Malcolm Balk has helped thousands of people run more efficiently, faster, and with less injuries. From weekend warriors to world-class athletes, Malcolm has shared his innovative Art of Running approach. A trained Alexander Technique teacher, Malcolm brings a unique perspective to coaching runners. I’ve taken several workshops and his teaching has dramatically improved the way I run: made it easier, more fun, and with less strain. I recently spoke with Malcolm about what good running looks like, why it’s okay to land on your heels, and his upcoming October 25 workshop here in NYC.
When you’re looking at a runner for the first time, what are the qualities or characteristics you’re looking for?
Well, it comes from having looked at thousands of runners. I have a kind of template in my head of what good running looks like. So when I see something that doesn’t quite fit that template, my eyes get drawn. It could be a quality of the movement that doesn’t look right. Is it something in the arm movement? Is it the head? Obviously, as an Alexander teacher, I look at the head, neck, and back relationship. Are they over striding a little bit? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I just have a feeling that something isn’t quite right, but I can’t quite pinpoint it. And that’s where video analysis come in. So when we do the video analysis we can look at it frame by frame. Then sometimes things jump out.
Are there common misunderstandings or imbalances that you tend to see in runners?
A common thing is over striding. Another one would be when the arms don’t seem to be connected with the movement. Either they are held stiffly or out of sync with what the legs are doing. Sometimes, you can get a sense by looking at a person while running of a kind of heaviness, a down. Other times, you get a sense that they’re working too hard. They are popping up and down, a lot of their energy is in the vertical plane, but they’re not really moving along.
I watched the New York City Marathon a couple years ago from a rooftop and I had this strange observation: based on the form of the runners, it appeared that the leading runners were going slower than the people who were a couple minutes behind them. I realized that the fastest runners appeared to not be working hard at all, just jogging. Whereas the people who were a couple minutes behind them were clearly exerting a great deal of effort.
Yeah, you get this impression with the top runners because they’re so smooth, that there’s no jagged edges. You can see this with some of the really great musicians. Someone like [Arthur] Rubenstein is a great example. He might change dynamics and suddenly start to play louder and faster but you don’t see anything happen differently in his core. But all of a sudden there’s this energy flowing through him.
Does a person’s body type play role in the kind of running you recommend for them? Or does all good running look the same?
Well, there’s definitely a similarity between good runners. The quality you’re looking at is a sense of flow with good runners when they are at pace. A good runner when they’re moving, you don’t get a sense that they are working. It doesn’t matter whether they are tall or short. They just seem to be striding. There will be minor differences. There’s a whole lot of talk about what “natural running” should look like. ‘If you’re a natural runner, you should never land on your heels – you should land on the ball of your foot.’ You know, you hear this and it makes a lot of sense. But when you look at really good runners you see a lot of heel landing!
There’s been a whole hullabaloo about the foot landing thing, what part of your foot you land on makes you a good person or whatever. But it’s not clear at all – some land on the forefoot and some don’t. I got caught up in the whole natural barefoot thing that came out of a number of years back. I actually converted. I changed my running form. Now I don’t teach that. When I work with runners, I try and see what their natural landing is. I try to tune that up, make it more efficient, rather than say that they have to run in a whole new way.
What can people expect from your October 25 workshop?
Probably a lot of bad jokes. Those have been recycled for about 20 years. It’s like a bad lunch, they just keep coming back! Besides that, they’ll have a bit of fun finding out how they run. There will be video – we will take a look at how they run. People make a lot of efforts to either pull themselves along or push themselves along. A lot of that is unconscious. They may not be running as smoothly, efficiently, or as powerfully as they could if they changed that. So we’ll talk about consciousness and intentionality, something to think about while they’re moving besides lunch. And something they can take away with and start to practice, so they can develop as a runner. Could running be thought of as a skill like learning to play piano or learn a language? You learn the basics and then you want to develop them a little bit so you can have a little virtuosity. You can run a little quicker, run over different surfaces, move into competition if that’s what your interest is. It can be something that stays fresh for you. Like most things in life, running can get boring pretty fast. But if it’s something you’re developing and growing – I’ve been running for a long time and I still find it interesting. I’ve gotten a couple of injuries in the last year and it’s been kinda rough coming back from that, so when I can find that zone again, boy, do I ever appreciate it! It’s not something I take for granted anymore. Anyone who’s been injured out there, knows what I’m talking about. Running is a pain in the ass, but not running is a bigger pain in the ass, if you know what I mean.
For people who are beginning to run, do you recommend any buildup or progression to start?
Absolutely. At the workshop, I’ll give you a couple basic drills and ideas that you can work on, just five minutes a day to get that connective tissue toned up because there is no doubt about it, we land a couple times our body weight on each step. So we need to tone our body up to do that. One of the things we’ll talk about in the workshop is how to use walking as part of the training. A lot of runners think that if you walk you’re a wussy. But that’s absolute [malarkey] because really good runners have been using walking as part of their training for millennia.… Learning how to run can make the whole process a lifelong pursuit and something that they’re going to enjoy for a long time.
Click here to sign up for Malcolm’s October 25 workshop from 9 AM to 12:30 PM in Central Park.
You can also order his book by clicking here, “Master the Art of Running.”