There is something both incongruous and at the same oddly appropriate in the fact that I’m at the Sir Roger Bannister track in Oxford, with its halcyon images of cinder tracks and heroic sub-4s, to look at the very latest in running technology. But that’s where I’m set to meet with Shane Benzie of Running Reborn to discuss both his coaching methodology and to get a first-hand look at the tech innovations he employs.
Benzie is both an ultra runner and a man on a mission; not to evangelise about his techniques – he’s the first to say ‘hey, I don’t know everything…’ – but to continue, himself, to learn.
In person he talks a lot about ‘thought processes’ and ‘mind sets’, something I find hugely encouraging because a thinking runner is, in my opinion, a smarter, better runner. His thirst for knowledge has seen him travel the world; he qualified as a Chi Running coach in America, has spent considerable time in Africa and at Iten studying and analysing the natural elites, next (‘most likely,’ he says) he’s off to Italy to help crew at the 24hr World Championships, after that Japan…
The first surprise in conversation comes up when I naturally presume he would favour both a barefoot (or shoed equivalent) style and a forefoot strike. It’s a tentative, qualified yes to the former but a no to the latter. A heel strike, he explains, delivers a far from perfect point of contact – think of how little surface area of a tennis ball is in contact with the ground – and the forefoot (the clue, I guess, is in ‘ball of the foot’) presents exactly the same problem. So for Benzie the ideal foot strike is completely flat which gives ‘three points of contact like a tripod, tripods are stable.’ To help quantify his argument we watch some ultra-slow-motion footage of Wilson Kipsang and two of his pacers, all three with perfect whole-foot / flatfoot strikes. It’s the kind of empirical evidence that Benzie uses to drive his quest for knowledge and running perfection.
And barefoot? Well he certainly eyes up my Hokas with their enormous wedge of foam with some scepticism, but willingly concedes that if I, and plenty of other runners, find them beneficial there must be something in them. True to form he suggests we get a big range of shoes together at some future date and run trials with all of them. Nice, I’m in…
The main reason he says he might advocate more minimalist shoes would be the dulling effect that too much underfoot padding creates. With as many as 200,000 exteroceptors, which gather information from the outside world, in the sole of each foot, it’s an intensely nerve-rich part of the body – ‘like the body’s antennae,’ Benzie observes. So dissipating this biofeedback with excessive running shoe foam, he suggests, can only be detrimental to our proprioception and ultimately our running form and performance.
But on to the technology…
The system Benzie uses is called ViMove, an Australian innovation originally intended for lumbar monitoring, and Running Reborn are the only UK practitioners (although in football Manchester United employ if for baseline monitoring of their players.)
There’s plenty going on below the surface of the system, but as far as a test-subject runner goes, consists of just two sensors that are attached slightly to the inside of the legs mid-shin, plus a wireless data recorder that straps to the upper arm. In essence what the ViMove allows a coach like Benzie to do is record and analyse a range of data of the sort more often documented in a sports lab on a treadmill. The problem with the treadmill of course is that it bares little resemblance to the biomechanics of ‘real-world running’ – it’s like trying to probe the brilliance of Eric Clapton’s guitar playing by getting him to play the spoons. The ViMove system can be used anywhere and on any surface, allowing targeted analysis best suited to the terrain any particular runner has preference for. Kitted up, we headed outside.
The drills required to gather the data are surprisingly minimalist: a warm-up lap, a lap at a gentle jog, one at closer to a 10k race pace to open things up a little, and finally a 100m or so flat out. The easiest training day of my week completed we head back into the sports centre to take a look at what the kit had revealed.
Firstly the fairly conventional video analysis showed two key things: my head has a tendency to drop forward, utterly throwing off the perfect line of balance that should run through the centre of the body from toe to tip and also that I’m nowhere near the forefoot striker I think I am. Benzie isn’t in the least surprised that I heel strike more than I imagine; he thinks most people that come to him (‘80% would be conservative’) hit the surface that way and the reason most of us con ourselves otherwise is perfectly simple: despite the huge quantity of nerves gathering data in the foot there are relatively few in the heel so our first real sensation of contact – and therefore the lasting impression – comes as we roll through the midfoot.
There’s better news, at least initially, when we look at the ViMove data. There’s just a 6% difference in impact between left and right foot – dropping to 3% at race pace – and Benzie tells me he often works with elites that show 12%. But before I get too carried away with my newfound status the news is less good when it comes to how powerfully my legs ‘swing through’ on the stride. A 9% difference at a jog doesn’t look promising and that shifts up to almost 40% at race pace and a whopping 55% on the sprint. ‘Probably the biggest difference I’ve ever seen.’ Oh…
It’s not a huge surprise that I’m effectively lopsided (to use a non-technical term I suspect Benzie would never resort to), my right leg was badly fractured in 2013 and is now held together with pins, plates and, I believe, magic.
But this is where much of the beauty of what Running Reborn does comes in. The ‘real world’ analytics can be shared with a sports physio and between them, the athlete, and Benzie as coach a three-pronged approach to improvement can be planned and implemented. And there’s always a comprehensive baseline to measure results against.
Benzie is emphatic though in the point that the technology is not the main thrust of what Running Reborn are all about – ‘I don’t like the idea of hiding behind technology, it’s just another tool. But in this case a very, very useful tool.’ Hard to disagree even though I know there’s plenty of work ahead of me if I’m to hold my head high both figuratively and literally. Onwards and upwards…
A one-hour technique analysis session with Running Reborn is £70 with the option of booking an inclusive one-hour coaching session to work on what the analysis uncovers for a package cost of £100. Other packages, including coaching workshops for two, are also available.
Full details at runningreborn.co.uk