Yesterday my boyfriend took me to a Chi running clinic taught by Mark Lawrence (Member and former president of the Steeple Chasers) at the William R. Talley Rec center in downtown Frederick, MD. It is wonderful having someone in my life who not only tolerates my obsession for running, but supports and encourages it! 😉 He heard about the Chi running technique from his younger brother, who is an avid enthusiast. Chi running was founded by Danny Dreyer, who began teaching this “injury free” running technique in San Francisco back in 1999. I have to admit I was skeptical, because I come from the old school mindset of running with your natural form and stride. If a runner happens to run with pigeon toes and arms flapping wildly in the air like Phoebe in the episode of friends when she goes running in the Central Park, and embarrasses, Rachael, so be it! Don’t mess with it nature man! Interestingly enough, that was one of the first remarks Mark made regarding skeptics of the Chi running technique as he began his clinic. He said, “By that logic, when a tennis player picks up a racket for the first time, how ever they naturally swing it is right, and should not be adjusted.” Well I guess when you put it that way….admittedly my logic was flawed. My interest was piqued and I decided to keep an open mind for the rest of the afternoon.
We officially began the instruction portion of the clinic with each of the eight students awkwardly running in circles around the small aerobics room. Mark observed us as he deliberately scribbled notes, critiquing individual running techniques. I was curious to see what he had written about me, a veteran runner, on his mystery clipboard. I had no delusions about the fact that there were things I could improve with my running form, I just never had an experienced runner critique me before and my inner perfectionist thrives on constructive criticism.
After watching each of us run, he began teaching the basics of Chi running. We did a series of drills focused on posture (lifting from the crown with abs engaged), forward lean (1-3 inches), maintaining 180 bpm cadence with arm swing, and running from the core. Mark also discussed running shoes, and advocated for minimalist running shoes since the elevated heel on “stability” rated shoes encourages heel strike and improper running form. He also discussed stretches and exercises (lunges, yoga poses,push-ups, planks, and pendulums) that would improve our running and minimize our risk for common overuse injuries. Some of the drills felt ridiculous, but as the clinic progressed we began to loosen up. We laughed at how silly we looked power walking with 180 bpm cadence and arm swing, with our hips rotating wildly in front of the rec center.
At the end of the four hour clinic, we were put to the test. Again we each were asked to run our laps, one at a time, while Mark did his second evaluation of our running form. This time when we completed our laps, he told us what improvements we made during the clinic and what we still had to work on. I was told at the beginning of the class I wasn’t using my arms at all, was running with loose/sloppy posture, and not utilizing a forward lean. I had successfully made those minor adjustments (with a great deal of conscious effort at this point), and it significantly changed how my running felt. My feet sounded lighter, I did not feel the impact from the ground shooting through my knees and lower back, and my legs felt like they were moving effortlessly. While mentally working much harder, running in this form felt like I was floating.
Today I put these new techniques to the test when I went out for a 10 mile run on the C&O canal (my last long taper run before running the Richmond Marathon). It definitely required a great deal of mental effort. I played with different degrees of lean as I made my way down the trail. At one inch of lean I felt my weight centered over my arches, at two inches of lean I felt my weight centered over the balls of my feet, and at three inches of lean I felt my toes beginning to grip the ground as I propelled myself forward. When I began to feel tension building between my shoulder blades I focused on my posture and lifting from the crown. When I started to feel impact in my knees going down hills, I bent my knees more. When I felt myself starting to slow down, I leaned forward more and focused on my arm swing, pushing my elbows back behind me faster with my legs simply following behind them. Because I was having to concentrate so hard on my form throughout my run, the 10 miles flew by and I got back to my car feeling invigorated and refreshed. Then I looked down at my Garmin running watch and realized I had just ran 10 miles in 1:20:20. My previous 10 mile PR (in a road race) was 1:21:01. I was completely shocked! Wow, maybe there is something to this Chi running thing! It will definitely require a lot of practice and focus to master this technique, but I am sold on the idea of mindful Chi running. If anyone else is interested in learning about Chi running, there are books out there, but I also recommend taking Mark Lawrence’s Chi running clinic if you live in the Maryland area. He is extremely knowledgeable and dedicated in sharing his love of running with others. I encourage other runners to at least check out Chi running and to keep an open mind.