As a longtime runner, I have suffered my share of injuries—runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and a stress fracture that took nearly six months to heal. I stubbornly chose to run through pain rather than listen to my body, and paid the price repeatedly. Determined to avoid hurting myself again, I set out to explore ChiRunning, a technique that emphasizes the mind-body connection as the key to achieving injury-free, effortless running.
Ultra-marathoner Danny Dreyer, inspired by the ancient martial art of Tai Chi, first developed ChiRunning in 1999. With the 2004 publication of Dreyer’s how-to guide, ChiRunning rapidly spread in popularity. You can now learn how to “ChiRun” through online courses, smartphone apps, or from certified instructors across the globe.
ChiRunning derives its name from the Chinese word “chi”—the energy that animates mind, body, and spirit. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, “chi” permeates the atmosphere, enters the body through the breath, and accumulates in the abdomen. With proper physical form and mental focus, “chi” flows throughout the rest of the body, supplying it with vital energy. How does this apply to running? The idea is simple: by learning to sense your body, interpret those sensations, and readjust your form accordingly, you can re-direct your “chi,” reduce discomfort, and prevent injury.
Since finishing Dreyer’s instructional book, I have benefited from applying ChiRunning principles to not only my runs, but also my everyday life. As I have begun to experience, here are several ways ChiRunning can improve your overall well-being—body, mind, and spirit:
ChiRunning uses the Tai Chi concept of the “Needle in Cotton” to teach proper body posture. While the shoulders, core, hips, and ankles form the sturdy “needle,” the arms and legs are the soft “cotton” surrounding. The “needle” is the force that supports your structure while running, allowing your leg muscles to relax.
Align Your Feet
Place your feet parallel to one another (as if lined up identically on either side of a line on the ground, hip width apart), with balanced pressure between the heels and balls of your feet. Maintaining this set-up while running enables an even foot-strike, preventing injuries that can put harmful stress on your knee, iliotibial band, and hip.
Align Your Spine
Soften your shoulders, lengthen the back of your neck, and envision your crown pulling away from your tailbone to create space between each vertebra. This will enable your chest to open up while running, allowing you to breath more fully, and increase oxygen intake to your muscles.
Engage Your Core
To feel your lower abdomen contracting, make a fake cough and notice how your muscles tighten. This is the feeling you want to maintain during your run. Contracting your core will keep your upper spine aligned, protect your lower back, and bring your attention to your center. As your center of gravity while running, your core is the power-source for your body. Focusing on it will allow you to harness your momentum.
Once you’ve established your stable “needle” posture, you can master the “lean”—a minor tilt forward from the ankles that allows gravity to do the work during your run. To practice this, stand facing a wall at least waist high. While preserving your straight “needle” form, lean forward, catch your fall with your hands, and let your lower legs relax. You’ll want to recreate this position while your run, with your upper body moving forward, and each foot landing on the ground behind you. The “lean” dictates where and how your feet hit the ground. With a tilted “needle,” your legs are free to swing out behind you as soon as your feet hit the ground, reducing the repetitive pounding that can cause injury.
In order to commit the “needle” posture to muscle memory, ChiRunning encourages you to listen to your body more closely. As you learn to sense your body, you ultimately increase your capacity to focus. In fact, research shows that the kind of mindful movement common to both Tai Chi and ChiRunning significantly reduces inattention. To cultivate this kind of mindfulness, ChiRunning teaches you through a simple exercise called the “body scan.”
If you have a couple of minutes, try a “body scan” right now: Close your eyes. Starting at your head and moving down your body, focus incrementally on each of the following body parts: top of your head…face…neck…shoulders…arms…elbows…wrists…hands…upper back…chest…abdominals…lower back…pelvis…hips…glutes…quads…knees…calves and shins…ankles…and finally your feet. As you do so, sense for any kind of discomfort, tension, or pain. If you feel a spot that is uncomfortable, focus on the sensation of that area, and take a deep breath. Envision sending your breath to that area and the muscle relaxing.
Practice the “body scan” before a run, when you wake up in the morning, or anytime during the day when you need a quick way to get in touch with your body and calm your mind.
As Dreyer states in his book, ChiRunning allows you to “use running as a vehicle to discover yourself on many levels.” Though I only recently started practicing ChiRunning, it has already changed how I see myself. After a series of injuries that left me feeling broken and impotent, ChiRunning has restored my sense of control over my body. In the process, I have learned to trust to not only my physical sensations, but also my intuition. Amidst an ever-changing world, sometimes we must look within ourselves for direction. ChiRunning gives you the freedom to do so–a liberty that I have found truly empowering.
Also by Angelica: I Tried It: Tough Mudder Challenge
Photo: Joe Duty via Flickr; Gabrielle Ludlow via Flickr; Angelica D’Aiello; ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running