Monday, October 01, 2012

My ChiRunning Quick Start Guide

Achieving a good ChiRunning technique is a gradual process and from personal experience it can take time and a lot of practice. However I also think there are some key principles that can show immediate results. My intent of this blog is not to oversimplify ChiRunning, but merely provide a quick start guide for those who are new to this technique and also share what has worked for me.

I discovered the ChiRunning book thanks to a “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” recommendation from after reading the “Born to Run” book. I started improving my running technique after reading “Born To Run”, primarily from switching from a heel strike into a forefoot strike. I was also more aware of my running posture and was able to run farther distances (went from 6 miles to 10+ miles). I was ready for a more structured technique and ChiRunning was a natural fit for this transition.

I started reading ChiRunning on May 2011. This was shortly after I ran my first half Marathon. My experience running my first half was mostly good. I really enjoyed it and I felt mostly good after finishing it. I exceeded my expectations of finishing at 2:10 which was just under my average pace of 10 minutes/mile. However even though I did not immediately notice it, I had injured my left foot most likely from a bad step. After running the half I was able to run fine up to 3 miles, but the pain reappeared above this distance and it took close to 4 weeks before I was able to comfortably run longer distances again. It was obvious that I still had much room to improve my technique and the timing could have not been any better for discovering the ChiRunning book.

The benefits were not immediate for me. Most of the techniques made perfect sense in writing, but in practice it was hard to tell if I was on the right track. Some techniques were hard to follow just by seeing pictures and I felt overwhelmed by how many different things I had to become aware of. My reaction at that point is that it could not be natural to run that way if there were so many things to remember. I was skeptical, but at the same time I was seeing marginal improvement. One of my first surprises was that at times when I felt that I was running slow, after checking my pace (on my phone) I found out I was actually running faster. I was very impressed by that. Because I was using less effort I felt I was running slower, but in fact it was the opposite. And this is due to one of the principles of this technique: to run more efficiently.

I then decided to buy the ChiRunningDVD. This made a huge difference because it is much better to see the techniques applied in practice. There are several YouTube videos out there, some from Danny Dreyer and others from ChiRunning instructors. If you don’t want to buy the DVD, I certainly encourage you to watch these videos. While I was making progress I still felt there was much more to unlock. In particular I wanted to get feedback from someone that had already mastered ChiRunning. I decided to sign up for a ChiRunning Workshop with Danny Dreyer on August 2011 and it was a major breakthrough for me. The most encouraging part was to receive feedback that I was on the right track. The workshop was worth every penny, I encourage everyone that feels stuck to give this a try.

On May 2012 I ran my first Marathon. I could have not done it without ChiRunning. Even though I used a beginner marathon training program I would have not been able to run 6+ miles a couple days after running 20 miles. My recovery time between runs decreased significantly and I did not have to interrupt my training due to running injuries. I finished my first marathon just under 5 hours. This was a good time for me considering that I am over weight and this was my first time ever running this far (the longest I had run during training was 21 miles). After finishing my training, I was convinced that I could finish the marathon. The biggest test for me that ChiRunning works would be to be able to run comfortably a few days after the Marathon. I ran the Marathon on a Sunday. I rested for 2 days and on Wednesday I felt like I was ready to run again so I went for a 3 mile run and I did it comfortably and confirmed I had no injuries.

I know a still have a lot to improve. Even Danny Dreyer on his ChiMarathon book points out that he is still mastering his technique. If someone asks me what has worked for me and I only had 10 minutes to do so, these are the 10 steps I would share:

