East Meets West in the Running World
T’ai chi is considered the Mother of martial arts. Many serious practitioners even hold it to be the single source from which all martial arts were born. It dates back over 2500 years and is practiced by millions of people in China every day. T’ai chi is interesting in that it has two faces. It is practiced both as a martial art and as a system for health and longevity. It is built on a system of movements that help to increase one’s chi energy through correct body alignment and relaxed muscles and joints.
It was in my first t’ai chi class that I saw my teacher demonstrate how the body moves around an axis of rotation a vertical plumb line that runs from head to foot. If your posture is straight and you are aware of moving around this centerline, your movement is much more fluid and economical, especially while doing t’ai chi.
I had been a runner for over 25 years when I took my first t’ai chi class. Within a month after beginning to practice the movements I noticed that my running was easier. I began toying with the idea of rotating my body around my central axis to see if it would make any difference in my running, and I was shocked at the difference it made in how I felt after my runs. My legs were not sore. My joints weren’t stiff. And, best of all, I wasn’t tired.
The most dramatic difference was after races. At that time I was running ultra marathon races, mostly 50 milers, and usually not being able to run for 3 or 4 days after each race. In fact, I’d usually have to get on my bike for recovery because my legs couldnít handle any impact. But to my amazement, I could easily run the next day without the same aches and pains that would plague me after most previous events. I was sold.
Then, one day in class my t’ai chi teacher was once again showing us how to rotate around our central axis while relaxing our arms and legs. And as I watched him move effortlessly, I could imagine an invisible line that was his axis and was always vertical when he was doing t’ai chi. But, what would happen if I did everything he’s doing except tilt my axis instead of keeping it vertical? The answer was one of the biggest “Aha!!!” moments of my life. I would be pulled forward by gravity while my arms and legs could be just as relaxed as they are when I’m doing t’ai chi. I could theoretically run faster and easier while using less muscle power. I couldn’t wait to go out the next day and try out my theory.
Subsequently, that single moment lead me to approach my running with a completely fresh set of eyes and within days, I was ending every run with a completely fresh set of legs. The biggest change I noticed in my running was that all the pounding had disappeared. I was smoother along the ground, even on pavement. Another noticeable change was that my recovery time was reduced to nothing. I was used to nursing my legs after my long training runs and taking a mandatory next day off. With my new running form, I could not sense any discomfort the next day. This was huge in my book. It meant that I didn’t have to restrict my mid-week training runs because my legs were in recovery mode. I could begin every run with a set of fresh legs because my muscles were never overused.
That was seven years ago and I’m still learning new things about how to make my running more efficient and easier on my body. It’s a never ending classroom and I’m a perpetual student. I eventually consolidated all of what I had learned and named it ChiRunning, being a blend of the two disciplines. Then, in 2004, the ChiRunning Book was published by Simon & Schuster.
Correlations between t’ai chi and ChiRunning:
- Create fluidity in your movement
In t’ai chi, one must learn to move the body seamlessly between one move and the next without holding tension in the muscles and joints.
It’s the same with learning proper running form. If you want to improve your efficiency, you must first work on correcting your biomechanics which means moving your entire body while running not just your legs.
- Relaxation is your friend… Tension is your enemy
After learning good running technique, the next step is learning how to relax your muscles so that your body has a more fluid movement. Since your power comes from your center, your shoulders and hips act as conduits of that movement passing it on to your arms and legs. If you have tight shoulders and hips while performing a martial art, it means that when you throw a punch or a kick you rely more on your arms or legs for power, instead of generating the force from your core, which is much more powerful. When you’re tense, your arms and legs will rapidly fatigue and your movement will become increasingly difficult.
The same holds true for ChiRunning. Your shoulders and hips must remain loose and relaxed so that your arms and legs can be a conduit for the power coming from your core. If you’re stiff or hold tension in your hips or shoulders, your arms and legs will have to do all the hard work that your core muscles could easily do. In ChiRunning, as in t’ai chi, your arms and legs follow the lead of your core.
- Proper body alignment is crucial
One of the basic principles of T’ai chi is called: Needle in Cotton where the needle represents your body’s centerline or axis of rotation, and Cotton represents everything outside of that. In order to run more efficiently I have to gather energy in my center in my case, my core area (abdominals, obliques, and deeper pelvic muscles). But to do this, it is necessary to let go of holding any tension in my extremities.
