There is no magic bullet when it comes to getting better at running. When it comes right down to it, being an excellent runner is a combination (mostly) of two things: commitment to training, and genetics. For those willing to commit to the training (regardless of whether or not genetics are on their side) there’s always something to consider: some new (or old) practise, discipline, or technique, which might just make their running life marginally more successful, satisfying, and safe.
In The Lost Art of Running Shane Benzie lays out his theory on how we can release our athletic potential – by practising excellent, natural, and elastic form, inspired by James Earl’s research into fascia: a specialised system in the human body which covers every muscle, bone, artery, organ, and vein. The fascia is one continuous structure which links the entire body from head to toe, it is an uninterrupted thread which ties our body together.
Benzie, as he began his career as a running coach, attended a seminar put on by Earls, in which an elastic model of body dynamics was demonstrated. Benzie, having recently spent some time observing runners in Ethiopia had a sudden epiphany. The East African runners moved in a way which mirrored the elastic theory of body dynamics that Earls was demonstrating: they ran ran tall, leading by the chest, creating a natural bow in the shape of the body which was propelling them forward, using the full force of their feet to launch with every step into a graceful, bouncy stride. By comparison Benzie had observed the everyday runner on his own shores to demonstrate the absolute opposite of this form: hunched, shuffling, striking with the heel.
With that Benzie sets off on a quest of sorts, to expand our knowledge of this elastic, fascia-centric form, working in familiar, and unfamiliar, lands. Of course, he spends some time in Iten, the much explored home of the dominant Kenyan distance runners, but he also works with runners across a range of disciplines and abilities: with ultra runners in the Amazon jungle, with a blind runner observing his form through the sound of his own footsteps, and with a runner who had to learn to walk again after an incredibly rare condition left him wheelchair bound. He even moves beyond the realm of running to gain a better understanding of the form, working with Olympic divers to understand how even the way we hold ourselves when we aren’t running – when we stand to make a cup of tea even – can influence our form.
What I love most about this book is its structure. For the first part of the book Benzie uses the stories of those that he was worked with to provide inspiration and evidence to his claim, over the course of the book he introduces us to practical concepts on how we can begin to move beautifully and recall the titular lost art of running.
In the second part of the book Benzie lays out the foundations for these skills, discussing foot placement, breathing, posture, cadence, the most basic principles of running that most of us probably don’t even think about. That, it turns out, is the problem. We don’t always consider running a skill, and so we don’t think about practising the fundamentals. Running is considered something natural, easy in practise, and we think that to get quicker we just have to work harder, hurt more, run more. Benzie sees that running is a skill, and that good, beautiful running should be practised to ensure that we can run faster without the need to pour more blood and bluster at the issue.
Finally, in the third part, Benzie turns fully practical, laying out his theories in bullet point form, reiterating the points which he has explored previously in a way which can be revisited in digestible, teachable chunks.
There are so many theories and practises focusing on how we can get fitter, faster, better, stronger, blah blah blah, but what I like about Benzie’s work, and this book in particular, is that it points out a bizarrely obvious point which is so often missed: running is a skill. How could it not be? You only have to look at any elite race in comparison to your local Parkrun to see that we most certainly do not all run the same way, and that it isn’t only the case that elite runners are faster, more aggressive, and run more miles. Those things might be true in comparison with the average Parkrunner, but we humble runners can’t keep up with those things – elite runners have the time and energy to commit to the big numbers because it’s their job.
What we might be able to match though, what we might be able to commit to, is running well, and running beautifully.