Title : Chi Running : a Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running
Authors : Danny Dreyer and Katherine Dreyer
Date of Publication : 2004, 2009
Pages : 282
Availability : currently available on amazon.
The author of Chi Running, Danny Dreyer, is a running and walking coach and an inspirational speaker. Dryer has participated in forty ultra marathons. He and his wife and coathor, Katherine, have authored Chi-Walking and Fitness Walking for Lifelong Health and Energy. They also publish a monthly newsletter with tips on nutrition, stress management and lifestyle coaching, as well as a blog (www.chiliving.com). The couple has released several dvds and You-Tube videos.
The Chi Running technique is based on the direction of energy from the spine to rest of the body, a concept that the author learned through the practice of the Chinese discipline of T’ai Chi which he claims owes its origins to the study of animal movements. The author provides a very brief explanation of Chi, but without providing much detail. Instead, he takes the concept of using mental focus and relaxation to direct energy and movement from the center of the body outward (sound familiar ?) and applies it to running.
According to the author, the secret to running well and without injury is not the muscular strength that is encouraged in what Dreyer calls « power running », but rather keeping the spine thin and straight and strong, like a needle in cotton, and learning to relax the legs. Dreyer describes the Chi Running mindset as a cooperative tango between the mind and the body. The Chi Running technique relies upon : great posture, relaxed limbs, loose joints, engaged core muscles, a focused mind and good breathing technique, all of which are also benefits of the method as well ! Dreyer emphasizes the importance of transforming running from a sport to a practice, a way of life.
Dreyer devotes the first part of the book to « body sensing » , establishing good communication between the body and the mind. Next, he breaks down the technique into six categories, which he calls « form focuses ». The form focuses are : posture ; « lean » ; lower body ; pelvic rotation, upper body ; and gears, cadence and stride length. The posture section is fairly self explanatory and none of this will be new information for a pilates teacher, the exception being that Dreyer recommends a parallel foot alignment, instead of the slight turnout that is usually taught in pilates. While foot alignment is certainly important, there is no real advice on how to achieve proper foot alignment through corrective exercise. Someone who decides to force his feet into a parallel position while running or walking without learning corrective exercises to correct a misalignment progressively is likely to strain his knees. Nor is there much advice on how to increase one’s core strength other a recommendation to do planks. There is something of an implication that correcting one’s posture will automatically improve core strength. While this premise is to some extent true, a few additional exercises might be useful. Pilates, anyone ? The lean refers to the technique of holding one’s body in a slight forward lean (similar to the pilates « wall » ending) so that the foot strike will be on the mid-foot instead of the heel. The legs remain relaxed and catch up with the rest of the body, rather than propelling the body forward. This ties right into the lower body form focus, which mainly involves a rather passive leg. The pelvis should be rotating left and right, made possible by a pivot of the spine around T12. I felt this part to be a bit confusing, particularly for the layperson who I doubt can sense whether his spine is pivoting around T12 or not. The upper body form focus teaches the runner to use the correct arm swing. And finally, the last form focus deals with the trio of cadence, gears and stride length. These are all closely intertwined, the main idea being that the cadence should be the same at all times and that speed should be modified by « changing gears » and increasing or decreasing the length of the stride. The author suggests using a metronome to practice maintaining a steady cadence.
Following the description of the form focuses, the book includes ten lessons for mastering the technique. It also provides advice on creating a running program and provides some sample programs based on the runner’s level . These programs include fun runs, interval training, tempo runs, long runs and speed intervals. Dreyer also explains how a runner should evolve his program, how, when and how much to upgrade. The book includes useful information for runners, from choosing running shoes to postrun stretches, how to avoid and treat common injuries, weight loss and preparing for races. Dreyer provides some nutritional guidance, suggesting a mostly vegetarian diet, based on organic grains, fruit and vegetables, with fish once a week and meat once a month. The other advice that he gives with respect to eating are fairly common suggestions – less caffeine, sugar, fried and processed foods, eating at regular intervals, etc.
Does the Chi Running technique work ? I will admit that I did not do any of the preparatory lessons. The body sensing and postural work I did not find necessary given my pilates background. I therefore decided to take the principal techniques – the lean, the pelvic rotation, the cadence and stride – out for a spin. My extremely hyperlax knees, coupled with my sad lack of coordination, have caused me to rack up an impressive number of knee injuries throughout the years. My menisci are fractured and I dislocated my kneecap a few years ago (which, by the way, hurts worse than childbirth) in addition to a number of painful sprains. Further, my piriformis muscles can best be described as chronically cranky, which can cause sciatic pain on both sides. You might ask why I still run ? I don’t necessarily have a logical answer. Let’s just say that other runners will understand the call of the pavement. I have managed to continue running and to keep these injuries in check by running with knee braces and by paying meticulous attention to my form.
