What is Chi Running?

Print I've been taking my running more seriously the last two years. I have goals to run consistently several times a week so that I can improve my pace and build up mileage. Over the course of the last 9 months I have completed more races alone than I have in my entire life. As I have dedicated more of my life to the sport I have become increasingly aware that taking up running in my early thirties will affect my body differently than if I had started distance running as a teenager. With respect to being conscious of how running can be a huge benefit to one’s body, it also means one has to be aware that running has the potential to increase the body’s susceptibility to injury. Enter ChiRunning®. Founded in the late 1990's by Danny Dreyer, (an accomplished Ultra Marathon runner and proponent of holistic living for for well over 30 years), ChiRunning is based on movement principles of T’ai Chi. The good news is that you don’t need to know T’ai Chi to ChiRun. All you need to know is that using your core can transform your running. In Chi Living, Chi Running and Chi Walking basic principles of T’ai Chi are employed to optimize the flow of energy in your body, to reduce the use of force for moving forward, and thereby reduce the risk of walking or running injury, while maximizing the benefits of mindful movement and healthy living. (www.chiliving.com). I first learned of ChiRunning from fellow blogger Kelly Barten. Kelly attented a Chi Running workshop several years ago. When I told Kelly that I wanted to become more educated about proper running form and technique, she immediately recommended that I reach out to Alice Peters Diffely, a certified ChiRunning coach and owner of www.runningmindfully.com. I was very curious about the ChiRunning technique, so I enrolled in a ChiRunning workshop.

Prior to meeting with Alice and the other runners enrolled in the workshop, she strongly encouraged the participants to familiarize themselves with the basic components of ChiRunning so that we would be ready to dive-in and make the most of our time together. I decided to visit my local library for a copy of the ChiRunning DVD. Within the first ten minutes of watching Danny and the other runners onscreen, I learned more than I ever had during the three years that I ran track in high school! During the opening segment, Danny focused on the sagittal plane. When we move along this plane, we are using the strength of our muscles to move parts of the body forward or backward. Extension and flexion happen along the sagittal plane. This means most running, biking, rowing, and lifting movements make use of this plane, and it is extremely important that a runner use all three planes of motion to improve mobility … something runners of all ages and experience levels must focus on in their practice. Even though this was just the “tip of the iceberg” of what I could expect to learn about ChiRunning, I was ready to meet Alice!

The Sagittal or lateral plane, divides the body into left and right halves.

It was a typical rainy early spring day in Portland when I arrived at Catlin Gabel school. Three gentlemen and I met with Alice in the gym to become acquainted with one another and to give each other a little glimpse into our history as runners. Out of the five of all who were present, (Alice included), I was the least experienced and, luckily, one of the few present who has never suffered a major injury—which was one of my main motivators for signing up for the workshop in the first place—I wanted to make sure I could keep running injury-free.

We spent the first part of the workshop indoors, working on posture, leg motion and leaning forward. (I’ll explain this technique later on as I find it really useful). The second half of the workshop found us on the track of the school where we took the techniques outside where we could practice running 1/4-1/2 a mile at a time. (I’ve outlined the main elements of ChiRunning below). Everyone ran together, focusing on each drill while Alice used a metronome to regulate our cadence—this is such a simple and effective tool to calculate the number of strides one takes per minute. Striving to maintain a cadence of 85-90 strides per minute is key to prevent burnout and fatigue of the legs. For more information on cadence, read this. I found focusing on cadence helped me to not bounce straight up and instead expend my energy in a more forward leaning motion. After spending a good hour and a half outside, it was time for the part of the workshop that I was most excited and anxious for: the part where Alice would videotape us running!

Danny demonstrating the forward lean while running.

Each of us took turns practicing the Five Elements of ChiRunning while Alice filmed us individually. (She later would make comments on a voice over of the short clip and send it to us so that we could see ourselves running, attempting to practice the techniques we learned during the inside portion workshop I emphasize “attempted”, because I have a long way to go in perfecting my form). One big thing about being a “newer” runner that I have going in my favor is the fact that I don’t have years of  flaws ingrained in my form. And, in time with practice, it will not take too long to see improvement.

While the workshop is a half-day long and presented a host of great information, it is just one component of learning to run injury free. Like anything in life, practice over time is required to retrain bad habits. Alice gave us information to take home that summarized what we had spent the afternoon practicing, so that we could focus on incorporating the techniques into our running routine.

After watching the video Alice filmed of me running, I had a few questions for Alice which I’ve included below. Perhaps you will find them useful in your practice. The biggest takeaway for us all to remember: running doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to hurt.

Q & A with Alice Peters Diffely

Alice Peters Diffely owner of www.runningmindfully.com and a certified ChiRunning instructor.

AM: What are some of the biggest mistakes “new” runners make with respect to their running form?

APD: Every runner I work with presents with their own unique postural alignment and movement tendencies. That being said, it’s quite common for me to see runners over stride, leading them oftentimes to a heel strike and for their foot to make contact with the ground too far out in front of them. This results in a braking effect that disrupts forward momentum, wasting energy. It also creates jarring impact to the shins, knees, hips, and lower back.

AM: Would you advise new runners to work with a coach on proper form? What about people who have been told that their form is “natural?”

APD: I would advise not only new runners but also experienced runners to work with a certified Chi Running instructor to fine tune their form. Up until the time when the first edition of Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running book was released in 2004, there was very little information available about running technique. This stands in contrast to the history of virtually any other sport. Whether in swimming, golf, skiing, tennis, or baseball, just to name a few, coaches (many of them experienced practitioners themselves) have long been motivated to share their passion for their sport by teaching others not only how to maximize their performance but also how to maneuver their bodies in ways that will reduce the risk of common injuries. If you spend even a few minutes observing runners at a local track or popular running route, or perhaps even more tellingly stand on the sidelines near the finish line of a race, you’ll see a lot more runners who look like they’re fighting themselves than runners who move with grace and ease. Even those who appear to have sound “natural” running form could benefit from small improvements, and by cultivating more awareness of simply how they’re holding and moving their bodies.

AM: In the workshop, it was mentioned that you [the runner] should focus on improving one part of your form at a time…what part should you start with and why?

APD: When I present the Chi Running material to a new client, whether in an individual session or at a group workshop, I always begin with analyzing and suggesting improvements to postural alignment. The better able you are to stand and sit in a manner that is simultaneously well-aligned and relaxed, the more easily you’ll be able to embody those qualities in your running as well. Beyond that, I offer each of my clients individualized suggestions as to aspects of their running form that would be most useful for them to focus improving initially. I make those recommendations based upon their history of injuries, on what I observe as I run along side them and as I view the video footage we’ve shot during their session, and on how they’ve responded to cues I’ve given as we’ve worked together.

Ready to sign up for one of Alice’s workshops? Click here to do so.

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