1.  Stand up straight, as tall as you can, as your grandma used to tell you.
2. While maintaining your straight posture lean forward slightly without bending at the hip. The hard part is to lean forward without bending. This is one of those ‘aha’ moments when you first do it, you will fall unless you move your feet forward. This is why some people call it ChiFalling. If you are having difficulties doing this, watch the DVD. We had a lot of practice doing this at the workshop, and it’s usually not hard for people to get this part. One of the tips we got at the workshop is that the lean is very small. They asked a partner to put a had one inch apart from your forehead, that is how much you need to lean forward (except for higher gears). The lean is a key principle of ChiRunning, by letting gravity do more work for you, you’re reducing effort required to run. The amazing part is that this works even going up the hills, just to a lesser extent.
3. Relax your lower legs. Imagine you are numb from the knees downward. You use your feet only to support you while running. The strength comes from your ‘core’: the lower abdomen and upper leg muscles. This was one of the less intuitive parts for me. For years we have been trained to do ‘power running’, i.e. to use your legs as much as possible to propel you. One tip that has helped me changed this is to focus on lifting your feet backward, as opposed to pushing them forward. I strongly think this is one of the key aspects for reducing injuries, if you are able to effectively reduce tension in your lower legs you will reduce impact on your feet and knees.
4. Run with short and fast strides. This is a key principle of ChiRunning and key for long distance running. Shorter strides reduce the risk of injuries. Think about going downhill on a trail, are you more likely to run if running with long strides compared to running with short strides? By running with short and quick strides you are shifting effort from your lower legs to your core.
5. Run with a midfoot strike. There is a never ending debate about what is better for running: heel, midfoot or forefoot strike? There is an overall consensus that forefoot and midfoot is better than heel strike. ChiRunning advocates for midfoot strike. I mentioned earlier that prior to Chi Running I had shifted from heel strike to forefoot strike. I have gradually shifted to a midfoot strike. One of the risks of landing on your toes (forefoot) is that you could over time, injure your calves. There are several runners that claim to run injury free as heel strikers. From my own experience the key thing to watch for is where your feet lands. If your feet are landing ahead of you, you are effectively landing against your center of gravity and thus creating a force against you that will be absorbed by your feet, knees, hip or even your back. The goal is for your feet to land directly below or slightly behind you. It feels more natural to land with your midfoot or forefoot below you than to land with your heel.
6. Maintain a cadence. This is one of the key pillars from ChiRunning. I ignored this for too long, mainly because I did not want to run with a metronome. Since I already run with my phone, I discovered that there are good cadence applications out there. You can also download MP3 files with the beats recorded for different intervals. I set my metronome at 90 bpm (beats per minute). As the book says most people run at 80 bpm or lower. I thought I was already running at a higher cadence but running with the metronome made me realize I was running at 80bpm and that it is not trivial to get from 80 to 90. It took me a while to get there and I still use the metronome from time to time. Something I noticed on long distance runs after becoming tired I would often lose my cadence. The book goes into great detail about to why cadence is important, but it boils down to energy optimization. Even at difference speed you want to maintain your cadence, the only thing that changes is your stride length. If you’re going up a hill you still maintain your cadence but your stride length is much shorter. This principle is also practiced in cycling.
7. Listen to your body. This is another important technique from ChiRunning. One of the best ways to prevent injuries is to pay more attention to your body. Unfortunately this isn’t something that you can be coached on. You are your best coach on this. Someone can tell you things to avoid but at the end of the day it is you feeling the impact of your steps as well as any potential repetitive injuries developing. Running injuries are usually not felt immediately. They ‘suddenly’ appear the day after running. It turns out, that is not entirely true, injuries are usually felt as they are developing we just need to pay more attention to our bodies. To begin with, avoid running with a “no pain, no gain” mindset. Pain while running means you are doing something wrong. Next time you are feeling the slightest bit of pain while running pay attention to what you are doing wrong. Are your lower legs relaxed? Are you bending at the hip? Are you stomping with your feet? Is your stride too long? Something that helped me improve my body awareness was to drop the headphones. It made a huge difference for me. Music can certainly motivate you, but I encourage you to try running without headphones. You will not only become more aware of your body, but of your surroundings as well.
8. Breathe more and deeply. This is very important and I don’t mean to diminish its importance here. There are several techniques described in the book. One that comes to mind is belly breathing. It is extremely important to empty your lungs. But the most important aspect is to remember to do it. Yes, we often forget to breathe at the right rhythm, so definitely pay attention to doing more of this.
9. Try barefoot running. ChiRunning is a barefoot-like running technique, but the best part of it is that you can do ChiRunning with or without shoes. Running barefoot is hard and it takes time to get used to. I definitely encourage you to try it once on a very short distance (100 yards). You should immediately feel what a difference in posture. That posture is your natural posture to run. Your ChiRunning posture should feel very similar to that. I have tried running with barefoot running shoes (Vibram FiveFingers Bikila). I still sometimes alternate between normal shoes and the VFF, but to date I still can’t comfortably run over 6 miles with the VFF and it took me several weeks to run comfortably under 6 miles. For longer distances I prefer the NikeFree 3.0. These are flexible shoes with some cushioning but relatively small heel (close to zero drop).
10. Practice your focuses. I learned that ChiRunning is like having a Swiss Army knife. I now see it as a tool set at my disposal to try when I feel I can’t go on longer on my runs. When you feel like that, go over your list of focuses, which one are you not doing? The great thing about ChiRunning is that you can still benefit even if you are still only doing 2-3 of the focuses, but the more you can do at the same time the greater benefit you will see.

I can now proudly say that I am a ChiRunner and I have run injury free for over 16 months.