- Move from your Center and engage your Core
When I finally understood this concept, it drastically changed my running style. I can see now that my arms and legs are simply a conduit through which the power of my core can be transmitted. According to this principle, the faster I run, the more I need to relax my arms and legs and focus on moving from my core. In fact, according to the laws of physics, if my arms and legs are stiff or tense, they create inertia, which makes my legs have to work harder.
This is a major shift in the “standard” approach to running that most coaches take, which is, if you want to run faster you need to build stronger leg muscles and do tons of cardiovascular training. What I’ve come to understand is that your core muscles are much more efficient than your extremities because they work more isometrically and your arms and legs work isotonically. This means that because your core muscles are isometric muscles, they can get stronger without getting bulkier. They also don’t burn as much fuel or produce as much lactic acid. An added benefit of running from your core is that since your legs are not your primary source of power, your odds of getting any type of leg injury are significantly lower.
With ChiRunning, your injury rate also goes down because you’re using correct biomechanics. You’re lighter on your feet, relaxing muscles, using gravity, and (as in t’ai chi) your movement is highly efficient because it is balanced in all six directions top-to-bottom, side-to-side, and front-to-back.
Running from your core has some other interesting side effects. Since your legs are basically relaxed the entire time you’re running, there is no build-up of lactic acid as is usually the case in power running. So there is no soreness afterwards and therefore no recovery time needed before your next training run. You can start off every run with a fresh set of legs.
Hold your posture line straight, but tilted slightly forward. This necessitates engaging your core muscles while running. Much like the practices of Pilates, power yoga, the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method, it’s all about maintaining good body alignment during movement.
- All movement should be in Balance
Because ChiRunning and t’ai chi both work to develop an awareness of centeredness and balance, they can be used by those wanting to maintain good balance skills as they progress through their middle age and later years. For women, the gentle impact of this approach will help maintain good bone density and muscle tone without damage to the joints. Running from your core strengthens your abdominals, which means there is less likelihood of lower back strain, a big concern among older athletes.
By drawing on the principles of t’ai you can use running as a gentle path to health and vitality for many years.
The Grounding Stance
Here’s an exercise from t’ai chi that you can apply directly to your running. Every set of movements in t’ai chi begins with the Grounding Stance, an exercise done to help you feel rooted to the Earth. Likewise, in ChiRunning, every foot strike is an opportunity to be feeling your feet on the ground and your structure supported by the Earth. Do this exercise before every run to get yourself grounded in your body, and feeling the power of the Earth beneath your feet.
Place your feet hip-width apart and parallel. Soften your knees and let your arms hang at your sides. Feel your posture being straight and tall. Put your attention onto your Dantien the Chinese word for your Center located three finger-widths below your navel. At the same time, drop your attention to the bottoms of your feet and press your big toes softly into the ground. Now, connect your Dantien to your feet with an imaginary line and let your feet support your Dantien. (See image) Hold this for 30 seconds. It’ll feel like a long time, but remember it’s worth every second if it leaves you feeling grounded.
When you’re in the Grounding Stance and your posture is aligned properly, your body weight is supported by your bones, ligaments, and tendons because they are lined up in a vertical line. Running with your posture out of alignment, can create tension, fatigue, discomfort and even pain.
In the Grounding Stance you should strive for straight line that runs between your shoulder, your hipbone and your anklebone. And when you’re running, it’s the position your body will be in every time your foot hits the ground. We call this straight line your column. Maintaining a good column while running will ensure that your running is more efficient because your weight will be supported by your structure (bones, ligaments and tendons) instead of your leg muscles.
In the ChiRunning technique, your body is always tilted slightly forward, which engages gravity to pull you instead of your legs pushing you. This simple adjustment in your running technique allows your legs to be needed only for momentary support between strides not for propulsion.
In this image, if you remove the leg that’s off the ground, you’ll see that the runner is actually doing a tilted version of the grounding stance.
When your legs are used only for momentary support, there is very little opportunity for any overuse injuries because your legs will simply be along for the ride.
Can you imagine running without pounding your quads, without your calves cramping, and without needing any recovery time? Can you imagine using your running to stay in great physical shape while also using it as a meditative, mindful practice? With ChiRunning, as with t’ai chi, you can come away feeling relaxed, centered and with more energy than you started. Itís an entirely different way to approach running because it is a low-impact way to keep your body and mind healthy. In ChiRunning, because of the way you will incorporate the ancient wisdom of t’ai chi, your running will take on a quality of being a practice you can benefit from and enjoy for the rest of your life.
Resources to help you master the ChiRunning basics: