should call it off and take a rest day, which might have been an appropriate choice. Instead, I chose to continue with my run, but without ignoring the pain or fixating on it. I rather used the pain: it gave me information about my end-gaining habits (2) with regard to my timing. Rekindling an awareness of my neck–head–back relationship, I decided not to pay any attention to speed, and to run in an enjoyable, wholesome way. I ended the run feeling uplifted and injury-free. Additionally, I learned a little bit about how pain can be helpful, and is, perhaps, even a necessary teacher (an idea I got from my teacher Béatrice Simmons). If not for the pain, I may not have checked my end-gaining drive and might have badly injured my knee.
My biggest takeaway from running with the Alexander Technique is that I no longer have trouble with my energy levels. Approaching running as a practice in using my whole self within an energetically rigorous framework is making my life more diverse, exciting, and comprehensive. My runs now seem easy, dance rehearsals are empowering, and I am able to face the demands of daily life with confidence.
1. Malcolm Balk. ‘What’s Going On.’ The Art of Running. http://theartofrunning.com/whats-going-on/
2. End-gaining refers to paying excessive attention to an end result without sufficient focus on the means to achieving the goal.