Or how I learned to run effortlessly and injury free (well…almost)
June 2010, less than three weeks to go before a 5K race and it happened again. Chronic Achilles tendonosis that left me hobbling round the house in pain. And this after countless bouts of expensive physio and cutting my running right back to just one or two 20 minute jogs a week. Maybe my body just wasn’t designed to run? I’d heard about ChiRunning through a Runner’s World article, and more out desperation than hope, decided to give it a try. If this didn’t work, it was time to hang up my trainers for good.
A few weeks later, I made it to the 5K and even ran a half-decent time. After a month, I stopped waking up with stiff and sore Achilles tendons every morning. I no longer had to do half an hour of stretching after every run just to be able to walk the next day. And since then, I’ve not had a single break from training due to injury. Best of all, I’m enjoying my training in a way that I haven’t done for years – no more ‘survival runs’ waiting for something to start hurting.
So what is ChiRunning?
ChiRunning is the brainchild of Danny Dreyer. An ultrarunner who regularly suffered aches and pains during his long training runs, Danny realised that it’s not running that’s the problem – after all, humans are built to run – it’s the way that we run that causes the damage.
Danny’s other big passion is T’ai Chi, and if you’ve ever seen a T’ai Chi Master in action, they move in a way that’s flowing and effortless, completely relaxed. Danny had the idea to develop a new running technique based on the principles of T’ai Chi, that would lessen the impact of running on the body, reduce the risk of injury, and help people to run in as relaxed and effortless a way as possible. And so ChiRunning was born. It’s been described as the closest you can get to barefoot running without actually taking your shoes off.
With ChiRunning, as in T’ai Chi, you focus on aligning your posture and moving from the core. Instead of using leg strength to push your forward, it’s your lower abs that do the work. The aim is to let go of all tension in the rest of your body. You run leaning forward from the ankles, and the feeling is of gravity pulling you forward. Lower legs stay completely limp and relaxed, and rather than pushing off with your feet, you just pick them up to keep up with your forward motion.
Contrast this with the traditional Western style of running or ‘power running’, where you run upright. Typically, your legs swing out in front of your body, landing with a heel strike. Each time your foot hits the ground, it’s like a mini collision, effectively putting the brakes on with every stride. And then you push off with your toes, engaging the calf and shin muscles. So you’re using the smallest muscle group in the legs to propel your entire body weight forward. Shin splints anyone?
ChiRunning is all about minimising effort. The aim is to let go of tension in your muscles, cut down on unnecessary movement that wastes energy, and get all the different parts of your body working together. You learn the importance of good posture, the most efficient way to breathe, and even what to do with your arms. In ChiRunning, they work as hard as your legs – even harder on the uphills.
Two and half years after starting ChiRunning and it’s delivered on the ‘injury free’ promise. In all that time, my Achilles has flared up just a few times, mainly when I’ve got carried away and tried to do too much too soon. By going back to basics, it’s settled down within a day or two and I’ve been able to keep running. My technique’s not perfect but I learn and get better with every run.
Over the 20+ years that I’ve been a runner, I’ve seen so many friends forced to give up on running due to injury and pain. I used to accept it as just an occupational hazard of our sport, but not anymore. Anything that can help keep us running has to be a good thing, and that’s why I decided to train as a ChiRunning instructor myself. I still want to be pulling on my trainers when I’m 80 – I’ll let you know how that works out 🙂