I watched a remarkable programme, Born to Run: The Secret of Kenyan Athletics, on BBC4 last night that is well worth catching up with on iPlayer. It was about a priest called Brother Colm O’Connell who went to Kenya in 1976 to teach Geography at a local school. Despite having no prior experience of athletic coaching he decided to try and help the kids to improve their athletics. He went on to train the kids who subsequently became world champions and established Kenya as world leading running nation. Brother O’Connell is a modest and humble man and created his own particular techniques and methods for training the athletes.
“Most of my coaching I learned from the athletes – watching them training, talking to them, seeing what worked – very basic training methods. I also read a few books about coaching and talked to a few fellow coaches who I met at competitions. That was my only experience. It wasn’t until about five years later and I began to learn more technically about the sport.”
Whilst his success is stunning what I found equally interesting was that his method is entirely founded upon what we would now call good barefoot running technique.
When Brother O’Connell talks of his methods he regularly returns to the need for a relaxed running form and a strong core that can support the runner throughout the race. When you see his students running then you see a perfect running form:
- Forefoot striking
- Fast cadence
- Footstrike below centre of gravity
- Relaxed upper body
When his star runner David Rudisha is interviewed he relates his success to not having worn shoes, strong feet and a connection with the ground.
Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run has rightly been a trigger point for awareness of barefoot running. In my opinion the work that Brother O’Connell was quietly getting on with as early as 1976 was probably of equal importance.