Chi Running

Recently I have rediscovered a running technique called Chi Running.  I say rediscovered, because I was reminded that I bought the book back in 2008 (even blogged about it, if I recall), read about half way through it, attempted to implement some of the “focuses”, did it wrong, wrote it off, and shelved the book.

Over the holidays I was listening to Chris McDougall’s fantastic adventure/running essay/ new cult classic Born to Run.  In it he mentions Chi Running, Pose Running, and other “new to the scene” running techniques that rediscover or resurrect our bodies’ natural abilities to run great distances relatively injury-free, with joy, and without necessarily being athletically or biologically gifted. ” Chi running, you say?  Why, I still have that book in my nightstand-of-abandoned-reads! ”  McDougall’s book made me excited about running again, trail running in particular, so I dusted off Chi Running and gave it another go.

I have been practicing the techniques for a couple of weeks now, and believe I am starting to grasp the basics.  Yesterday I attended a 4-hour workshop at a local running store, taught by a certified Chi Running instructor.

Chi Running uses techniques of mental focus, proper form and balance, and visualization techniques (call them what you will – spiritual metaphors even…) derived from the practice of T’ai Chi, and applies them to running.  I realized,  as I was nearing the end of the book, that I had definitely not finished reading it the last time, because the part that made it “click” for me this time through was something that I do not recall having read back in ’08.

The basics of the technique involve a grounded centered stance – familiar terms to any martial artist – and then a lean forward.  You are essentially falling forward, so it is described,  letting your legs swing forward to catch you, striking with the fore-to-midfoot just under your center of gravity.  Rather than reaching forward to land with your heel (jarring joints and braking with your quads at the same time), to then push off with your toes at the back end of each stride (calf muscles) in the tradition of  Western and post-Nike “power running”.  Your legs are swinging freely, muscles relaxed,  your joints  “open” (another ambiguous martial arts term) letting the tendons and ligaments stretch to absorb the impact  as they were designed to.  The heel should still meet the ground – if it does not you are using too much calf muscle and are not relaxed enough – but it should be the last part of the foot to touch down.

In my opinion, a mistake of the book – or of my understanding it – is one of emphasis: explaining it this way towards the front of the book  – falling forward and catching yourself – gives a false impression of what is going on, or what it feels like, and puts too much emphasis on the lean rather than the grounded stance and pelvic tilt.  It is only much later in the book (by which point I had abandoned it *cough*) that some visualization techniques are offered that make much more sense to me and made the whole technique fall in to place.

Part of the problem, why it didn’t stick the first time, was my misinterpretation of the “lean”.  The still images made it look like it was a chest-out breaking-the-tape type of lean.  The visualization used in the book even said to picture a bungee cord attached to your chest, pulling you along.  Doing this, however, resulted in too much lean, a sore lower back, and running on the balls of my feet, constantly jamming said balls in to the ground to keep myself from going too fast or actually falling forward.  I found out later that I was leaning too far, and leaning from the waist.

As I came to understand it, the correct  stance came much easier after I found the visualization using the exercise ball  (page 109, Fig. 72) to help visualize the correct pelvic tilt and to engage the correct ab muscles.  If you do not have an exercise ball, I suggest using an imaginary large boulder – a common Aikido metaphor.  In fact if you imagine its’ weight, the abs engage even more efficiently.  This stance is your “column” – ankles, hips, shoulders all in a perfectly straight line.  Begin running in place (per the exercise p. 169-170), keeping knees pointed down, and column straight.  To move forward, tilt the column ever so slightly – we are talking one inch.  If it feels like you are landing too flat-footed, nudge the lean a tiny bit steeper till you are landing mid-foot.  For more speed, introduce more lean.  The lean is so subtle at first, in my experience, you only know it’s there if you understand what the solid, grounded upright column feels like first.

For me, on my regular runs, if I find my form slipping or I am losing focus, I mentally “hug the boulder”.  This levels out my pelvis and everything else tends to fall in to place.  It also reminds me of the Charles Atlas image from the comic books, doing his stand-up ab crunch pose.  Charles Atlas on a Segway, I suppose.

Would I recommend the workshop in addition to the book?  The benefit of the hands-0n workshop was  getting a walk through (run through, actually) of several aspects of the technique that, while covered in the book, I could see myself never getting around to thinking about too hard if I were doing it on my own.  There are so many minutae to the technique that can then be worked on and tweaked, just like in T’ai Chi or any martial art, constantly perfecting form and efficiency.  There is a correct way to swing your arms, a way to run both up and down hill, a way to think of your lean angle as gears, adjusting your speed with very little change in perceived effort level.  Cadence is a big one – faster smaller steps makes you lighter on your feet.   The workshop touched on all of these and more, giving you a muscle memory experience and feedback to think back on when practicing that I don’t think I would have gained from reading alone.  It also reinforced many of the visualization techniques and metaphors better than the book did.   Also included was a video analysis of your running gait before and after the class.  And lots of positive reinforcement.

For mere confirmation that you are doing it right, that you grasped the exercises in the book correctly, the class can seem pretty expensive at $100 for 4 hours.  But the in-person feedback is invaluable.  Many of the attendees had not read the book, so I don’t know if they would have seen it the same way.  I would recommend reading the book before class, but attend the class before practicing too much of the exercises in order to start off with the correct form and technique.

I am not EVEN going to look on YouTube, since I feel like this was money well spent, and do not wish to have any regrets 😉


Chi Running

Natural Strides running shoe store, Woodstock, GA.  In addition to every possible minimalist running and walking shoe, they have a great selection of hand made bison hide moccasins as well as several brands of huarache style sandals.


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