Take a SMART approach to running

Applying the principles of Alexander Technique can help every runner raise their performance

The Times newspaper once ran a feature entitled ‘A Day in the Life of an Exercise Bike’, in which the 25 people who used a particular machine in a fitness club were asked about their motivations and goals. All were positive about the benefits of exercise but none mentioned paying attention to the activity they were actually doing. Their comments ranged from ‘I usually switch off’ to ‘My mind goes totally blank’.

The interviewer would probably have gained similar responses from 25 users of a treadmill. Or, by heading outdoors, from 25 passing joggers.

Two of the key principles of Alexander Technique are ‘thinking in activity’ – developing an understanding that every action should be performed with care and application; and ‘recognition of the force of habit’ – realising that a lack of connection with what’s happening in the moment can lead to boredom and under-achievement. Our exercisers and, by extension, many runners lack the focus needed to invest their workouts with real purpose.

In particular, those inspired by the London Marathon may face a critical question: once the novelty wears off, how can I make every run sufficiently interesting to keep me motivated?

The answer is: run SMART.

SMART is an acronym well known to anyone who has ever set business goals. The concept dates back to the 1980s and states that every objective should be Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic and Time-related.

Over the years, the acronym has been applied to many different subjects with changes to some or all of the five words. Since runners are generally smart people with a thirst for fresh ideas, why not apply SMART principles to your ongoing quest to keep running successfully, enjoyably and effectively? Let’s consider not just what we do, but how we do it.

S = Skilful

The idea that an everyday run is a chance to perform with skill and grace is barely considered by most runners. Instead, we continue our habitual patterns of daily movement – the slouch, the tense neck, the hunched shoulders – when we lace up our trainers. There is pleasure in running skilfully: perhaps floating rather than pounding on the treadmill; gliding slowly and elegantly through the park; or climbing a hill with effortless ease, your body finding the perfect angle as you lean gently into the slope, your knees popping up with every stride and your arms moving rhythmically in sync with your legs.

M = Mindful

Many runners use their daily outing as an escape from the grind and stresses of work and family. However, that’s not to suggest you should run in a bubble. Music can be a stimulus, but it can also cut you off from your environment and prevent you ‘listening’ to your body while you run. Are your feet slapping the ground with every stride? Are you moving smoothly and free of tension, or do you tend to jerk and pound, particularly when you start to get tired?

A = Athletic

Here are two stereotypes you might find on the treadmill next to you. There’s the guy who muscles his way through every routine, tackling tough climbs with gritted teeth and feet hammering down on the running surface, unwilling to take advice from an instructor. And there’s the other guy who runs so slowly and timidly that it’s hard to see him gaining any benefit.

You don’t have to be born with the genetic make-up of an athlete to start acting like one. On the other hand, even someone with physical talents can start to look feeble with poor use, their true athletic ability hidden by bluff, bluster and wasted energy.

R = Recreational

Unless you’re an elite performer, running is not your profession. It’s a healthy, enjoyable pastime. For many people, however, running has become just another job, something else to tick off on the endless list of things to do. We need to keep a sense of perspective about our training programmes and remember that all-important sense of fun.

T = Transferable

There’s a current fitness trend known as ‘functional fitness’, with routines that aim to prepare us for the rigours of our daily existence. This concept works the other way, too. By applying the Alexander principles and learning to ‘run tall’, with head poised on top of the spine and body free of habitual patterns of tension, we should be able to transfer these qualities to our everyday movements. Climbing stairs, lifting a child or bending to pick something up can take on the same grace, skill and coordination as more ‘athletic’ activities.

Applying SMART principles takes time and effort – but it can be the key to making every run a positive experience long after that initial burst of enthusiasm.