The Importance of Relaxation
Master Xu was helping me through yet another T'ai Chi lesson and moving his body without apparently using his muscles. His arms were moving but his muscles were limp and flaccid.
"Here, rest your hand on my arm and keep it there while I go through this movement." I did as he asked.
"Now, I'm moving my arm using my muscles." He said, smiling.
Indeed, he was. I could feel the strength in his forearm. Firm and rigid, it felt like an overdone drumstick at a Thanksgiving dinner.
"Now I'm moving with my Chi." He said, smiling even more broadly.
Although he was moving his arm in the same motion as before, the difference was truly dramatic. The closest thing I could compare it to is the softness I feel in my daughter's arm when she's fallen asleep. Yet there was a distinct feeling of firmness coming from deep within his body, not from his arm. No matter how hard I pushed on his arm he kept on moving it as if I wasn't there. Not a lesson goes by where Master Xu doesn't demonstrate to me the "power" of relaxation.
Many years ago a teacher told me, "Relaxation is the absence of unnecessary effort." This definition has guided me in building the component of relaxation into the Chi Running technique. Chi Running teaches you to run from your core,which reduces the amount of effort required of your legs. The better you get at using your core muscles to run, the more your leg usage falls into the category of "unnecessary effort". Inversely, it teaches you to how to relax your legs and get them "out of the way" so that your core can move without any resistance. The more I use my core muscles to run, the less I need to use my legs. It's not that complicated.
Here are some additional benefits to relaxing your muscles. When you are using your muscles to move your body you have a finite amount of stored energy in your muscles. These muscles burn the food you eat as fuel and produce lactic acid as the "exhaust". But when you use "Chi" energy to move your body you can tap into a limitless resource of energy. It doesn't mean that you'll never get tired, but it does mean that you'll be moving in such an energy efficient way that your storehouse of energy will take way longer to deplete. It's very similar to those new hybrid cars that burn gas but run mostly on electricity. The gas engine only runs when it's necessary (either up hills or at higher speeds). Similarly, the Chi Running technique allows you to run with very low muscle usage (gas) because your Chi energy (electricity) is doing most of the work. The first step in learning to run this way is to start teaching yourself to run with very relaxed muscles. If you want to improve the fuel economy in your car you need to practice having a light touch on the gas pedal. Likewise, if you want to have better "fuel economy" in your running, you need to learn how to not use as much muscle.
Another advantage to being relaxed is that when your muscles are loose and relaxed the oxygen carried by your blood can enter the muscle cells much more easily than if your muscles are tense. Softer muscles are more absorbent muscles. Think of it as trying to pour maple syrup over bagels instead of pancakes. It runs off the bagels because they're not soft and porous like the pancakes. Softer is better.
This rule also applies to when your muscles get tired. I've noticed that when I get tired I tend to tighten or clench my tired muscles because, if I don't, they might collapse under my weight. Wrong. What tired muscles need most is good old oxygen to revive them and adequate circulation to carry away the lactic acid. When you clench or tighten your muscles you rob those muscles of the blood-flow and oxygen needed to do the necessary work, so you become even more tired and the downward spiral begins.
So the next time you feel yourself becoming a little tired during your run, just do a mental scan of your whole body and look for any places that you are holding tension. Then try to relax those specific muscles or the muscles that surround them.
Having an ability to relax yourself while you're running will also increase your range of motion. Simply put, it means that your arm-swing and leg-swing will be bigger, as it needs to be when you increase your speed.
The more relaxed you are, the less resistance your arms and legs will offer to the motion of your body.
Here's an Exercise:
You can actually practice this when you're not running and then transfer it into your running when you need to. Sit in a chair or lie on the floor or stand upright. Now inhale and try to tense every muscle in your body at the same time. Hold this tenseness for a 10-count and then let out your breath and release all of the tension you've been holding. Practice this until you feel like you can release every tight muscle in your body. Be very thorough in tensing every muscle and be equally thorough in relaxing every muscle. The next step is to do the "relaxing" part while you're running and you'll have a great tool to use whenever you need it.