Shane Benzie & Damian Hall’s Mountain Ultra Skills Day

Let’s set the record straight, if you’ve come here looking to find out Shane Benzie‘s technique secrets and just how big Damian Hall‘s tea habit is, you’re in for a disappointment. However I can confirm that with an unguarded kettle, many tea bags were harmed during the course of a day in Goring….

Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_002For those who are unaware, Shane Benzie / Running Reborn, has been making a name for himself over the past years, first quietly and more recently, under the eyes of many of the trail and ultra community, working with many elite athletes such as the GB 24 hour team, Tom Evans, that guy called Damian and many, many others. If you’ve read “how to” articles, sat through or taken part in coached club sessions or simply gone for a run, some of his theories and learned practices may go against what you’ve had drilled into you. Thinking about how you run isn’t the first thing that comes to mind if you want to run further or faster. Running increased distances, different intensities, eating healthier and getting good quality sleep. I feel safe in the knowledge of saying that is the prescribed methodology that’s existed since we started to learn about the human body and maximising its potential.

But when did we learn to run? From our parents, teachers, coaches?

If I think about myself, I was in the educational system between 1995 and 2008, leaving after A-Levels. I studied Physical Education at A Level, played in rugby teams, ran track and cross country. However, from the first egg and spoon race (I’m pretty sure the school used bean bags or something not so fragile) the command was ‘run’ and there was an expectation you knew what you were doing. I’ve said it before, but watch Michael Johnson critique Usain Bolt when he claimed his first Olympic Gold… his body was rolling all over the place, his technique could and would go on, to improve. Even the greatest have weaknesses and can improve their efficiency.

To give some context, Shane is a qualified running coach. After studying in America, he taught the classic way for many a year, before looking outside of the accepted and hunting more greater knowledge from those who lack the facilities and institutionalised set of norms we do. From elite distance runners in Ethiopia and Kenya, to indigenous tribes and sherpas, watching has taught Shane to look beyond the established. In turn, he’s been able to pass this new knowledge back to those he observed.Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_100

Damian Hall (I’m pretty sure he holds the record for the person to feature most on here – I may be wrong) is a journalist, coach and elite ultra runner. A 5th at UTMB last year and a cracking award winning film, Underdog, rounded off a steady ascent through the elite ranks over the past few years, despite, as he would argue, being old. On the plus side, overalls and vet prize categories does mean a mega haul at certain events. The Guy Martin of the circuit, based on his appreciation for tea, not speaking on tv/film with subtitles, getting excited by prop shafts and clutch mechanisms, he’s one of Britain’s best ultra runners.

Perception of Movement – Dominates how you run

Shane believes how we think we move effects how we move in the real world. Knowing why an elite runner thinks in a certain way and what lead them to develop a technique or habit, allows him to unlock the good and the bad. If you’re going to embark down this road, you need to be open minded and be willing to make some small and potentially large changes. Just because its worked up to now, doesn’t mean it going to work in your favour in the coming weeks, months and years.

Everything is based on Movement

‘Economy of effort. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down’

Winston Churchill

We’ve heard Olympic stars say similar things in the past, especially in the closing days and hours to an event. It used to be the accepted protocol for anyone wanting to be at their very peak. Anyone who’s been coached in the past 10 or so years knows that doing nothing can be more problematic than doing something. Taking an very active body and forcing it into a state of virtual paralysis isn’t always the best way of maintaining a readiness to go when the time comes.

Likewise, Shane’s observations are from movement, athletes running on their chosen terrain, conducting themselves as they see fit, rather than getting them to slow down. The trusty iPad, something of a signature accessory of Shane’s is his trusty eyes, able to play back an athlete’s movements frame by frame, allowing deeper analysis, whilst maintaining an element of control. Think about running on a treadmill or if anyone says “I’m going to watch you run,” you stand taller, mindfully place your foot and alter your gait without realising.

