This was not what I had expected. I’m squatting in the Wicklow sun with a broom handle under my bare feet and my ankles and Achilles tendon are screaming out in pain.
Mind you, it’s a slight improvement from the moment during the “warm-up” exercise when I realised I have no individual control over my toes. Apparently other people can tuck their little toes under their foot while pointing their big toe in the other direction, but not me.
You'd be forgiven for thinking I'd run away to join a circus of contortionists. Instead I'm taking part in a weekend running camp organised by Dublin-based Champions Everywhere. Consisting of coaches Jason Kehoe, Rene Borg and Tony Riddle, the trio offer weekend-long running camps where you can "learn all the skills you need for a lifetime of strong, injury-free and enjoyable running".
As a weekend runner who has never learnt any technique and who has had only one serious injury in a decade of plodding, more thanks to luck than anything else, my curiosity is seriously piqued.
Which is why I found myself on a Saturday morning pounding along on a treadmill in a community hall in Co Wicklow. Running on a treadmill in front of a room full other runners you have only just met and then having your stride video analysed by a coach, still in front of your new friends, is a humbling experience.
While I have images in my own mind of my graceful fluid style, the video, and Tony’s no-nonsense analysis, confirms that I roll my foot inwards as I land, I run looking at the ground and my feet strike the ground with massive force.
With my fellow students (in most cases) also suitably humbled, the coaches start our re-education. Champions Everywhere believe that to run well and injury free for years to come, you first need to look at the quality of your movement. Once you’ve got the quality right you build the quantity and intensity of your training.
Jason and Rene founded the company on the principles of Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand running coach who oversaw a golden age of track and field Olympians in his home country in the 1960s, with his focus on endurance and bursts of intensity in his training. (A quote from Lydiard inspired the company name: "There are champions everywhere. Every street's got them. All we need to do is train them properly.") Their approach is resolutely old school and utilises drills and techniques from the past.
When the duo teamed up with Tony Riddle, a London-based personal coach and proponent of barefoot running, they really began to focus on the importance of good movement – not just in running but in all aspects of your life. In the classroom, the trio explain their philosophy, which is effectively that modern sports footwear is damaging your feet and causing you needless injuries. It’s all about listening to the feedback from your body – if your feet are encased in €150 of highly cushioned rubber, silicone and plastic, you are cutting off an important source of information.
“There is no silver bullet, you can’t just buy something and put it on and run better,” explains Tony. “This [your foot] is the most complex piece of engineering, you just need to learn how to use it properly.”
We adjourn outdoors where the toe contorting begins. These old school drills – using broom handles to spread our toes or to support our heels as we squat – are the key to re-educating our feet and learning a new running style where we land flat-footed with the weight from our upper body evenly distributed. When I realise how stiff and hard to control my ankles and toes are, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to master this.
After lunch, there’s another classroom session giving us more of the theory before we finally get around to some running. Well, actually we start by jumping on one foot because, who knew, running is really just jumping from alternate feet.
Things are starting to click for me now as I suddenly realise I’m running in a far lighter, more upright style, than my usual heavy shuffle.
Soon we’re all standing in the sunlight getting ready to do our first barefoot run around a car park. Much to my shock, not only am I able to do it but it feels good. Another video recording confirms that I’ve lifted my upper body and am now striking the ground with a flat foot.
While Tony in particular makes a great argument for starting again from scratch and embracing natural running, I just haven’t made the leap. That’s partly because I haven’t had any significant injuries in the last couple of years and I’m not sure I want to have to start learning to run from scratch again. And, like many casual runners, while I like the romantic notion of barefoot running, to embrace it wholeheartedly still seems too extreme.
I have taken plenty from the class though – things as simple as lifting my head and leading with my chest – which seem to have made a noticeable difference. I recently ran my fastest 10k time ever outside of a race.
To see a version of this article, which includes a before and after video of John Collins's running style, visit irishtimes.com.