Runners World | December 2020
Shane Benzie’s Quest to rediscover the ‘Lost Art Of Running’ has led him to a mysterious and powerful substance buried within us all. RW’s Rick Pearson met him to learn how we can reconnect with the true essence of human movement.
Shane Benzie has been called ‘the Indiana Jones of running.’ He’s met some of the indigenous people of the Amazon, studied barefoot tribes in Malaysia, marvelled at the strength of the Sherpas in the Himalayas and been trackside at the high-altitude training camps of the world’s best distance athletes in Iten, Kenya – always in search of perfect running form.
But while the thrilling adventures of Hollywood’s intrepid Dr Jones lead him to hunt down lost artefacts in distant lands, Benzie’s quest has led him to a mysterious substance much closer to home: fascia. This web of elastic tissue, which runs through our entire bodies beneath our skin has become a source of immense fascination to Benzie, and it’s a subject he explores in depth in his new book, The Lost Art of Running (Bloomsbury).
If you’re not already fully up to speed on all things fascia, don’t worry, you’re not alone. While runners often talk about stamina and muscle, fascia more often than not flies under the radar. But Benzie argues it’s time that changed. For him, fascia is, in many ways, the holy grail of human movement. It requires zero oxygen, yet can propel the body forward powerfully. It completely regenerates every seven months, meaning you can retrain your entire fascial system in just over half a year. And everyone has it, from Eliud Kipchoge to Kim Kardashian.
Benzie, who describes himself as a former ‘ultra shuffler’ who was plagued by injury, became interested in fascia after travelling to Bekoji, Ethiopia, sometimes known as ‘the town of runners’. (It’s the hometown of Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba and Derartu Tulu, among others.) Watching some of the local athletes in action, he noticed something about the way they were moving. ‘They didn’t accelerate due to increased determination,’ says Benzie. ‘If that had been the case, they’d have been grimacing and cursing like I was. Instead, they were all smiling as they moved gracefully away. The increase in speed was not visibly an increase in exertion. It was an effortless, beautiful motion. It was fast and flowing. It was freedom personified. I kept coming back to the word “elastic”.’
After this epiphany, the concept of elasticity began to play a vital role in Benzie’s view of correct human movement. ‘We are often compared to chimpanzees but, at least physiologically, we are not like them at all,’ he says. ‘Pound for pound a chimpanzee’s muscles are far stronger than ours, giving them an explosive power that we simply don’t have. What we humans chose – not consciously, but through the process of evolution – was an elastic, rather than a muscle-based, strategy.’
In other words, we got up and started walking and, by doing so, we began to harness the elasticity in the long chains of fascia that run through our bodies, from head to toe. And this turned out to be a highly effective evolutionary path to follow. Because, as I found out when I met Benzie at his base in Goring and Streatley, Berkshire, what the fascia system can offer us is almost too good to be true.
Benzie has worked with some of the fastest runners on the planet, including the Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto, who took 14 seconds off the world road 10K record in January. So when he asks me to run round a cricket pitch while he films my movements, I feel a little self-conscious. His top-line conclusion, as it turns out, is surprisingly positive. Although I lack symmetry – my right arm behaves as it should, my left is positively unruly – and my stride is a little short, I’m not an entirely lost cause. Looking deeper, however, it’s clear that, as with almost all amateur runners in the West, there’s plenty for me to work on. One of the most common problems with Western runners, says Benzie, emanates from our relationship with the ground. In short: we tend to be rather scared of it. Unlike in East Africa, where many grow up walking and running barefoot, we’re taught to treat the ground with caution.
Runners are often told to make our contact with the ground as light as possible but, Benzie argues, the result of this is often a stride that lacks any real power or dynamism. Benzie says that 84 per cent of the 3,000 runners he’s worked with are natural heel-strikers; I’m in the other 16 per cent, but he’s not handing out any gold stars. ‘What we’re looking for is a tripod landing,’ he says. That’s when the heel and the ball of the big toe and little toe all make contact with the ground at the same time. ‘This gives you stability, engages more of the nerve endings on the bottom of the foot and dissipates impact better.’ Such a landing also capitalises on the elastic energy of the foot, making it easier for us to then propel ourselves into the air.
If we’re scared of the ground, we’re also scared of the air. Told to reduce things such as vertical oscillation – the up-and-down movement when we run – we also try to minimise our air time on the run. By contrast, Kipchoge and other elites actually spend an awful lot of time in the air. That’s partly why many elite runners often appear taller than they are. Kipchoge, for example is a diminutive 5ft 6in; Wilson Kipsang – who looks like a giant on TV – is only 5ft 10in. So doesn’t that upward motion represent wasted energy in an endeavour that is all about propelling yourself forward? Not according to Benzie. ‘When you hit the ground, you have 2.5 times your body weight coming back at you,’ he says. ‘That impact coming back at you also creates elastic energy. Anything with the word “elastic” in it means it doesn’t require oxygen, doesn’t need calories and doesn’t produce lactate. It’s free. When you look at someone like Kipchoge running, and wonder how he can run a marathon in under two hours, one of the reasons is that he doesn’t need that much oxygen to do it. Because his beautiful, elastic running style is so efficient.’
On my next lap of the cricket pitch, I make a conscious effort to add some air to my stride. It feels unnatural at first but, with practice, I too start to feel like a bouncier, more elastic runner.
