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Can You 'Chi' Your Way to Injury-Free Running?

If you could seriously boost your immunity to running-related injuries—without going barefoot—would you be interested? Imagine focusing on the joy of running itself, rather than worrying about plantar fasciitis, shin splints, runner's knee or IT band syndrome.

Such is the tempting promise of Chi Running®.

Chi in Seattle rainOn a recent rainy Sunday afternoon in Seattle, I joined 10 other running enthusiasts at a beginners' Chi Running workshop to pursue this question firsthand. Why? Numerous studies suggest that more than half of all runners get sidelined each year by running-related injuries; the Sports Injury Bulletin puts the number closer to two-thirds.
Chi Running is a technique that incorporates the tai chi principles of internal alignment and core strength to promote a more efficient, lower-impact gait cycle. It aims to dispel the belief that injury is just an inevitable part of running. An extensive network of certified instructors leads workshops all over the world.

Our workshop in Seattle is led by instructor Laura Houston. After discovering Chi Running in 2005, Houston used it to help her qualify for the Boston Marathon and has been teaching the method to others ever since.

As our workshop gets started, she asks us to introduce ourselves and share what, if any, injuries we've struggled with in the past. A chorus of knowing laughter rings out, and one woman says, "Should we limit ourselves to the top 3?"
The Chi leanAfter introductions, Houston takes us outside to videotape us jogging, one by one. As the tapes are played back in slow motion, Houston points out vulnerabilities in our form and areas we can focus on improving during today's drills. I tend to run with my shoulders tense and hunched, and with little core engagement.

Running without an engaged core, Houston explains, is like slouching in a chair; it strains the lower back, rather than deriving good posture and strength from active core muscles. She'll tape us again at the end of the workshop, so we will be able to see the changes in our form after just a few hours of instruction.
"Injuries are opportunities for us to learn from our bodies," Houston says. "Chi Running encourages you to listen to your body, what it's saying and what it's asking of you, as opposed to putting a band-aid on the signal."

Danny Dreyer, an accomplished runner, ultramarathoner and coach in his early 60s, founded the Chi Running movement back in 1999. Since then, he has coauthored 3 books with his wife, Katherine—Chi Running, Chi Walking and, most recently, Chi Marathon.

Before the days of Born to Run and the so-called barefoot running revolution, Dreyer said people would look at him in disbelief when he began advertising running classes. "They'd say, 'Teach people to run? That's like teaching people to blink their eyes.' Except that people don't get injured blinking their eyes."

In our workshop, Houston has us do a series of posture exercises to help us align our spinal column, engage our core and get a feel for one of the main tenets of Chi Running: the forward lean. The idea of the forward lean is to use gravity to your advantage and transfer the stresses of running from our leg muscles to our core. Dreyer explains in his book that this is how cheetahs run, leaning forward at full speed and deriving power from their core.    

Chi instructionAlthough Dreyer feels that many people benefit from the "less is more" shoe philosophy, he doesn't think the solution is necessarily in changing shoes. He cites heel striking, overstriding, running too upright, and trying to push too hard with legs ("power running") as the top culprits of running injuries. It's still possible to do all of those things in minimalist shoes, he notes; the real solution lies in retraining your whole body to run in a relaxed, efficient manner.

Dreyer encourages people to think of running as a practice, the way we do with yoga, meditation or tai chi. He likens the drills in his books and workshops to the sheet music and scales that a musician does. Over time, these drills—emphasizing the forward lean, core engagement, shorter stride length and a midfoot strike—can lead to great payoffs for runners.

"If you want to learn to play jazz, you need to already have the technique in your body," he says. It's the same with running. To get faster, to get more efficient, to conquer more technical terrain, you must first master the basics.

As their testimonials ("Love Letters", as they're called) on the Chi Running website attest to, the results for a variety of people have been fewer injuries, faster recovery, a calmer mind and new levels of ease and enjoyment when running.

Most recently, the AARP, multiple branches of the military and some corporations have begun offering Chi Running workshops as a part of training and general wellness programs. The hope is that Chi Running can help them lower their medical bills by preventing, instead of treating, running-related injuries. Dreyer himself has run more than 40 marathons and ultramarathons over the past 2 decades—with no injuries.

Chi practiceAt the conclusion of our workshop, our group seems excited about the small differences we can already feel in our form, in our efficiency. I have a new awareness of how much tension I tend to hold in my body when I run, and how consciously engaging my core while relaxing other muscles can help my gait feel virtually effortless. So far, so good.

There are a lot of principles to keep in mind, but I'll take Houston's and Dreyer's advice and focus on one thing at a time.

To learn more, visit

Seattle-area runners: Don't miss the 2012 Running Shoe Expo on Saturday, April 14, from 9am-4pm, at the REI Seattle flagship store.

Selected REI stores also host Chi Running classes, including:
April 18 in the REI Norwalk, Conn., store
May 8 in the REI East Hanover, N.J., store

Check your local REI store pages for details of upcoming events in your area.

Posted on at 3:53 PM

Tagged: Running, chi running and fitness

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This was a great article. While I do enjoy barefoot running, I definitely have not ditched my traditional shoes (although they still have a lot of flexibility through them). I particually find them useful because I have yet to come across a pair of barefoot shoes that are waterproof for wet, wintery, snowy or rainy days.

I really appreciated the fact that the important part of running injury free is running with proper form, regardless of the shoe. I needed to correct my stride- how I was running was hurting my knees. It was something that needed fixed whether I wear traditional shoes or barefoot shoes. I took all of last summer, and fixing my stride is delaying my intended first marathon to this year instead of last. But the trade-off- now I run pain free, use the muscles more evenly instead of allowing stronger ones to over-compensate for weaker and feel more balanced, too.

Here's to fixing my stride and to conquering my first marathon in October!

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Yitka W

I'm glad you enjoyed the read! It can definitely be a challenge to put aside our competitive spirits to work on something like running form, but I think you're right in that the tradeoff is worth it. I found the same thing to be true for me several years back when I made a conscious effort to work on shortening my stride - an effort that led to the end of the shin splints I'd struggled with for nearly a decade. Kudos to you for finding balance and running pain-free. Good luck with your first marathon this year!


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