ChiRunning, yoga for runners and a new word
I have worked with words for more than (frighteningly) 25 years. But last weekend I learned a new word, dantian (or dantien). Some of you might be thinking: “Where has she been, that silly writer, that she doesn’t know this word?” Others might be saying: “Dantian… you what?” As I did.
However, I came across the word on a Chi running weekend. Perhaps you are also wondering what on earth Chi running is, and I’ll come to that in a moment.
For the purposes of this blog, the dantian refers to area in the lower abdomen, below the navel and around a third of the way inside. It’s believed that “energy” moves from your core – or dantian – into the limbs to create movement.
The dantian is a key part of successful Chi running.
What is ChiRunning?
For around the last 15 years, the technique called ChiRunning has been helping thousands of runners to transform their sport. It’s claimed that ChiRunning reduces, prevents and aids recovery from injuries. It also helps runners to run with greater efficiency and performance – and more enjoyment.
While I have always enjoyed running, I do suffer with niggles, aches and pains and I am sure my technique is nowhere near as smooth and efficient as it could be. Over the years I have learned various styles but I have also picked up bad habits. Specifically, I was keen to find out how I could become more efficient over longer distances.
A fellow participant on the ChiRunning course, led by one of the UK’s top teachers Nick Constantine of Soul in Motion, in the Trossachs, summed it up.
Neil Jones, of Dirleton, East Lothian, said: “I wanted to find out more about ChiRunning because I know that running more efficiently will improve my overall performance and allow me to run longer and, presumably, faster. It’s like adding extra tools to my toolbox of running.”
The principles of ChiRunning
- Correct alignment and posture
- Landing with a midfoot strike
- Using a “gravity-assisted” forward lean
- Engaging core strength for propulsion
- Connecting the mind and body to prevent injury
But, er, what is Chi?
ChiRunning is based on movement principles of T’ai Chi, but you don’t need to know T’ai Chi to ChiRun. The only bit you do need to know is that “using your core – or dantian – can transform your running”.
Put simply, Chi is the energy that unites body, mind, and spirit. Energy is said to move from your dantian into the limbs to create movement.
This is all very “theoretical” and usually this kind of chat turns me off but I found it jigsawed into place when taking part in the practical sessions with Nick.
He explained that “engaging your core and relaxing your limbs will allow your legs to simply support your body weight instead of pushing or pulling it forward”. And so, when your body is nicely aligned and you feel relaxed, the “chi” can flow freely through the body, making running feel effortless.
In practice this is not the easiest technique to perfect but it is fairly straightforward to learn.
Top ten ChiRunning tips
- Good posture
- Good leg motion (ie shorter than I am used to)
- High cadence (around 170 to 190 steps per minute. That is a lot!)
- Body Sensing: (Listening to your body is key to preventing injuries)
- Good mental focus:
- Good upper body/lower body coordination
- Good breathing habits: (total lung breathing)
- Bend your knees and elbows: (Forearms and shins should be parallel to the ground in mid-swing)
- Staying relaxed.
There is a lot to think about with ChiRunning and I liken it to learning to drive a car or swim. Individually all the components will add up to a second-nature style of running but while learning you will often forget half of the components as you focus on others.
However, just to put it in perspective, after only a few hours of practising ChiRunning, I found I was running far more efficiently and with much greater relaxation.
ChiRunning and yoga weekend
As if a ChiRunning two-day course was not enough, the clever organisers decided to add “yoga for runners” sessions to the package. Mark Russell (no relation but a sporty friend) led these classes, which focused on how to maintain good flexibility and strength for running.
I am a stiff old bird but after two days of extra yoga sessions I am a lot looser in my joints and I can feel much less pain in my niggling hamstring/glutes. Even though we did a fair bit of running over the weekend, the yoga kept my body nicely oiled.
Accommodation and superb vegetarian food was provided at Lendrick Lodge, near Callander, on the shores of Venachar. My only quibble was the alcohol ban but perhaps that is my problem, although I do like to exercise my freedom of choice. A group of us escaped the rule on Saturday night by heading to the nearby Strathyre Folk Festival.
Anyway, the focus of the weekend was ChiRunning and I expect that less alcohol adds up to a much better runner. Maybe I should try it!
ChiRunning led by Nick
Nick Constantine is from Whitley Bay, near Newcastle. He is of Greek descent and his dark good looks and Geordie accent made an odd combination but one that is very easy to like.
His ChiRunning courses are for all kinds of runners, from absolute beginners to professionals.
He teaches through the medium of videos of runners who are ChiRunning experts and lots of practical, on-the-ground sessions. His ChiRunning hero is David Rudisha, a highly successful Kenya middle distance runner. Frequent views of David running with spot-on ChiRunning style gave us newbie ChiRunners an idea of how we should be performing.
Take a look at Rudisha in the 800m London Olympics final on YouTube. He runs so smoothly and effortlessly. His gait and posture is amazing. And this is what ChiRunners are aiming for.
Nick told us that the daily training for Kenyans like Rudisha includes ChiWalking and very slow ChiRunning. This then builds up to faster running but still in the ChiRunning style. Nick added: “If these top level athletes are practising ChiWalking and slow ChiRunning day after day then so should we. It’s the repeating of the technique at slower paces, time after time, that allows us to learn how to run Chi style over longer distances and when going faster. Learning the basics will help you to ChiRun all the time, wherever you are running.”
Practice did make us a few closer steps to perfect. With superb coaching and pointers from Nick we each – there were around 18 of us on the course – improved our posture, gait, foot strike and overall running style.
Sadly I am a big forefoot striker (someone in the past taught me to toe strike) and this is one of the trickiest strikes to change apparently. But I did up my cadence, feel lighter on my feet, adjust my posture to be more upright yet forward and think a lot about my arms and legs.
Over the weekend I began to think less about all the components and more about an overall feeling of smoothness and forwardness. I found that trying to lead with my core – or dantian – really helped to bring about a ChiRunning style.
When Nick put us into groups to try to run in a ChiRunning line-up as the Kenyan runners do we giggled and floundered, but only for a wee while. We soon focused and found ourselves proudly running in a relaxed and stylish ChiRunning line. It felt really good and, if I’m honest, the ChiRunning was a great deal more useful than I imagined it would be.
The video analysis and pointers that Nick emailed to us after the course is extremely helpful.
I don’t tend towards the spiritual but I do understand the physics of good running. The proof came when I went for an hour’s run this week. I found myself giving another runner a little advice. I could hear she was running heavy and flat-footed and she was struggling to breath properly.
I told her: “Stand more upright and try to think about your core and chest being forwards. Unbend your hips. Try to up your turnover of steps and stay light and fluid on your feet. Look ahead, further into the distance. There, that looks better already.”
I refrained from adding the bit about her “dantian”. I know she would have thought I was a bit of a nutter at that point. I would, however, recommend you head along to one of Nick’s sessions or weekends and learn how your dantian can help with your running. It’s a revelation.
There is another ChiRunning and Yoga weekend taking place in Scotland in October.