Running has been a part of me since I was in my early twenties—not competitive running, but thrashing along rural footpaths in all weathers, just me and the world in physical communion. At one stage in my life my obsession with it made me extremely fit and lean, but through the course of my forties I developed more and more mechanical problems with my suspension, in particular a recurring inflammation of my flexor tendons where they pass through my right ankle. I’ve tried substituting other forms of exercise, and my period of maximum fitness also involved a keen interest in body-weight strength training, but ultimately my entire orientation towards my health and fitness has always revolved around my love for running. Feeling the undulations of the earth beneath my feet, the wind and rain in my face, the mud and nettles on my legs, and watching the gentle curves of the Suffolk landscape disclose their vistas at precisely the most pleasing rate of change.
I’ve consequently found it difficult to maintain any great interest in my health at times when I’ve been unable to run. This has extended to my diet, which is actually far more relevant to ones weight than exercise, and as a result I’ve become quite portly. I’ve made attempts to address my ankle trouble, including consulting with the medical profession, but whenever I try starting to run again, the tendonitis returns. Spouse heard someone on the radio who found themselves in almost exactly the same circumstances as me, and who had been able to get back into running thanks to the methods espoused by a successful running coach named Shane Benzie. Benzie has written a book, so Spouse gave it to me for Christmas.
As a book The Lost Art Of Running is fairly basic, but what it may lack in literary sophistication it makes up in earnest clarity. It tells Benzie’s own story, of learning to coach runners, and becoming interested in the reasons for the success of the most capable long-distance athletes. His developing obsession took him all over the world, and his story is quite an entertaining one, but my interest in the book is more in its relevance to my own life, and the tantalising possibility that I might be able to take up running again, to do so without injury, and with much more pleasure than effort. Benzie’s central thesis is that the sedentary, inactive lifestyle typical of people in wealthy societies has played havoc with their gait and posture, a hypothesis borne out in his research by the beautiful action and great competitive success seen in some athletes from less affluent parts of the world.
He goes into a great deal of detail as to what, in his experience, constitutes good running technique, but although he separately discusses issues of cadence, impact, foot placement, arm movement, overall posture and so on, he is at pains to emphasise that all of these facets come together as a single movement, and that doing any of them well will promote the proper execution of the others. Central to this holistic approach is his identification of the fascia as the most important bodily system involved in movement, in contrast to most theoretical frameworks, which place a central focus on the musculoskeletal system. The fascia is the network of connective tissue that contains and shapes our musculature, and its elasticity is the central plank of Benzie’s approach to coaching runners.
By adopting an upright, symmetrical posture, which places the fascia under tension, we allow our bodies to behave in a way analogous to a tensile engineering structure. Energy is stored and released by the fascia under movement, drastically reducing the effort required to propel ourselves forwards if we adopt a gait and posture which makes it harder for it to do its work. I won’t go into too much detail, but one of the most important insights that Benzie shares is that training ourselves to maximise those benefits is something that we can do every day, at home and work—we don’t need to go to the track or out on the trail to improve our running technique.
We need instead to make sure that we maintain what he characterises aesthetically as ‘beautiful’ movement and posture throughout our lives. I’ve only just read the book, and I haven’t started running yet, but I’m typing this standing up, and I’ve been paying very close attention to my posture every day. This has had quite notable mental benefits, quite apart from the physical ones that I anticipate. Being constantly focussed on my movement has kept me unusually present and mindful, and I’ve noticed a distinct reduction in any anxiety or absent-mindedness as a result. I suppose it’s quite possible that everything will go horribly wrong when I start running, but I’m optimistic, and that in itself is a positive result. In the final analysis I’ve always believed that doing things ‘beautifully’ is its own reward, and I’m looking forward to running that way.