The day started off by everyone involved introducing themselves, their running history and what they are hoping to run in the coming 12 months.

3 things stood out

  • UMTB
  • Quit marathons due to the stress of training/chasing times or couldn’t get quicker
  • I’m dreadful at downhills

With that, it was time to head outside and everyone ran past Shane twice after instructions about the sort of pace he was looking for. Where we doing it correctly? Who would be the star pupil? Had I considered having 10 strangers watch a personal critique in the lead up to the day?

iPad now hooked up to a projector, all eyes were fixed on the slow motion runners. Rather than pointing out weaknesses and room for improvement, Shane asked those on screen and attending to see if they could work out where the problem was. In doing so, getting us to think but also engaging our minds, working as a team.

With many of us now strapped to a desk, hunched over a screen for long periods, if not all day (I write this doing just this, having spent 8 hours at work in a similar position) how the body works is important. We adapt to stresses and our environment. Office workers are experts at sitting for long duration of time, in compromising positions, without the need to get up. We have a gut to keep us from needing food breaks, crooked necks that keep us starring at our screens…… a body that doesn’t want to move.

Walk out the office and run sprint repeats – it won’t be pleased.

We make what we create over time.

Be Big, Bold & Flamboyant 

Elegance is the word, we want to flow and look effortless in our pursuit of perfection. Look at Kipchoge, he looks like he’s cruising at 7 minute mile pace, not 4:34 over a marathon. A the same time, be flamboyant. Don’t run stiff, tensing every muscle and hunching over like you’re expecting an impact. You want to encourage and work with your body, rather than fight it.

We were shown the elasticity of the body and how it can aid your propulsion, whereas accepted oscillation data is optimised for numbing this energy return system, in effect making your running life harder.

Your arms are important, there is no upper and lower body, it is one connected system and you must treat it this way. For all those who lock their arms at the side and pivot at the waist, please stop.

Following a lesson on the body’s elasticity, the role receptors in the foot play, why a tripod is better than a mono pod (ask your photography friend) and how your head is a bowling ball that if unsupported, will inhibit your free flowing running dreams, it was time to head out once more a face the camera, knowledge in hand.

It was honestly remarkable to see how people’s technique altered following a short lesson. Yes, the had to do it mindfully and it wasn’t changed permanently (months of reprogramming are required to take full effect), but you could see the difference, without Shane needing to point them all out.Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_083This time round I found myself on the screen, having taken part and then it dawned on me….. I had no idea what I needed to improve on, having not participated in round 1. Watching yourself in slow motion is an odd experience, your own hardwired perceptions overriding common sense or perhaps your ego having an expectation based on nothing more than a time you once ran a race on. From observing 2 rounds of videos, I could self identify the subtle inefficiencies of my current running style, which were backed up by Shane and the room.

It makes you think and that’s what the day is about.

Thinking, observing, learning, taking away, practicing and consolidating.

Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_077Damian took the floor. Having risen through the ranks, under the watchful eye of several top endurance coaches, now himself a coach, he has a well placed bank of knowledge for how people take on the same objective in different ways, where priorities may differ and more importantly what works for him. As someone who has been with a coach for the best part of 3 years, learning what makes you tick on those days you don’t feel like running, what you enjoy and how to ge the best out of opportunities and sessions is fundamental to progression.

As Tom Evans repeats regularly – Process over Outcome.

From running his first marathon dressed as a toilet to standing on the podium at some of the biggest ultra races in Europe, I think it’s fair to say Damian has achieved a lot in a short space of time and as a father and full time worker, is aware of the challenges training poses to a balanced life. He comes clean about the sacrifices in his film Underdog, if you’d like a glimpse into his world.

Consistency, periodisation, listening to your body, specificity for races, eating and sleeping well are buzz words and ideas we hear about on forums and blog posts, but combined and channeled in a productive way, the results can be staggering.

