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What if someone told you that you could run injury free?

Posted Jul 28 2010 12:00am

ChiRunning co-authors Danny and Katherine Dreyer say that it’s possible. I have been using some ChiRunning techniques for the past few weeks and this morning they helped me cover 36.7k – the furthest I’ve ever run.

I asked my running coach Michael Andrew to write a review on ChiRunning, plus some of his own personal experiences with incorporating them.

by Michael Andrew

ChiRunning is a movement that aims to revolutionize the way you run. The claim is that by following these techniques you can run injury-free indefinitely and well into your golden years. But rather than teach you a whole new technique, co-authors Danny and Katherine Dreyer want you to relearn the way you ran when you were a care-free kid on the playground.

The ChiRunning network includes an instructional DVD, workshops and a website where you can have questions answered and purchase the recommended tools. All these tools are designed to allow your Chi to flow. This is where many might raise an eyebrow, or put down the book altogether. The promise of “effortless, injury-free running”, however, kept me reading.

Chi is defined as “the energy force that animates all things.” The best analogy used in the book is gardening. A gardener cultivates the soil, provides water, eliminates barriers such as weeds, then sits back and allows the chi to flow. Soon, a plant grows. As a ChiRunner, you learn to similarly remove barriers and facilitate the flow of Chi, which will drive your running.

Dreyer refers to most of us as “power runners” because we use the muscles in our legs to power forward. We believe that the more muscle we use, the faster we run. Contrary to that common sense, one of the key elements of Dreyer’s technique is to completely relax every muscle in your lower body. That means no calves, no quads, no hamstrings, nothing. And if done correctly, he claims you will be able to cover more distance in less time than you ever thought possible. Not only that but you can do it with no pain and virtually no recovery time. Intrigued?

The keys to achieving all this are the four chi skills and the six form focuses.

The four Chi skills are:

  • mind focus
  • body sensing
  • relaxation
  • breathing

The six Form Focuses are:

  • posture
  • lean
  • lower body
  • pelvic rotation
  • upper body
  • cadence/stride length/gears

In the book, each of these skills are accompanied by exercises and challenges to illustrate their use.

Focus your mind

Your mind should be clear and focused on listening to your body. Similar to meditation, you need to “be present with your mind and body.” Dreyer provides a great tip that I like to apply when I’m practicing the form focuses. He suggests using an alarm or countdown timer on your watch to beep at regular intervals – every five or ten minutes. Let the beep serve as a reminder to refocus your mind. With each beep, banish the thoughts of that project at work, the leaky faucet at home, or that attractive stranger in the coffee shop. Refocus your mind on being in the present.

Body Sensing

With a focused mind that is “in the present,” you can learn to listen to the messages your body is sending to your brain.  This is the most important of the Chi Skills. The body sensing exercises outlined in the book help you foster the communication between your body and your mind. When I feel my Achilles tendon (between my heel and my calf muscle) tightening up and getting sore, I turn my attention to the muscles in that region and apply another Chi Skill: relaxation.

Relaxation

This concept flies in the face of traditional running. When you learn to apply all the Form Focuses, you will be able to relax virtually all the muscles in your body and allow Chi energy, rather than muscle energy, to fuel your run. Dreyer defines relaxation as “the absence of unnecessary effort,” which is not to say that you will run without any effort, but rather without any unnecessary effort. In my experience, I have been able to conserve energy while ChiRunning the bulk of a race at a high speed then engaging my muscles to sprint to the finish line.

I first combined the skills of relaxation and body sensing during one of my first triathlons. I had just finished reading the book but hadn’t had time to implement the techniques incrementally as the book advises. So after a challenging swim and a largely uphill bike ride on race day, I set out on my run and tried to use whatever ChiRunning skills I could remember. Moments into my run, I felt some cramping in my left calf. I didn’t want to stop and risk losing ground in the race.

I remembered that calf soreness usually comes from incorrect foot strike or tension in that muscle, so I concentrated on my form and relaxed my calf muscles. It worked! The discomfort subsided and I went on to have one of the fastest run times in the race.

When learning relaxation I found that pre-fatiguing my muscles forced me to relax them during my run. I would skip rope for five or ten minutes, focusing on using just my calves (as part of my basketball training). Then, when I set out to run, my calves were tired and sore. I had to learn to run without them. You could try doing the same with squats or lunges. However, I found that fatiguing the larger muscles in my thighs left that region overtired and compromised my ChiRunning form.

Breathing

As with all types of exercise and meditation, breathing properly is crucial. Dreyer describes a technique he calls belly breathing that not only means inhaling deeply, but also exhaling completely.

According to the book, the ideal rate of breath is inhaling for two steps and exhaling for three steps. It took me a while to get used to this slower rate of breathing. You should also keep in mind that this may not be possible for some beginners, as it takes a certain level of aerobic capacity.

The key lesson here is to be conscious of your breathing and try to expel as much of the air in your lungs as possible with each exhale, then inhale as deeply as you can until you feel your belly expand.

In the book, each of these Form Focuses come with illustrated homework assignments to help you apply them. There is also a workout plan with a suggested sequence and pairings for efficient learning.

