Penny-farthing riding and Alexander Technique have something in common. Penny-farthing? Oh yes. To do with pain reduction.
I´m waiting in one of the old buildings at the University of Copenhagen – Department of Veterinary and Animal Science campus. I know I´m in the right place, as I notice a huge and very special metal ring leaning up against the wall right outside the office, where researcher and associate professor Adrian Harrison resides.
Inventor of a new measuring method
Adrian Harrison´s main research topic dives into 4-legged animals’ muscle physiology. He has invented a method to register which muscle groups are active during various kinds of movement, which is more precise than EMG (electro myography). It turns out, that this method not only can be used on horses and camels, but even for measuring his own muscle activity. Checking out what happens when moving in a very special way, he is close to answering the question, why this particular way of moving works as a pain reducer for him.
Adrian is diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (in some languages also known as Morbus Bechterew), which means, that his spine changes during his lifetime, and that it will gradually stiffen. It´s painful and therefore not difficult to understand, that anyone with this diagnosis will look for the best way to minimize pain.
A way of moving, that brings on a smile
Until a few years ago, Adrian saw a very good physiotherapist and he took pain reducing medicine. It did help, but he was bored. By coincidence, and twice within a month, he was offered the opportunity to ride an Icelandic pony and a camel called Abu. His body reacted in the same way both times: he got terribly sore in the evening – but the following 3 days his pain was almost gone.
“There´s something about this”, he thought.
“But how can I use this experience? We can´t have a horse to live in our city-apartment. The travel distance to Abu is too long, so I can´t count on camel-riding. Then I began to think differently. I first thought of a unicycle. But the one I ordered never came. Then I have always thought it could be fun to ride a penny-farthing. And I found that 36-inch model.”
Adrian points at a small penny-farthing leaning against his bookshelf.
“It´s built in Germany. It arrived quickly, and after no time I learned how to ride it. I also bought a book on how to do it.”
He shows me a well-used antiquarian book from the 19th century. Finally, he points at his newest acquisition also parked up against the shelf: a huge penny-farthing from Melbourne. Handmade by Dan Bolwell to fit Adrian´s personal measures it looks like the Rolls Royce of all penny-farthings.
Since several weekly penny-farthing rides have become a part of his routine, the researcher hasn´t looked back.
“I´m pain free and have halved my medicine dose. I´m so happy! I don´t know how long I can continue in this way, but I have seen someone pretty old and still riding, so why can´t I? Yes, I´m happy, I smile inside, when I ride.”
Muscle activity measured during riding
”One of my colleagues kept on asking why we didn´t measure my muscle activity while riding the penny-farthing. We had checked out the superficial back muscles and wanted to look into the deep ones too. That´s why I have made it possible for my “Curo” unit to split between the superficial and the deep muscles. We use two sensors; we can simply subtract one group from the other. Well – then someone placed the sensors on my back and held the iPad while I jumped into the saddle and zoomed off.”
Clearly, the Curo told, that Adrian´s 2 inner layers of back muscles are activated, when he is cycling on his penny-farthing. Just like when he is riding a camel or a horse.
Penny-farthing, Alexander Technique and core muscles
– This is where we have come to the reason, why I as a teacher in the Alexander Technique have asked Adrian to meet.
The last 10-15 years of research has pointed out some of the changes that happen after lessons in Alexander Technique: the 2 inner layers of back muscles, the so-called core muscles, are activated. The function of the core muscles is mainly to keep us upright. If they are not active, that is when muscle tone isn´t very good, the body falls into a slump, and it becomes hard to stay upright. The trouble is that it is difficult to activate these inner muscles just by command. We can activate shoulder – and arm muscles, e.g. just by deciding to do some pushups, but it seems that you sort of need to sneak in some activation through the back door, if you wish to activate the core muscles. Which is done by doing some sort of activity, that forces them to be active. Using the well-known “sit straight!”-command, it is possible to change from a slump to a straight posture, but it´s hard work, and it´s tensed. In that case we only use the 3 outer layers of back muscles to sort of hoist up the trunk, while the 2 inner layers are not really active. Doing all sorts of training exercises, one will also typically only activate the 3 outer layers. Nothing wrong with that, but it´s hard work, when they are used for both movement and postural purpose, instead of just movement. It becomes a task to stay upright instead of simply letting uprightness happen without much thought, because you are either riding or practicing Alexander Technique.
Is there a connection between active core muscles and pain reduction?
