The ChiRunning Approach to Marathon Training

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Last February, twenty eight people took on the task of training for the San Francisco Marathon which was run this past August 1st. Although they were from a wide range of backgrounds and running histories, they all had one thing in common they had all taken a ChiRunning class and wanted to learn how to apply all of the principles of ChiRunning to training for a marathon. Some had run marathons before with varying levels of success, and some were triathletes. Some were recreational runners looking for the next level of challenge and some were beginning runners looking to run their first half marathon. All were willing to explore the possibility of a new approach to distance running.

It was a six month program designed to educate runners in proper running form mixed with the art of training for, and running a successful marathon. Now, keep in mind that success is a relative term. They all had their sights on personal goals whether it was overall time, to finish with a smile, to not get injured, or to simply finish. Any goal can be valuable if you can learn something along the way.

Since ChiRunning is based on energy-efficiency and injury-prevention, the underlying premise was to offer a training program where anyone, regardless of their experience level, could run a half or full marathon with a lower perceived effort level and without injury if they set up all the right conditions for it to happen. Setting up the right conditions meant taking the time to learn and practice all of the little things necessary for success. Here is a list of some of the things we practiced over the course of six months of training runs.

  • First and foremost, the emphasis was on learning the ChiRunning form to minimize impact and potential for injury and to increase efficiency
  • Increasing aerobic capacity slowly building aerobic capacity by running increasingly long runs.
  • Race specific training having training runs that were similar to or on the actual course.
  • Psychological training learning how to respond appropriately to both mentally and physically challenging moments, in training and on race day.
  • Proper fueling before and during the event.
  • Proper hydration not too much, not too little.
  • Energy efficiency learning how to not waste energy throughout the training runs and the eventual race. Learning when to pick up the pace and when to back off, and how best to economize effort.
  • How to rest on the run learning how to engage various muscle groups to allow overworked muscles to rest.
  • How to pick good shoes.
  • How to maintain good electrolyte balance in the body.
  • And most of all, how to work as a team to help each other through the training process so that no one ever had to feel like they were going it alone.

As you can see by this extensive list, the program was very thorough in itís intent. Most marathon training programs will tell you how many miles to run each week, how to warm up and stretch, and maybe even offer a few simple strategies to use on race day. In the ChiRunning model for marathon training, there is much more emphasis put into the details of race specific training, biomechanics, and psychological training, so that when all of the right emphases is put into the training schedule, success is not just a possibility, you can bank on it. It ends up being a more holistic approach to training because it takes the skills of the runner and the nuances of the event, and brings the two together in the most beneficial way.

The Program
A big part of the training program involved all of the participants working together to help each other learn all of the ChiRunning Focuses. This happened during the weekly long runs. Every Saturday morning each pace group had a leader calling out focuses to be worked with mile by mile. They learned specific focuses for every situation so that each would have a vast array of tools with which to respond to almost any situation they might encounter during their race. By the end of the six months of training, everyoneís ability to engage the focuses was very engrained into their running form.

Another of the key parts of the program was to increase the weekly long run mileage a mile per week and top off at 26 miles three weeks before the race. This was to give all the runners an opportunity to experience ahead of time, what would eventually come up during the race (physically and mentally). Almost everyone had reservations about this when I mentioned it at the beginning of the program, but most of them were thankful when it finally came to pass. The lower mileage runners who were training for the half marathon also ran a half in practice. Running the full distance of the race served to relieve anxiety around the actual event by giving the runners a sense of familiarity going into it.

The true success of the marathon training program could be measured by watching the faces of the participants that arrived at our house for a post-marathon party on the afternoon of the marathon. Needless to say they were all smiles. Happy because they had completed their missions, and because they had done it by putting everything together all they had practiced for the previous 6 months. When they came up against a challenging situation during the race, they had tools to use to help them through. The predominant comment I heard was that most were feeling little or no discomfort in their legs and that the race was enjoyable because they had learned how to not make it a grueling event.