Look at the stride length of Mo Farah or Brigid Kosgei – it’s enormous. Look at many amateur runners, on the other hand, and you’re likely to see stride lengths that are more dormouse than gazelle. How can we open things up? Benzie argues that cadence is key and encourages his runners to run at 180 steps per minute as this, he says, ‘syncs with the elastic energy of the body’.
If you want to know what that feels like, do some skipping: you’ll naturally fall into a 180 cadence. However, if you’re already running at a 180 cadence (for reference, Benzie says most UK runners have an average cadence of 164), the key is not to start running at a 195 cadence. The key is to lengthen your stride. As someone who’s constantly in fear of overstriding, consciously creating a longer stride at first feels strange. But when this is accompanied by quick leg turnover and an upright posture (more on this shortly), the result is not overstriding: it’s increased speed.
When Benzie shows me some trackside footage of runners he’s studied in Iten, Kenya, I’m struck by two things: firstly, they look a great deal quicker than the video he’s just shown me of my own running. Secondly, in profile, they are all making the same shape – that is, they all run with their chests out, creating a slight bow. ‘This engages our elastic system, pulling the lines of fascia tight,’ says Benzie. In other words, if you increase the surface area of the body, by slightly bowing the chest, you create more elastic recoil – or free energy. The problem is, our sedentary, often deskbound existence means our default posture is almost the opposite of a bow: we’re hunched forward at our desks and in our cars, and that sticks with us when we start to move. ‘Our dynamic posture will only ever be an extension of our everyday posture,’ says Benzie. ‘How we sit, stand and walk is, therefore, crucial to how we run.’ So there’s an elastic benefit to be gained from pushing our chests out to create the ‘bow’ posture both on the run and in other parts of our lives
With elastic movement, there isn’t a big dividing line between the upper and lower body. Everything is connected. Therefore, what our arms are doing during the running action is just as important as what our legs are doing. What Benzie is looking for is balance and symmetry; unfortunately, what my arms are going is offering neither of these.
My left arm hangs lower than my right, while my left hand tends to cross over the midline of my body. It looks a bit like I’m carrying an invisible loaf of bread. Rather than transporting an imaginary hunk of sourdough, Benzie says that what I – and everyone else, for that matter – should be doing is driving the elbows back to create tension in the fascia, and then letting the natural elastic recoil drive them forward again. ‘Having wayward arms is one of the most common traits I see in runners,’ says Benzie. ‘and it’s one of the most important improvements you can make to your running.
As runners, we’re often told about the importance of lifting heavy weights a couple of times a week. From what he knows about the fascia system, and what he’s observed in the East African runners he has worked with, Benzie has a very different take on the subject. ‘If running was a muscular-strength game, the East Africans would come last,’ he says. ‘They don’t have access to any gyms or weights. Their strength and conditioning is done out on the trails. They’re creating what I call Darwinian fitness: the fitness to perform that specific task.’
Benzie also points to the example of the Sherpas. ‘They become strong enough to carry twice their own weight up Mount Everest by doing it,’ he says. Benzie doesn’t believe that any single exercise, such as squats or single-leg deadlifts, can properly simulate running. And if you want to create the specific strength needed for running, you should hit the hills instead. ‘If you’re doing a strength exercise that potentially isn’t taking into account running-specific things such as deceleration, impact and range of motion, it could potentially contaminate your “software” because it’s got nothing to do with the sporting movement,’ he says. ‘Whereas, if you run up a hill, you would be creating the range of motion and writing the software for your brain to create fluid movement.’
As is often the case in running, the mind has a key role to play, too. Just as Peter Pan has to believe he can fly before he can take to the skies, you must believe you’re an elastic, dynamic runner to move like one. ‘So much of our movement is based on our perception of it,’ says Benzie. ‘We grow up thinking that the skeleton is our main structure and we have lots of muscles that power that structure. I think that’s wrong. We are dynamic, connected and elastic – and if you start viewing yourself in that way, you’ll start moving in that way, too.’
It is this last piece of advice, more than any other, that sticks with me in the weeks and months I spend out on the run after my meeting with Benzie. Our thoughts shape our reality. Benzie has shown me that as runners, we have a choice: you can see yourself as a muscle-bound mammal, hunched over and stuck to the ground, or you can see yourself as a dynamic, connected homo sapien, floating in a sea of elastic energy. Now, which of those sounds better to you?
'I met Shane in 2013, when I’d only done one ultra. I hadn’t given running technique any real thought and assumed I ran with good form. How wrong I was! He called me “an accident waiting to happen”. I was doing it all wrong, from overstriding to lazy arms. The first time I raced and concentrated on Shane’s ideas, I won a local 10K. And my moderate success in the sport (some FKTs, UTMBs and a GB vest) has a lot to do with his teaching, good humour and vast knowledge.’
‘I am trained in myofascial release, so when Shane talked to me about the fascial system and elasticity, it made a lot of sense. I have seen Shane several times, but the most impactful was before my win at the 2017 Marathon des Sables. With a few simple pointers, he made me feel like a winner in my mind. Even though I had a backpack, my posture was tall and I felt like I was gliding. If I struggle with my form, I go back to the pictures Shane planted in my head and I can immediately improve without thinking in technical terms.'