With a dozen halves, a few wholes and even a little ultra marathon under my belt, I’m technically a seasoned runner. But after tearing a muscle during a race last year, my running took a real nosedive. Despite countless physio visits and soul-crushingly painful massages that eventually got my wonky leg working, my running lost its sparkle. I tentatively started running again this year, but scared of re-injuring myself, my confidence plummeted. It’s hard to get lost in the moment if you spend most of your run obsessing over every little knee twinge.
Close to giving up hope and quitting running altogether, a friend suggested Chi Running. Created in the US in the late nineties by injury-prone ultra runner Danny Dreyer, Chi Running applies the principles of the Chinese martial art T'ai Chi to running. Chi Running works on the basis that running with an engaged core leads to less stress on the body and a more efficient style, significantly reducing fatigue and risk of injury.
With a core as effective as a deflated balloon, it should be no surprise that my mojo had fallen by the wayside and I needed a leg up. The idea of reducing the risk of injury certainly appealed, but most importantly I wanted my mojo back. Following some research, I was pleased to discover a Chi Running workshop just down the road.
Time for Chi
Gray Caws holds monthly workshops and one-to-one sessions at Premier Fitness in Finsbury Park. A qualified Chi Running instructor, the foundation of Gray’s approach involves teaching energy efficiency, relaxation and balance. Upon arrival I was half expecting a Zen Buddhist monk to greet me at the door, so was relieved to discover that Gray was a friendly, straightforward and approachable instructor and the other runners in the workshop were just like me.
After an introductory chat, Gray filmed us running individually in the park. He then ran through the key points of Chi Running practice; postural alignment, relaxation and balance. In theory, once you’ve got your alignment correct you can then relax and focus on your balance, making sure you’re symmetrically and mind/body balanced.
It turns out my running shortcomings are fairly textbook. ‘Runners often do too much too soon,’ explained Gray. ‘Your aerobic capacity increases quicker than muscle balance and alignment, so one of the biggest mistakes people make is running before they can walk.’
To that end we spent the first half of the class practicing gentle walking techniques and learning to activate our core. Similar to learning to swim front crawl (which has also been occupying my time of late) the trick to improving your Chi Running lies in good technique and lots and lots of practice.
What struck me most about the class was how logical Chi Running is. There were no smoke and mirrors or chanting with joss sticks. What Gray explained in practice made perfect sense. Us runners concentrate all of our energy on our limbs. By shifting the workload from the legs and focusing instead on the strength of the Dan-Tian (our core), the power comes from our energy centre, which is a considerably stronger base to work from.
Shifting the focus to your core needn’t sacrifice your PB dreams. In Chi Running, speed is acquired by tilting the body slightly forwards and the further you lean, the faster you go. ‘It gives you more endurance, which can then increase your speed,’ explained Gray. ‘The less energy you use holding tension in your body, the more you can focus the energy on the actual movement, so using your muscles to their ultimate performance.’
The key to improving Chi Running technique is gradual progression. ‘Think about how you move first and how you balance symmetrically; then translate that into your running,’ explained Gray.
‘There’s a lot of preparation work you can do before you start to build the distance and the speed. Think of every step as a stable foundation to create the next, so you’ve got to have your muscles and body balanced and aligned first, working on form. Once you’re confident, then start to increase the distance, and get your body used to the pattern, and strengthen the alignment. Only then allow speed to happen. Don’t push or force yourself; align, relax, and fall forward; you will increase the speed through technique and distance. You need to trust that your body can do that and allow it to happen naturally.’
Although the theory behind Chi Running is straightforward, it would be impossible to master the art in one day, or indeed explain the entire process in one article. But after one session, something definitely shifted and my approach to running has changed. By focusing on my form and posture instead of worrying about my legs I feel lighter footed, a glimmer of hope has returned and I think I can definitely see my running mojo in the distance.
For more information on Chi Running head over to chirunning.com.