Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running

Book Review: Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running by Danny Dreyer with Katherine Dreyer  (Fireside 2004)

This is a really cool book for anyone who runs. I found it to be informative and since taking up running a few years ago I can say that over the last few months I have adopted the techniques with great success. Dreyer has discovered a healthy, non-injury, relaxing, and mindful approach to running that works on several levels.
Dreyer practices Tai Chi and has managed to apply principles and methods from Tai Chi into running technique and I and probably many others are grateful. Having hurt myself running on more than a few occasions – I can say that the added mindfulness to technique can help prevent injury and keep slight injuries from getting worse.

The author compares Chi running to popular forms of ‘power running’ and suggests his method is better suited to preventing injuries. Apparently, injuries are very common to runners and I have experienced some injury as well due to both inadequate technique and inadequate shoes. These have both been corrected successfully. Part of the Chi running technique is to learn to relax while running, both mentally and physically relaxing the muscles – particularly the lower legs. A key part of the method, as in Tai Chi, is to run from your center, using the core muscles of the body more and the leg muscles less. One technique is to practice noting one’s perceived effort level (PEL) which refers to the amount of exertion one senses from oneself. This, of course, changes due to many variables such as speed, stress, illness level, stress level, amount of sleep, recent food, etc. The idea is to decrease your PEL by removing energy blocks in the body by: “maintaining good posture; keeping your joints open and loose; and making sure your muscles are relaxed and not holding any tension.” All this amounts to more focus, more mindfulness during running and it does make a difference. It really doesn’t have to be strenuous and it doesn’t have to hurt. Chi running makes efficient use of gravity by having the runner lean forward, yet straight (like a ski jumper) and fall into the step. To speed up one leans more and vice versa to slow down. One also lets the feet swing back a little on the stride instead of reaching forward. There are many exercises in the book to train these techniques. One works not so much on gaining speed or distance but in perfecting one’s form.

Dreyer gives the five Key Principles of Chi running as follows:

1) Cotton and Steel – Gather to your center (center is like steel, arms/legs soft like cotton)
2) Gradual Progress – the step-by-step approach
3) The Pyramid – the small is supported by the large (let big muscles/core do big work)
4) Balance in Motion – Equal Balance and Complementary Balance (balance effort and movement in all six directions for efficiency and for comfort)
5) Non-identification – Getting yourself out of the way (move with nature, go with the flow, be intuitive)

Next he gives – The Four Chi Skills:

1) Focusing your Mind – run mindfully. He talks here about the relationship between focused mind and responsive body. This mind-body integration is called having y’chi.

2) Body Sensing: High-Speed Access – this is the action of feeling what is happening within the body. He says to listen, assess, and adjust to what you sense. (I have come across body sensing practices in yoga, Buddhism, martial arts, Egyptian practices, and generic relaxation techniques)

3) Breathing: Tapping into Your Chi – early in running or any aerobic activity one’s aerobic capacity is lower until the muscles in the lungs adapt. He suggests long and slow distance running to best effect this change. Breathing from the lower lungs is a neccesity. After running regularly for a while the increase in breath capacity is quite noticeable. Another suggestion regarding breathing that I found very useful is to inhale on three steps and exhale on three steps. This matches the 85-90 RPM – or steps per minute he recommends as a pace.

4) Relaxation: The Path of Least Resistance – eliminate unnecessary effort. If it is not necessary it is wasteful. Relax what is relaxable. This also increases comfort and lowers perceived effort level (PEL).

Posture is a big part of the technique. Having upper body straight, landing the feet in a straight line like running on a tight rope (reduces possibility for shin splints and knee problems), and lifting up/tilting the pelvis with the lower abs are recommended.

He refers to the lean forward as gravity-assisted running. More lean (and longer stride) is more speed even at the same RPM (steps per minute). This seems to work well. Leaning is hinged from the ankles. The feet are just picked up rather than incorporating a lot of pushing off and pulling with the feet and lower legs. He says that the upper legs should do more work than the lower legs. One is instructed to swing the legs a little to the rear rather than forwards when lifting the feet. One should also focus on landing in the middle of the foot and in striking the ground lightly. There are many exercises given in the book on such things as learning how to lean, learning how to land lightly, bending the knees instead of picking them up, how best to swing the arms for efficiency and comfort, keeping the lower legs relaxed, pre-run stretching warm-ups, etc.

