Thoughts on the Olympics

Like so many I have been glued to the Olympics.Whatever you think about the politics, the cost, just watching that level of excellence is extraordinary. A lot is going through my mind about it. But a couple of thoughts came through so far – mostly  in relation to running and feldenkrais.

Firstly, we all appreciate the enormous drive, effort and work involved in the kinds of speed and endurance required to compete at this level but if you listened to the corner in the boxing,  to the commentators and the athletes themselves, the imperative ‘relax’, the positive description ‘relaxed’ and the problem of ‘tightening up’ was very present. Even in a very simplified article in the Daily Mail about Usain Bolt’s training the importance of reducing tension in the antagonist muscles was highlighted.


One of the central ideas of the Feldenkrais Method is efficiency in movement. To do just what is needed to execute your intention. Not more not less. That doesn’t mean no effort. It means the amount of effort you need (which might be an enormous amount in this kind of activity), but no unnecessary effort – no tension in places that will use up energy without helping you achieve your intention(a tight jaw in so many effortful activities for example) and especially not in antagonist muscles that means you are working AGAINST yourself. For example, watch sit ups in an abs class in the gym and you will see tight jaws, faces, fists, arms that do nothing to help (beyond exhibiting how hard the person is working) – and many a tight lower back so that the front flexors are fighting to work against the opposing work of the antagonist back muscles.  For the front to shorten the back must lengthen. For the back to shorten the front must lengthen. It doesn’t work to only focus on shortening if the synergistic lengthening isn’t happening. Getting these muscles of the front and back to work in synergy and not to oppose each other is the subject of many a Feldenkrais lesson. (And Feldenkrais understood the complicated depth of complusion and involvement of personal experience, character and emotion that can be involved in the contradictory involvement of antagonist muscles which he describes as ‘cross motivation’).

On the same note, In running if you want the gluts to work to pull the leg backward for the push off, you also need the front of thehip joints to lengthen. And that’s not the only place  –just watch how one side of Ussain’s chest (and many of the other runners) kicks open every time he pushes off: the push from his foot goes straight through to that side of chest to move it forward and is aided by the upper abs on the opposite side as the arm on that side goes back.  His front there must be available to open and lengthen or it will work against the kick and reduce the movement forward. If you want to feel it, there are some wonderful Feldenkrais lessons for it. Try lying on your front with your head turned to the right and plant your right hand and have your left hand long behind you, bend your your knees so the soles of your feet show towards the ceiling. put both knees together as if they are tied and take both feet to the left and back a few times. Gradually you will find the right knee has to lift for the legs to truyl stay together. Go gently many times and eventually you can build up to letting the planted hand aid you, looking over the right shoulder towards your feet andbeginning to allow the right leg to slide further back than the left as you go. As you do so you will (or could) feel how you front is invited to lengthen and open to enable your right legto  slide back, arching the whole of your back-  and the way it pushes your chest forward. (That’s a madly short summary of a lesson and there are many lessons that take the idea a great deal further but it may give you an idea.) But to do it you have to be able to open your chest and that means not keeping the front muscles in the chest or belly short or tight as many of us do or have even been taught to do. Bringing the leg through to the front is a different story, you will need your flexors in the front there (how much depends on how much forward lean you are using that enables the leg to fall through) – and even more so going up hill – but then its the same story of not wanting the antagonists to working against you so you won’t want your back shortening and tighting and working against you then.

Of course there is arguably a moment of co-contraction for the push off especially in a sprint – but it is a moment only, albeit a crucial one, like the final landing of a punch. I am reminded of Stuart McGill’s comment in an article on his book ‘Super Stiffness,’ that what sets a great sports person apart is the ability to go from greatest compliance to strongest co-contraction and back to compliance again in the shortest time which leads him, after everything he has written about training co-contraction (‘super stiffness’) to suggest that maybe there should be more focus on training compliance as a pre-requisite for that momentary powerful co-contraction.

Everyone is different!

And the second point: the Olympics, as ever, really brought home to me how differently even top athletes run. I would usually say the emphasis needs to be on the leg behind you to push you forward and so being able to release the front is important (so many of us less than Olympian runners sit as we run – unable to open up the front of the hip joints and pelvis to let the leg go back and the front go forward) – and  so many of the greats do indeed run like that – but check out Carmelita Jeter with her powerful knees up style, legs in front of her pulling her torso along behind. Who is arguing with HER? That woman can run FAST!

And I would normally look for a differentiation of the neck, shoulders, ribs that allows the head to adjust minimally and ‘float’-  but look for example at Iguider, finalist in the men’s 5000m and even Cheruiyot, sliver medalist in the women’s 5000m.  I would usually look for an easy relaxed style like Mo Farah or Allyson Felix, David Rudisha, Stephen Kiprotich, Tirunesh Dibaba and many of the Kenyans and Ethiopians – but what about the compact style of Santos, silver medalist in the men’s 400. Or if you are a fan of compact styles what about the loose, almost gangly style of young Kirani James gold medallist in the same race? And what about some of the tight but very powerful driving runners we saw throughout – and  the almost ugly style (for me) of Makhloufi – who can say it didn’t work for them?

Above all the Feldenkrais Method isn’t a recipe of ‘how to’ it is all about feeling what you do, finding out how the different parts of you relate and how you can use yourself better to do what you want to do better in the best way you can – and while it goes without saying that we all share a human structure and physiology, it also goes without saying that no two of us are the same.

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