One of the major changes I made when I took up running again a few years ago was striking with the mid-foot as opposed to the heel. This has allowed me to keep knee pain more or less in check. There has already been a lot of discussion in recent years about the benefits of striking with the mid-foot. Barefoot running, which encourages mid foot strike, is increasingly popular and most « non-barefoot » running shoes now offer a lower heel drop than running shoes of old. The lean technique, however, was new to me, and I found that it does indeed make mid-foot striking very easy. One of the things I noticed when running was that leaning also makes it easier to keep a nice pace, yet to feel fairly relaxed. Keeping the cadence steady also makes it easier. When I slowed down from fatigue, I noticed that I stopped leaning and my feet were much heavier, which increased the impact I felt in my knees and the rest of the body. The heels « brake » the body. Dreyer recommends running with a metronome at first to keep the cadence steady. Metronomes are fairly expensive, but this being 2016 , anything is possible and many things are free if you have a smartphone. I prefer to use some good 80’s music to keep a steady cadence and recommend Dépêche Mode or New Order to anyone who cares. I couldn’t really tell if I was pivoting around T12 as Dreyer recommends. I do know that I was keeping my upper body fairly still instead of flailing my arms around as many tend to do, but this was because my earphones kept falling out. Another piece of free advice – go wireless. Constantly fiddling around with earphones is tiring and probably not good for the chi.
I had to take off a few Sundays because of prior engagements and a slight cold. When I decided to take the technique for a last test before this review, I had not run in three weeks. I was careful to lean, tried hard to relax and pivot and managed to run a 10K for the first time in a month. I felt pretty good. Of course, I was breaking one of Dreyer’s rules, which said something about building up progressively. The result was that I was tired and achy post run and so I took off the rest of the day lounging around in bed.
One of the things I did do on my last run was observe the running postures of others. I noticed very few heel strikers, so it seems that most runners today have gotten the memo. It was rather difficult to discreetly check out running technique as most runners were going in the opposite direction and I had to turn around and look quickly or they would think I was checking out their derrières. Which of course, I was NOT, being happily married and faithful (at least until Harrison Ford comes calling). Besides, I only saw one or two cute derrières. I did not cross paths with Harrison.😞
Out for a run again, I decided to add a few more observations to this review. So my last run was my actually next-to -last run. Don’t worry – I have no plans to update every week. Today was a beautiful spring-like day despite it being the beginning of February. The riverside was literally teeming with runners. I noticed a lot more heel strikers, many splayed feet and some serious supinators. Probably, last Sunday’s rain discouraged weekend warriors from lacing up their running shoes and only hard-core runners were out, which would explain the better running form that I witnessed. My second observation is that keeping the « lean » is much more difficult when one is running against the wind and tired, precisely when « leaning » is most helpful. I will also add I agree with Dreyer’s recommendation that runners breathe through their noses – it greatly helps the body stay relaxed. I noticed that my time was faster than usual although I did not feel that I was exerting more effort. I did not follow Dreyer’s counsel to run withough checking my time constantly. The control freak in me finds it necessary to have Runkeeper anounce my distance and pace every five minutes and every kilometer. Dreyer also advised that runners check their form when possible. I looked at my reflection in a restaurant window and became too distracted to observe my form – it turns out that patterned tights are not my best friend (everyone else was wearing black – they were right). Patterned tights basically scream at everyone to look one’s bottom. Speaking of bottoms, I did not notice many more cute ones on this run and sadly, Harrison was still not out. If any one knows Roman Polanski, suggest that it is time for another sequel to Frantic, this one to be shot in Saint Maur des Fossés.
Conclusion – Although I did not follow the lessons in the book, which are a bit time consuming for someone who only has one day a week to run, I do find the Chi Running technique pretty effective. I recommend this book for someone looking to start running or to return to running after an injury. I also recommend it to runners who are dealing with chronic injury but don’t want to quit their favorite sport. (New studies now show that running does not increase the risk for arthritic knees, by the way). Of course, the benefits of the techniques will be multiplied if the runner regularly practices pilates. Is pilogging the next big thing ? No, keep them separate. (And if you are reading this, Han Solo – I love you ! But you already know. J)