Chin up, son
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 18 October 2021
“It’s a lot of effort, just to help you lift your head up a bit.”
We were in the pub on Sunday night dissecting our weekend spent running around on Dartmoor on another one of my The Way of the Runner retreats.
As well as the usual input from our resident creative movement genius, Joe Kelly, who tries to get you to feel yourself moving more efficiently, and with more bounce, through playing with the landscape, and the way you interact with it, we also had a bonus Feldenkrais session from one of the guests, Ed Bartram.
Feldenkrais is something I’ve long been interested in - I got to meet Jae Gruenke in The Rise of the Ultra Runners, and she had a big impact on my movement in a very short time. Well, it felt big to me. Or maybe it was a lot of effort just to help me hold my arms differently.
It reminds me of the many times I hosted training camps in Kenya. Our group of mostly western runners would get sessions led by the quietly spoken Ian Kiprono, the coach of world record holders such as David Rudisha (800m) and Rhonex Kipruto (10K), and also sessions led by Timo Limo, the coach of no one in particular.
Kiprono wanted us to pay attention, to listen and then to move in a way that felt easy. His athletes - who often break world records, remember - spent many hours moving easily, gently, exploring their movement.
Limo, on the other hand, liked to torture you, forcing you to hold planks and other stressful positions for minutes on end, even hitting you with a stick if you can't manage it.
Guess which sessions were generally more popular with the guests?
(Yes, Limo’s torture sessions.)
Before Ed's Feldenkrais session he asked us to walk up and down the path, and note how we moved. He particularly told us to note where our eyes were looking.
After the session, which was so gentle a few people said they almost fell asleep, we walked up and down the path again. Without any conscious effort, my gaze was in a completely different place, higher up, meaning my head was now upright, rather than tilting forwards.
For me this was a huge difference. Shane Benzie in his book The Lost Art of Running talks about how holding the head up is key to good form. He says that because the head is surprisingly heavy, if it’s bent even slightly forward, as it is for most western runners, it puts a huge extra strain on the rest of the body. A tilted head also means your fascia is not fully stretched, and so you’re missing out on vital elastic energy.
Yet while it's easy for someone to tell you to keep your head up, it’s much harder to actually do it while running, unless you spend your time constantly reminding yourself, “keep your head up, keep your head up”. As soon as you stop thinking about it, your head will drop forward again.
But here I was, after the Feldenkrais session, keeping my head up with no effort at all. It was just looking up all by itself. That, to me, was a big change.
But in the pub, it seemed not everyone had found this as impressive as I had. I imagine that for some, an extra hour of squat thrusts and pull ups might have been preferable.
In many ways, I understand that. As runners we want to work out, to sweat, to feel that we have earned the right to eat our cake. Feldenkrais, and playing with movement in the way Joe Kelly likes to, feeling the way your feet react with the ground, calming the breath etc, is all very interesting, sure, but it doesn’t get the old endorphins buzzing.
Yet we also talk endlessly about the smooth, effortless form of the Kenyans. Do they get that by just pushing hard all the time? The answer is no. They spend a lot of time working on form, doing movement drills, running slowly - sure, they also have the advantage of a more active lifestyle growing up, but they still spend a lot of time working on form. And have you ever seen the videos of the Ethiopians doing their synchronized drills?
I’m not saying I will ever have a running style like a top Kenyan or Ethiopian, no matter how many hours I do Feldenkrais or spend working on my form, but I’m game to explore every little thing that can help improve my movement, because in the end that will make running more enjoyable, more fluid and more efficient, and lead to fewer injuries.
It may be an effort to get to a place where you can hold your head up without thinking, but for me, it’s worth it.