The Alexander Technique and the Cyclist

Alexander Technique teacher BARRY COLLINS challenges some of the advice on riding technique currently offered to cyclists

Have you ever wondered why there are times when riding your bicycle seems effortless, while at other times it's a real slog? Perhaps it is because you had one beer too many the night before, and certainly, four hours sleep doesn't help.

But diet and lifestyle aside, have you ever paused and considered that it is you (mind and body), that is the motive source for your machine, and just as your cycle is constructed to operate fluidly within fairly fine tolerances, so too is your muscle, bone and nervous system.

Muscle tissue has a remarkable memory. Habits of movement are deeply ingrained within the muscle structure. ("It takes a crooked man to walk a crooked mile.") These muscle habits are so close to us that they are part of our daily lives, and so, of course, we are not aware that we have them. The Alexander Technique offers the possibility of a different, but easier and more efficient experience during activity. Any activity. As one can only gain this experience by having lessons in the Technique, I am limited here to saying what the experience is NOT. I can as much say what the experience IS, as I can explain in words how to ride a bicycle to someone who has never ridden one before. So with these provisos, I offer you (in words) my thoughts of my experience of cycling after five or six years of exposure to Alexander lessons.

First came a general, growing awareness of my physical self before I experienced any change in the use of myself during specific activities, such as cycling. It took a while for the penny to drop that what I was learning during an Alexander lesson was directly applicable to what I did with myself before and afterwards. And the penny is still dropping. To start with then, one gradually becomes aware of physical features such as hip joints -they become a physical reality; it becomes at first possible (and, later on, preferable and more comfortable) to pivot forward from the hip joint while in the saddle. One becomes aware that the waist is a mythical area, invented by fashion designers, and that bending forward from this area, which has no joint, is a short cut to the orthopaedic hospital. An awareness of the hip joints comes with an awareness of the length and strength of the spine: that nebulous nether region, also called the back.

Look around at passing cyclists and see how many collapse forward from the highly damageable lumbar region of their lower backs, how many have any awareness of maintaining the negative curve in that area? If you lose the integrity of the back, you have lost the anchor point and the beam from which the muscle attachments for legs and arms originate. Collapsing the back produces in turn a collapse in the front, which restricts rib movement and breathing. One gets the most oxygen for the least effort from the floating ribs at the bottom of the rib cage. These lower ribs hinge only to the spine at the back and are free at their front end. They are very much more mobile than their neighbours which are fixed at both ends. Collapsing forward restricts their freedom and much more effort is needed to use inappropriate upper ribs, and accessory breathing muscles. Accessory muscles are those that try to raise and expand the top of the rib cage, the very inflexible part. These should only be involved during maximum effort. But in the average individual, demonstrating what Alexander would call "poor use", it is these accessory muscles which have become the primary breathing muscles, at the expense of the under-used and far more effective lower ribs. This can be seen very clearly in people with asthma - when breathing passages become restricted, fear prevents the individual from allowing the calm deeply rooted breathing pattern to prevail, and promotes instead the 'last ditch' accessory muscle use; a destructive habit of superficial breathing is set up and the structure of the body itself changes to accommodate this, and so a raised or pigeon chest results.

As lessons progress, slowly one learns that neck muscles can be undamped and the head balanced more easily on the column of the neck. The physical weight of the head is 8 to lOlbs and obviously the more that this large mass can be balanced over the column of the neck, the less neck muscle effort will be needed to stabilise it. A greater awareness of balance will thus require less effort, and result in greater poise. For people just starting with Alexander lessons, this transfers far more easily to an upright bicycle or at least one with a very short reach. Again, watch how other cyclists ride, and notice how they allow the column of the neck to collapse forward and the head to pull hard back, in order simply to look forwards. Many standard bikes sold with very long handlebar stems which exaggerate the problem of the problem of discomfort.

Riding on dropped handlebars poses a great strain on the column of the neck and unless one has great kinaesthetic awareness of what is happening in this area, in Alexander terms, this can have a disintegrating effect upon the rest of the body. Alexander found that the relationship between head, neck and back was in fact of primary importance and this is greatly accentuated during Alexander lessons.

So, neck muscles must be as released as possible, otherwise (if nothing else) the effect is like wearing a crash helmet with the straps permanently over-tightened. In a word, painful.

