Marilyn Arsenault of Victoria, BC is well into her comeback from a debilitating infection that curtailed her training for over a year. Not only is she back training seriously, she is a busy coach and operates a business (Mindful Strides) teaching runners of all abilities how to run with better form. Arsenault competes in the masters age category.
As a master she broke the open record for the 2009 Goodlife Fitness Victoria Half Marathon by finishing in 1:15:39, competed for Canada at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Amman, Jordan, and at the age of 41 competed for the University of Victoria Vikes. She also won the masters race at the prestigious Carlsbad 5000. She is also an opera singer, a Soprano, who studied at McGill University and le Universitie de Montreal in Montreal, Quebec. Arsenault uses her form expertise for her singing as much as she does for her running.
Christopher Kelsall: You have an entertaining story from when you discovered the Alexander Method. You had to painstakingly re-train yourself and your form from scratch. Can you tell me about that?
Marilyn Arsenault: I was introduced to the Alexander Method while attending McGill University. I was doing an undergraduate degree in Voice Performance. The Method is very well respected amongst musicians as way to learn proper posture. And it supports the technical demands of learning how to play an instrument or sing. When I started to learn running technique using the AM, I was only allowed to run for about 10 seconds at a time; I would automatically resort to my old habits so was told to stop before I messed things up. Eventually the running bouts got longer and longer as I was able to hold the form for longer periods and eventually I was running faster than my teacher!
CK: Because of your influence as a runner, we can assume that you work with many runners and triathletes, but the technique you are teaching is good for everyone, yes?
MA: Absolutely. Any activity that requires endurance and repetitive motor skills ideally should come from a solid foundation of posture and alignment (like standing or walking for instance). From there, you can access freedom and ease of movement which translates into efficiency. Efficiency/ease of movement through this alignment reduce overuse injuries. Now you can have consistency which is what we’re all after.
CK: Your Mindful Strides clinics in Victoria seem to sell out in advance. Did you ever envision this level of popularity?
MA: Not at all. In fact I didn’t even think the first clinic would get more than five runners. It filled up really quickly though and from there the clinics took off and have kept growing. It’s great that people are realizing that running is a skill they can improve other than by just going at it from a training angle.
CK: I understand that the “form” or technique you teach through your clinics resembles how we run as kids, yes? Can you describe what good form looks like and why it looks right?
MA: Yes, watching young children run and walk, sit and stand is a good model of proper use of the body. Children are uninhibited and don’t care what they look like so don’t “posture” themselves. They move with lightness and freedom. In walking and running, they don’t reach the foot out in front or push off to propel themselves forward, instead, they let gravity do most of the work, allow the body to move (fall forward) before the feet and let their feet catch up even though they risk falling. As we get older we are afraid of falling so we form the bad habit of doing the opposite in running and walking; we let the foot lead, the body follows and there is the push-off and braking action that makes running feel like a struggle. We muscle our way through each stride working against ourselves on every step. The worst part of this is that the further the foot lands in front of the hips, the less chance of stabilizing the pelvis on a single-leg landing. That’s when a lot of injuries occur. Good form looks fluid and fluidity basically comes from a very specific timing of the foot landing and then pulling off the ground under the hips with very short contact time on the ground all while maintaining good alignment. Muscles and joints move with balanced function as a result of this alignment. Fluid runners are also letting gravity do some of the work, kind of like catching a good wave!
CK: I understand that the technique is used by singers, which you happen to be. Do you find yourself thinking of the principals when you practice voice work?
MA: All the time. Every breath I take when I sing is done with the postural and awareness skills from the Alexander Method. Most of it now, much like in the running, is en-grained. There is a point once the new patterns settle in where you can let go, “think” and do less and allow it to happen and it’s there for you. It’s very powerful.
CK: Is your program primarily about the Alexander Method or have you taken from other programs and developed any of your own drills?
MA: The method of teaching alignment/posture through AM forms the foundation for the drills I teach which are a combination of running methods and pelvic stability drills I have developed. This is all covered in the first six-week level. I then move most of the focus to bio-mechanics while always referring back to alignment/stability awareness. In the Intermediate and Advanced levels I use elastic resistance cords as much as possible. In my opinion, based on what I have seen in the dozens of clinics I have run over this past year, the resistance cord work is an invaluable tool for muscle memory training and sensory feedback. If you’re alignment is off or if you are running inefficiently while running with the cords, you get instant feedback; you can’t move forward without struggling and losing balance. My students love using the cords once they get the hang of it because using them really does help you sense a more efficient stride.
MA: Yes, I had a staph infection in the fall of 2010. It has been almost a year since I started running training and I am back to full training mode now and feeling very strong. I will be aiming to run fast in a few 5km/10km races this spring with the long-term goal of running a fall marathon.
CK: Your fall marathon plan, does this include Toronto?
MA: Yes, the plan is to run the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
CK: Are you now also coaching others?
MA: Yes, I am coaching quite a few runners now, setting up training programs for them to follow and get fitter and am really enjoying this. The feedback I get from a lot of “recreational” runners who want to get more serious about training and racing is that they feel they are not “good enough” to seek out a coach’s help. I do remember feeling the same way when I first asked for formal coaching and even asked the coach if he really wanted to train a greenhorn like myself. Working with a coach who taught me how to train wisely was what allowed me to improve and gave me the motivation to get fitter and eventually race with confidence. I really want to help motivate other runners to experience improvements in their fitness.