How Chi Running Makes Running Easier

Today’s post is by John Payne.

John is a recently retired personal trainer living in Dripping Springs with his wife Laura, three terriers and a parrot. He and Laura enjoy their blended family of nine children plus four spouses and six grandchildren. When not enjoying some family activity, John and Laura enjoy playing golf and running together.  John also practices yoga and tai chi with a beginner’s mind and a not so supple body. Before working as a certified trainer, he spent many years in church ministries with a special interest in building community within churches and encouraging personal spiritual formation. John is also an ActiveAge Blueprint member.

Enter John Payne

“Don’t run to get into shape. Get into shape to run.” Years ago these words of wisdom from Doug Kelsey inspired me to get proper training so I could enjoy running a few miles without pain. Physical therapy prepared me for a run/walk program, and Doug’s book, The Runner’s Knee Bible, gave me great exercises for my training at home. It worked. I got better, and for the first time in my life I was enjoying running one to three miles at a time.

Then I read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall and became fascinated with the barefoot running / minimalist shoe craze. I wanted to run like an Indian on trails through the Texas hill country! I studied videos, read a few more books, and started trail running. A high hamstring injury and plantar fasciitis slowed me down though, and I realized I needed help.

ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running by Danny Dreyer provided that help for me. I studied the book, watched some videos and bought a program for beginners training for a half-marathon. My wife and I have been practicing ChiRunning for about six months now. Before I started ChiRunning I practiced ChiWalking. Both are based on principles from tai chi and are designed to teach efficient, more effortless ways to walk or run. The website, ChiLiving  is full of good information about the technique and other resources like workshops and training programs.

While the ChiRunning book and program include many helpful tips, I would like to share six points I have found especially beneficial for me.

  1. Posture – Correct posture helps your body move with less effort and therefore with less tension and fatigue. Beginning with balanced feet pointing forward, the body aligns itself properly with a slight bend in the knees, a neutral pelvis, ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips and hips over feet. Maintaining this column from the ankles to the top of the head is critical regardless of how fast you run or the elevation of the trail you’re on. I’m learning to break some bad habits that seem to be common form faults:  breaking at the hips, especially going up hills or when I’m tired; tilting my pelvis forward, putting too much arch in my lower back and making it more difficult for my lower spine and pelvis to rotate naturally; and leaning my head forward which puts unnecessary tension in my neck and shoulders.
  2. Mid-foot plant – Rather than a heel strike foot plant or a fore-foot style many minimalists advocate, ChiRunning encourages a mid-foot plant. Studies have shown that this technique creates less impact in the foot and knees.
  3. Lean – Leaning the whole column forward slightly allows gravity to propel the body forward. It’s also your accelerator; the more you lean the faster you go.
  4. Stride Length and Cadence – The best way to accomplish a mid-foot plant is to shorten your stride and keep your foot plant under your hips. That creates a faster cadence too – about 175 to 180 steps per minute is recommended. A metronome like this one Seiko DM50S Clip Digital Metronome (Silver) is highly recommended, especially for beginners.
  5. Body Sensing and Focus – Being in tune with your body is important as you train for running longer distances. There is no need to push yourself too hard. You train with a goal, but listen to your body and adapt your program to fit your particular needs. The ChiRunning program gives several form pointers to work on while you train. Each day you have one or two to focus on, and are encouraged to make up your own – noticing things like the way your foot plants or the alignment of your column train your mind as well as your body.
  6. Mindful Breathing and Relaxation – The more you practice technique with this kind of mindfulness, the more you will be able to relax and begin to breath more fully and effortlessly. Running becomes more fun and invigorating you search for that point of relaxed, dynamic balance.

In many ways ChiRunning is like a moving meditation for me. It’s a process for practicing mindfulness.  Learning something new that commands my attention keeps me in the present moment. Occasional moments of being balanced, moving freely and feeling happy and centered come and go as I practice taking these baby steps. I can’t help but feel like learning to run helps prepare me for the steps I take in my life’s journey.