For those running ultras, learning to power hike, focusing on the next aid station, aid station efficiency and goals all combine as part of the art of racing. Two of Damian’s favourite race treats are music, as he saves it for when he’s having a low moment and chocolate milk in drop bags.

If you’d like to find out more about Damian’s coaching and racing – this highlighted area will help you on your way.Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_018A quick bite for lunch and it was onto the hill.

The flat green adjacent to the pavilion had been the setting for the mornings analysis, now it was time to work on the area that conjured the most fear and dread for the room. The descent.

After catching a lift with Shane in his Defender to the top of the hill, we chatted while we waited for the party, lead out by Damian to arrive. Though the hill lacked real height, the slope was steep enough to create a challenging environment to open up the taps descending.

The brain’s job is to keep us alive. It would rather we walked down a hill then ran. It’s the reason only a select handful of people take part in action sports contests like Rampage. But this safety system is also a little too safe at times. From fell and sky races, to mountain ultras, descents can and do regularly destroy quads. They’re hard to train for and your mind in safety mode only intensifies your breaking effect, loading those muscles with greater force and reducing the time to failure. Work with the land, rather than against it.

After video analysis, this time on the hill it was back for more.

Speeds increased.

There’s more to descents than running down them. You also have to go up. Here we got to difference of opinion.Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_042Damian is in favour of poles under the correct circumstances. Shane doesn’t feel they are necessary, as they alter your natural movement patterns. However, they collectively agreed that standing tall on an ascent rather than bending down is far superior for propelling you skywards.

What followed was a short technique session, first off outlining what not to do ie using them to claw your way up the hillside, like you’ve you see ice axes utilised in hollywood movies, and secondly, when they aren’t required, stowing your poles away or placing in either hand to offer balance.Shane_and_Damo_course_October_2019_001With the autumn light fading, Damian delivered a talk on race craft, utilising his experiences on the trail and how you can make your race that bit smoother come race day.

All in all, it was a very busy day. A encyclopaedia of knowledge to take in a process and for anyone who attended, this was not a once hit wonder, do the course and drop x off your race time. Techniques have to be practised, muscles, tendons and ligaments need time to adapt, brains require rewiring and you can’t overload your body all at once. Patience and consistency are the outright winners, both from a technique and fitness perspective.

To clear things up, I was not paid for the above words, these are my own thoughts and I’ve had the best part of a month to process what was said and practice some of what was taught in my own time. I came away with more questions than answers, but deep down, I think that is part of the objective. Opening your eyes and mind up to new possibilities.

I’ve already enquired about meeting up with Shane in the early months of 2020, once I’be had time to work on what I have picked up and hopefully see where the next lesson can take me.

Yes, I have stated on here several times, that the experience/coaching days and weekends are worth their weight in gold, more so than the latest pair of trainers or that specific GPS watch. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Spending the day with a group of like minded people, with a common objective, you learn as much from them as you do from those leading, in this case Shane and Damian.

I’m starting to implement more movement into my day to day life, looking at getting a standing desk, thinking about my running form more regularly and looking for those little things that will add up to make a big difference.

Shane and Damian’s Mountain Ultra Skills Day was different to those I have done before. With a deep focus on you, your body, how it translates to the mountain and how you can break down what you are doing to identify how to progress, for those who want to take their running to the next level, it’s something I personally recommend. One of the attendees John, was on his third course and when we first saw him on the big screen it made sense. We aimed to be more like John and by the end of the day, you could see the progression from across the group. He’s just been selected for the Northern Ireland and Ulster Team for the 2020 Anglo-Celt 100k.

I’ll be updating when new dates are set for 2020 course and of course, both Shane and Damian do private work, so check out the links below if you want to improve your running.

If you would like to find more about Shane Benzie and his coaching – CLICK HERE

If you would like to find out more about Damian Hall and his coaching – CLICK HERE



Words and images my own, this is not a paid promotion.