Quite a few studies have concluded that people can achieve back pain reduction by the help of Alexander Technique. We also know, as mentioned, that the core muscles are activated during these lessons, but we don´t know if there is a connection between this fact and the pain reduction. However, the correspondence is interesting. Just like in the case of Adrian Harrison´s penny-farthing-riding. Activation of the core muscles brings pain reduction.
Why do you believe, that activation of the core muscles is pain reducing?
”As for my diagnosis, I believe that my muscles get tight, which gives a constant tension. They get tired, and my bones are squeezed. I have tried to discuss this with various people, but they won´t listen. My disease creates little edges on the bones, which means that they cannot move and finally grow together. As a muscle physiologist I do not believe, that bones have the power to squeeze together. They can be worn, but that´s not the problem in my case. I believe that the muscles are doing the squeezing. My muscles and ligaments are not very good at relaxing, they are a bit stiff. As time goes by, they will get inflamed and calcified, which makes them less flexible. In the lab I have some bones from an elephant from the zoo. She was in horrible pain. You can see on her skeleton, that a part of her spine had grown together.”
So maybe she had the same diagnosis as you?
”Yes, that´s what I´ve been thinking. Perhaps Ankylosing splondilytis in elephants. We know that Mammut bones show signs of Morbus Bechterew. In the end she was so dangerous, that they had to put her down. She couldn´t sleep unless she was standing.”
Penny-farthing versus training machines
Which muscular requirements does penny-farthing riding have, that you cannot find in various training machines in a gym?
”I haven´t found any machine, that has the same requirements. A training cycle is grounded and doesn´t move. On a penny-farthing, you need to use your back muscles to maintain, keep and adjust your balance, depending on the terrain and where you are. Besides that, you need to use your legs in order to accelerate and to press the wheel ahead.” (A penny-farthing has no chain drive, but the pedals are placed right in the center of the huge wheel)
“Some muscles hold you upright and some push down. And if the speed is too high, you will need to use the pedals to brake. There is eccentric and concentric activity. So actually you need to use 2 sets of muscles plus keeping your balance at the same time.”
Research shows, that Alexander Technique involves body schema and postural tone. Could we say the same about penny-farthing riding?
”Oh yes. It is the core muscles, that are activated.”
A penny-farthing is never hungry
I guess there´s a difference between sitting on a horse or a camel and a bike since it doesn´t move as much as the animals?
”Actually, on a camel you sit quite stable. On a horse it´s more complex, as it´s movement of your body, that the horse reads. I cycle on a penny-farthing instead of riding an animal, because I don´t need to feed it every day. The tyre must be changed now and then, and that´s it.
Why not just ride on a “normal” bike?
”I much prefer my penny-farthing, as I can stay upright on that. I can´t get my head backwards anymore, so I´m not able to look ahead on a normal bike, unless I´m upright.”
Adrian´s penny-farthing world tour
”Now I´m touring the whole world. I read the book by Thomas Stevens, who in 1884 was the first to cycle round the world on a Columbia. He first went from San Francisco to Boston, where an outing magazine hired him to write about his experiences. His trip inspired me to do the same, although I can´t do it in real life.”
Adrian points to a world map, on which he has drawn distances bit by bit on his fictional tour. By November 2021 he has traveled on his penny-farthing from Copenhagen to the West coast of Ireland, ready to set off across the Atlantic.
“I measure every single tour and have drawn this 4272 km line since 2019. Sometimes short distances, sometimes 22 km.”
Right beneath this map the huge metal ring I mentioned in the beginning is parked. It is the outer circle of a huge front wheel, used to pack the Penny-farthing when it was sent from Australia.
Facts about Curo
A Curo uses AMG, acoustic myography. It is made for measuring 2- and 4-legged animals; the sensors can be attached better, and the results are not debased like when using EMG (elctro myography). One of the reasons for that is that the animal starts sweating during activity. The sweat can affect EMG, but it doesn´t affect sound. Curo is latin for “I care”. The latest model weighs 10 grams and measures from 0 to 32 dB, which makes it possible to measure muscle tone. So even when a horse is standing still, Curo can tell you if the muscles work.
Facts about Adrian Harrison
Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen – Department of Veterinary and Animal Science. Trained in agriculture, biochemistry and nutrition plus a D.Phil. in physiology from Cambridge University. Researcher and inventor of Curo Diagnostics.
More about research and Alexander Technique