Don't just run harder, run better

Andrew Shields says running is posture, posture, posture
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The Independent Online

Everyone knows how to run – or at least they think they do. Surely it's just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and, if you're on a track, turning left occasionally? Watch an event like the London Marathon, though, and you will soon spot that most people run very poorly. With eyes fixed on the pavement in front of their feet, shoulders hunched, arms rigid and fists clenched, running looks more penance than pleasure.

Most of us view running as a means to an end – be it fame (for the lucky few) or fat reduction (for the rest). This is a negative approach. Instead of enjoying the feeling of the body moving, being out in the fresh air, releasing stress and boosting self-esteem, we worry about times, distances, lactate tolerance and all the other minutiae of the running bore. Running "to get it done" is tedious, unimaginative and all too easy to give up.

The Alexander Technique is best known as a method of developing good posture and releasing tension from the body. However, the discoveries of F M Alexander (1869-1955) apply equally to sport and exercise. When we set off on a run, we don't suddenly shed our habitual patterns of physical misuse, such as slumping over the computer, and turn into models of bio-mechanical perfection. No, those same patterns go with us and are repeated every step we take – particularly if we disengage our brain while lacing up our trainers.

Alexander Technique is about "unlearning" those reactions to allow the body to function freely, naturally and with grace. For runners, it means "thinking in activity".

Alexander was an Australian actor who suffered chronic hoarseness. He set up an ingenious system of mirrors to observe himself on stage, and noticed tension in his neck and throat. While experimenting with ways to release this tension, he realised there was a strong interconnection between his head, neck and back. Any distortion here affected not only the parts involved but also the rest of what he called "the self".

Great attention is paid to this relationship in Alexander lessons as you learn to let the spine "lengthen". Great athletes "run tall". They have an economy of movement that comes from a willingness to think about what their bodies are doing. Alexander believed that by paying attention to the means, the ends will take care of themselves.

How, then, can the average jogger benefit from Alexander's theories? First, try to look out 30-50 metres ahead. Not only will you see more of your surroundings, holding your head up helps to lengthen the spine, encourages good balance and reduces the strain on neck and shoulders. The head weighs 10lb, so dragging it down towards the ground badly distorts the crucial head-neck-back alignment.

Next, make a conscious effort to run lightly and quietly. "Pounding" has nothing to do with how much you weigh, but is usually caused by not paying attention. Running while wearing a personal stereo distracts you from listening to your feet. Now, try to move your arms straight forward and back or slightly across your body, without locking the shoulders and with the elbows bent at 90 degrees. Some runners fix their arms to their sides while others allow them to flop around. The first is unnatural and counterproductive, but the second is no better. Instead of creating relaxation, the shoulders should tighten to pick up the slack. Clenched fists, stiff thumbs and facial grimaces are further signs that energy is not being directed usefully.

Whether your ambitions are to tackle a local 5k, avoid boredom on the treadmill or find an extra gear on the home straight, the art of running is learning to run well. The past doesn't matter – it's the next step that counts.

"The Art of Running" (Ashgrove), Andrew Shields and Malcolm Balk, £9.99. Running with the Alexander Technique workshops: 020 8530 2200, The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique: 020 7351 0828,