Running Hills ala Chi Running and Tai chi
Chi Running Hills
Last weekend I taught an advanced workshop that focused on applying the basic techniques of Chi Running to running hills and speedwork. We have a lot of hills in my area and no matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid them! The next day, I ran a 5 mile trail race that was full of --- hills! It was a great way to test my skills and walk - er, run - the talk. I don’t race much these days, mainly due to teaching and other commitments, but I do love to run. So my goals were not so much to be competitive, but to stay focused, aligned, relaxed, and remember what I taught the day before. I have also been practicing qigong and taiji, and some of the concepts that are used in Chi Running get reinforced in those classes. They carried over into the race as well.
The course led us down a small trail that soon turned upward where we would start 1.5 miles of climbing (see picture on left). When I looked up this hill, I saw a long conga line of people on a single track trail. As I climbed the hill, I used my upper body, keeping my elbows bent, and shortened my stride length. It really helped to focus on pushing my rear leg down using my obliques, allowing the uphill leg to step up with less effort. Danny describes it well here and in the HIlls and Trails DVD. In taiji, I learned a concept called ‘empty leg’, where you push down on the supporting leg, allowing the other to move freely (and feel empty) and rise. This ties in with climbing ala Chi Running. I passed many people along the way, with less effort, and felt like I was holding on to a big secret!
Eventually the trail leveled out and turned onto a sometimes muddy path. At the next descent, there were plenty of opportunties for slipping. As I worked my way down, I kept thinking ‘sink the chi’ and allow my head to float upward. It felt like a Grounding Stance (p. 207 of the Chi Running Book) or Zhan Zhuang (Standing Pole). These both allow you to find alignment where your body weight is supported by your structure and not your muscles. It also strengthens your thighs which helps protect your knees. Because I felt this solid stance, I was able to descend safely down the steep hill and not roll my ankle (which I have done plenty in the past). Sinking the chi into my dantien provided a good stable ballast to get me down the hill!
The last stretch in was fairly flat and I got to practice my lean for speed. I have a torsional twist in my spine, and my upper body leans a little and back to the left. The lean has been work for me because of the tightness in my back. I had an aha moment this time! Relaxing my shoulders and my left upper back, and (what felt like to me) relaxing my chest slightly forward and a little to the right, I was suddenly floating. I caught up to and passed a couple people just ahead of me without much effort at all - just feeling the horizontal pull of gravity. I managed to float into third place in my age group! Not bad for just aligning and relaxing!
We are each a science of one, and I stress to my clients that you have to learn the language of your own body and listen. I just help facilitate that process with the tools of Chi Running and feedback. For me, this run was like a one hour meditation: relaxing, observing, allowing and responding. Chi Running, taiji and qigong enhanced that experience!