The final of the rowing men’s coxless four at the Athens 2004 Olympics was so exciting. It needed a photo finish to prove the GB team had won. I remember noticing the posture of the GB rowers at the end of the race – how well their backs looked, considering the enormous effort they’d used.
Later, I discovered at least 2 of them had been having Alexander Technique lessons. Caroline Chisholm who’d been working with them “was faced with oarsmen who had an almost religious belief in the contracted muscle, an over-trained physique and an immune system on the
blink.” In our Alexander Technique journal she highlighted some of the issues they worked on:
- Immune System. Rowers face huge mental, emotional and physical pressure seven days a week for eleven months every year. Their nervous system is rarely still. Many suffer from sore throats, fatigue and a faster than average heart rate. The Alexander semi-supine work (lying down with legs bent) improved their immune systems and slowed their heart rates. They used this to help prepare for races and to recover afterwards.
- Injuries. The hours spent lifting weights and using rowing machines can cause muscle shortening that may lead to injuries such as fractured ribs – a frequent occurrence among rowers. They learnt how to prevent this shortening. They also found that not pulling the head back when lifting weights made lifting easier.
- Sensory Awareness. The athletes had to develop a greater sense of change or release in their muscles. This enabled a more open and lengthened posture.
- Means vs Ends. Rowers’ body use can cause chronically collapsed spines. The Alexander Technique encouraged pivoting forward using the hip joint rather than using the waist as a joint. They also had to learn to inhibit the fear reflex – not easy in an unstable, thin boat. This prevented tightening and shortening and gave them more length in the back. This enabled them to make longer and more powerful strokes, thus moving the boat further and faster to win gold.