Posture

The imaginary straight line from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet is referred to as your “column.” Standing this way allows your weight to be supported by your structure, not your muscles. Dreyer provides step-by-step instructions on how to achieve this by levelling your pelvis and engaging your core. Good general posture is fairly easy to maintain, but the nuances of engaging your lower abdominals and keeping what Dreyer refers to as the “C” shape takes some practice.

Lean

This is the most important technique to ChiRunning: “Allow your column to fall gently forward in a controlled way, allowing gravity to pull you forward.”

This is certainly an odd concept to visualize and a strange feeling to experience.  The point is to allow gravity to pull you forward, rather than using muscle strength to propel you. You’re not bending at your hips but at your ankles. So although your body is completely straight from your head to your heels, your forehead is leading and your feet are trailing behind.

As you fall forward, your foot strikes the ground to support you, but not to drive you ahead. Running becomes a practice of constantly falling forward and “catching yourself” with your legs.

Lower body

Here you learn to disengage your leg muscles. When most of us run, we extend our leg in front of us and our heel hits the ground first. We then roll our foot forward and push off with our toes.

Now on the other hand, imagine walking or running in soft sand. Think about what you would have to do to leave a perfectly formed footprint that is equally deep from heel to toe. Your foot would have to land evenly and you would have to “peel” your heel off the ground while keep the muscles around your ankles completely loose. This is how ChiRunners take every step.

Combine this with the lean and you’ll find that your legs naturally swing behind you, avoiding the heel strike as well as the effort normally used to raise your knees in front of you. Practicing this technique while walking everyday is a good way to get used to it.

Pelvic rotation

This is a concept in which your legs “follow the rotation of your pelvis” but not your hip joints, allowing the power to come from your core rather than the leg muscles.

Imagine a point on your spine about two thirds of the way down from your shoulders (T12/L1 for those of you familiar with skeletal anatomy). This point is where the motion of your legs should originate. Your hips should rotate back and forth but not swing side to side.

I find that when done correctly your forward movement will become quite streamlined and efficient. You won’t waste unnecessary energy bouncing up and down. This pelvic rotation also eliminates the jarring normally absorbed by your knees, quads, hips and lower back.

Upper body

While running, your upper body should be relaxed and your arms should swing front to back with bent elbows that don’t swing forward past your ribs. Some runners allow their elbows to swing side to side. This creates unnecessary and inhibitive motion perpendicular to the direction you want to go.

Gears, cadence, stride length

Dreyer suggests a cadence between 85 and 90 strides per minute – that’s 85-90 steps with each foot each minute. To adjust your speed, change your stride length (not your cadence) by slightly adjusting the degree of your lean.

Seasoned ChiRunners can do this without any effect on their perceived exertion level or heart rate. I support Dreyer’s suggestion that runners use a running metronome (available on his website ChiRunning.com ) to learn about and adjust their cadence.

As an experienced runner in dozens of ultra marathons, Dreyer also offers advice on nutrition, hydration, warm ups, cool downs, buying shoes and how to design your own chi running program. He touches on how to apply the form focuses when running uphill, downhill, and even on treadmills.

The most intriguing part of the book is Chapter 9 Troubleshooting: Injury Prevention and Recovery. This chapter is the main reason most people pick up this book as “injury free running” is a point of major interest.

According to Dreyer, just about any pain, discomfort or injury can be avoided with ChiRunning techniques (primarily body sensing and relaxation). For those slowed by shin splints he suggests relaxing your lower leg muscles and checking your foot strike. Side stitch? There could be too much up and down bouncing in your stride. The dreaded plantar fasciitis could be attributed to your heel strike or calf tightness and can be avoided by focusing on your lower leg muscles, mid-foot strike and forward lean.

There’s a good chance that any pain you have is addressed in this section and most people have been able to overcome them using Dreyer’s techniques.

In the past I have always considered discomfort to be part of the “fixed cost” of running. Having had some serious knee and ankle injuries stemming from my basketball career, I always find that they act up about three or four kilometres into any run and I push through the discomfort (not pain) to finish whatever distance I set out to do. Dreyer believes that pain or discomfort during or after a run are directly attributed to the way we run, not the running itself.

My first revelation came with barefoot running a few years ago. I discovered that without shoes I could run until my muscles were actually fatigued while my joints felt fresh and strong. After Chi Running I have a better understanding of why.

When running barefoot, your body naturally adjusts your stride, your foot strike, and your posture, aligning them perfectly with the ChiRunning principles. This readjustment alone can address knee pain, shin splints and much more. Of course, barefoot running is not something we can do any time or anywhere. That’s where I feel ChiRunning comes in.

Following these techniques is essentially replicating barefoot running with shoes. Having followed the ChiRunning principles for some time now, I will say this: I may never apply the Chi Skills to business projects or grocery shopping the way Dreyer suggests, but I am adequately convinced that they can help me run as effortlessly and injury-free as advertized for many years to come.

For beginner runners who are starting from scratch, this is a great way to learn how to run. However, accomplished runners will need to back off their current training schedule, maybe even cancel a race or two while they revise and relearn their running mechanics.

Most runners can pick up some of the basic techniques within the first few weeks, but fully implementing them can take six months or more. Many runners may not want to go through such a reboot, but those who do will likely run further and faster than ever before.

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