Here are some of the comments we received from participants during and after the training:

Mark, age 48:
I wanted to let you know how happy I am that I was able to take part in your ChiRunning marathon training program. It has changed forever the way I approach my running and my personal fitness. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it. Your easy teaching style and good natured personality made for a relaxed and pleasant learning environment. Though the class is over, I intend to be a student of the ChiRunning technique for the rest of my running life. Thank you so much for helping me to reach my goals and teaching me a way of running that allows me to continue doing the thing I love… running.

Susan, age 37
Learning the ChiRunning technique to complete a half marathon has become a metaphor for reclaiming my life – my body, mind, heart and soul. After years of living as a victim and not caring for myself, endurance sports are my healing process – a way to grow into all that I was created to be – by giving my body and mind the appropriate focus, training and outlets to break free from the bondage of the past.

Jim D., age 66
As I look back on the ChiRunning Marathon Training, what made it most effective for me was that it built my confidence through “gradual progress” to the point that, by race day, there was no doubt whatsoever in my mind or body that I could and would go the distance, and have a great time. After all, we had already run 26 miles three weeks before the event. The training taught me that itís all about form, and speed is just a potential byproduct of good form and body sensing. The other incredible lesson that I learned in the training was the concept of starting slowly, even though everyone else was pouring on the coals. The ChiRunning Marathon training gave me the discipline to be able to run negative splits, and my last miles were my fastest. And I felt no pain; I was ready to run again the next day.

Janine, age 54 (12 weeks into the program)
What I learned early on with ChiRunning was to pay attention, to my body and my mind. Sounds simple, but very difficult for me, who flits from one thing to the other, whose mind never stops buzzing–a restless mind.

And then when I woke up Sunday morning (after a 14-mile Saturday run), not having slept quite the sleep of the dead that I usually do, I felt fantastic. I couldnít believe that my left calf pain completely disappeared and didnít return after running 14 rather tough miles, and nothing hurtóagain. Awesome and fan-f***ing-tastic, as a guy in my office would say. Iím really jazzed that I actually ran those hills, more up than down, and lived to smile about it.

In general the effect of the focuses is that of no pain. In comparison to 11 weeks ago, I am a different body. My abs are tighter. I am more in touch with all aspects of my body and I pay attention to the inner body more than I ever have. This program is awesome. How I can run 12 or 14, or whatever, miles without hurting is unbelievable.

Evan, age 41
I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have come to realize that the mind exerts tremendous control over the body and that by channeling that mental strength, you can really boost your physical capabilities. If only I had known this while still in that 20 year old body!

Vanessa, age 29
If it wasn’t for learning about ChiRunning, I don’t know if and when I would have run another marathon. I guess my biggest goal in running the San Francisco Chronicle Marathon was to finish injury-free. I wanted be able to finish the entire race without having to do any, or very little, walking. However, what is important to me is the way I feel during, and after the race. I’m able to walk away from this run, take a few days/weeks off, and able to start running again.

Jimmy, age 35
I had a great race and a great finish – for me. I don’t think I could have run a better race. It was hard, but I kept a strong pace at the end. Those last four miles were really amazing – every other thought in my head was to stop. But I managed to keep going. When you look at my official split times – I clearly ran negative splits on the run. When I finally stopped in the finish area, it felt like I just hopped off the treadmill – and the Earth was still moving beneath my feet. Thanks again for all your encouragement. You have been a really great motivator for me and I really enjoyed getting better at running. All of these people started with a goal then followed a plan, then executed that plan with the conscientiousness needed to see it through to a successful end. Many of the group members still meet on Saturdays to run together because they want to stay connected as training partners and friends. One special thanks that I would like to include in this is to Penny, who broke her ankle in a pot hole early on in the training and spent a number of weeks in a brace while it healed. Instead of disappearing from the group and licking her wounds, she came out every Saturday providing water stops and fuel and fantastic support to all the runners. She was elevated to sainthood by a unanimous vote on marathon day. Long distance running is a team event and no one would be out there running marathons without the support of many people in the background making sure their race goes well. There were many success stories and also many opportunities for us to learn how to improve the training system. But, all in all, it was a successful experiment in planning and cooperation, full of useful tools that every participant can carry with them for the rest of their lives.


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