One is encouraged to practice a technique or two on every run to make them more habitual. This has worked for me. I have also noticed that simply having something to practice and return to mindfully helps alleviate boredom a little, as do taking in the sights. Increased breath and comfort allows me to practice mantras while running and to think about things if I like rather than simply suffer and struggle through it. These principles apply not only to running but to any exercise activity and indeed to any life activity.

Softening and relaxing the hips, the neck, and the shoulders are also recommended. Even looking around is encouraged to avoid being too stiff. He also recommends soaking in a warm tub after running as a way to heal and rejuvenate the muscles. Other recommendations are to avoiding eating before running (I can vouch for that one), have enough fluids in you or take some on a long run (water and/or electrolytes), and to always stretch a little after a run.

As far as training he gives a three tiered pyramid with form as the foundational bottom, then distance, then speed at the top. He gives ideas for upgrading at the right time but recommends keeping it gradual. He goes through the differences of productive discomfort and non-productive discomfort. This is rather intuitive but can be the difference between progress and injury. He suggests using the body scan to discern the difference.

There are sections which give suggestions for uphill running and downhill running. For uphill running it is suggested that the lean is slightly increased to match the hill but that one runs a little sideways up trading off occasionally with either foot in front. This seems to help a little with both comfort and tiredness as I suspect it is more efficient/economic. Downhill running mainly involves keeping the body relaxed – especially the lower legs which are taxed on downhill runs. There is a section on running in different terrains and environments. I have found that running on grass and non-paved ground can be relaxing on the feet as he also suggests but one also has to be more careful about the perils of uneven ground and more mindful. I admit I am intrigued by the recent interest in barefoot running but I am not sure if I wanna pay that much for shoes!

There is a good section on shoes – when to buy new ones, what to look for, etc. In my own miserliness I hurt my hip by running way to long on a cheap pair of worn out shoes. After waiting a while for it to heal I finally found and bought a good pair of running shoes and the problem seems to have gone away. Indeed he suggests that after about 4 months (or more depending on how much one runs) one should be able to sense any new body pains and buy new shoes. He says to look for flexibility near the toes and never to wear tight shoes.

He gives a chapter on getting the most chi from food. He gives his own version of the food pyramid which is sensible and applies the chi-running principles to diet. Fruits, vegetables, and grains make up the big foundation of his pyramid followed up by nuts, legumes, seeds, and dairy, then by meat, fish, eggs, and finally the top mere 3% with treats. This is fairly sensible in my estimation. He suggests that organic, fresh, and local foods will have more chi to impart. He suggests eating at regular times – for efficiency of digestion and eating mindfully – for maximum enjoyment, and to eat more of what you need and less of merely what you want. He notes some of the differences of running outside and running on a treadmill. He says that treadmill running is a little less of a workout and it can be harder on the ankles. He also notes that it is difficult to lean on the treadmill. He suggests tilting the machine to more of an incline and running at a slower pace – as a means to increase lean and reduce impact to the lower legs.

The author notes that, “A spiritual teacher once gave me a great definition of relaxation. He said, “Relaxation is the absence of unnecessary effort.”

For me this is a great book that has really helped in my enjoyment of running. The best indicator that I was doing something right with technique came one day when I was running along and passed a boy of about 4 years old on a training-wheeled bicycle. He said loudly and excitedly, “Hey jogger dude!” It was then that I knew that I got the technique at least somewhat since I am being perceived (by the sharp natural intuition of a child) as an archetypal jogger. It felt good. Running can be fun and rewarding but it can also be dangerous due to many ways of getting injured. When I first ran may calves hurt. But after about 2 or 3 runs that went away never to return so I guess that was an instance of ‘productive discomfort.’ This is a great book that any runner would do well to read and practice. I am so happy to have read it and to practice it!

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