If your bicycle has a moderate fork rake and frame angles, you can have some small sense of what it is like to have a balanced head, neck, and back. You can do it by finding a VERY quiet street or park, taking your hands off the handlebars and really allowing the whole of your weight to go down into your saddle. Feel how the balance of your head (which depends upon correct muscle tone), is very important in the overall balance of the bike; the more you can allow the weight of the head to be transmitted down through the column of the neck and the length of the spine into the saddle, the more stable the bike will feel. The head, neck and back are now working as one integrated unit.

Finally, keeping this sense of relationship between head, neck and back, allow yourself to pivot forward from the hip joints and then allow the heels of the hands to just support your weight on the bars. This is a poised cycling position. Difficult to stay with unless consciously practised -difficult because you will be using different muscle pulls to your habitual movement pattern. Difficult because your habitual way will feel right and this new more balanced way will feel wrong.

With the upper body easefully tilted forward from the hip joints, one soon appreciates that it is the legs that really must do the work. If the legs don't do the work, the effort is passed upwards through the body. This will produce unproductive tension and tightness around the shoulders and arms, in the neck and jaw, and of course in the rib cage and the breathing. The ankles, knees and hip joints are the major moveable joints of the legs and they must stay free, and not tighten and clamp up; be prepared to use lower gears and allow the legs to freely spin and so avoid tightening and constricting the upper body. My own bike is fitted with 32/43 front chain rings and a 13-32 six-speed block. This only gives a top of 90" but allows plenty of easy leg movement in the middle gears.

Rhythm or cadence of leg movement is far more important than power or just gross pushing - notice how free your legs can be by pedalling on a downhill run and at the same time sense how much more release you can consciously obtain in your leg joints if you focus on it. Try riding a fixed wheel bike (perhaps during the winter) and then notice how free that hip joint really must be - any tightness here will actively slow the bike on a downhill run. Make sure that the heel leads on the down movement and knee on the upward rotation and let the ankle joint flex as much as it will - toe clips and straps (or clip-in pedals) will help support the foot in the pedal and will allow both down and upwards movements. The foot movement is very akin to a child's up and down hand movement as she waves goodbye.

Soften the toes inside the shoes and continuously bring your focus back to this. If you tighten and 'claw up' your toes the chances are you will tighten your ankles and etc, etc, up through your body.

So perhaps you can now slowly understand that cycling efficiently and effectively is a process of recognising and then stripping away inappropriate muscle effort -muscle effort that is being generated at your own physical expense but which adds not one iota to the forward movement of the bike.

A further problem area is across the front of the chest and in the armpits. Some professional riders use as wide handlebars as the shoulder width will allow, to encourage their breathing. But I am pretty sure that it is not understood that tension in hands, forearms and around shoulders has more effect on breathing than does bar width. To go back to the model of riding no hands and then pivoting forward from the hip joints for a moment, let us take it a stage further. At a moderate cycling speed the hands are used only to steer the machine, no more; after all, you can steer the bike by gentle body weight shifts when riding no hands, so not much effort is really needed. So as you pivot forward to support your upper torso on the bars, use only the heels of your hands and then just let the fingers lie passively as if resting on fragile eggs. Don't lock your elbows or make your arms rigid, but sense the weight of your arms and just let them hang. This will allow less tightness in the armpit and rib cage; it will help the breathing and will also transfer the effort back down to where it is needed - in the legs.

So what I am really saying here is that holding the bars tightly gripped, and pulling with the arms and shoulders is (at reasonable touring speeds) unproductive. There are no gains to be made by curling the back into a C-shape. The back is at its strongest when it is at its longest, and so when it retains all of its natural curves. Neither weight lifters, nor Sumo wrestlers ever lose their lower lumbar curve. The length and strength of the back will be used to support the upper body, if you don't lock the elbows. When applying the brakes, again don't lock the arms up: just use the muscles in the fingers and in the palms of the hand, and really consciously inhibit using the forearms and biceps. Feel how much less effort this is.

In Zen terminology, the 'movement does itself.

In Alexander terms, 'the Technique is about expansion (of the body) in activity, rather than contraction in activity'. One then gets that wonderful sensation of 'effortless effort'. Slowly, over a period of Alexander lessons, one is led towards these discoveries (be it in cycling, walking, sitting, or even relating to others). But the important thing to remember is that changes occur only by learning slowly to let go of old and outdated muscle habits and, only then, by relearning new ones. This is done primarily by the physical experience acquired during lessons, the intellectual understanding coming later.

Alexander understood that the body must operate as an integrated whole during function and not as a series of disconnected bits. This was his genius.

Happy cycling.