Back on Track

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

A runner's chi.

WebMD Feature

Oct. 16, 2000 -- Danny Dreyer was standing on a Northern California high school track, running in place. He pumped his legs straight up and down like pistons, pushing off from the track with his toes each time his foot landed. Scuff, scuff, scuff.

"Now watch this," he said, and he began to move very differently, leaning forward, lifting his legs from his hips, putting each foot down lightly. No pushing off with the toes. No scuffing.

He had me try both moves. "If you had to run in place for a couple of hours, which would you rather do?" he asked. No contest. The lighter, gentler way felt about 10 times better. But it also felt like cheating. It sure didn't involve the effort I usually put into jogging.

I'd come to Dreyer, a running coach with a new idea, because I sorely needed some help. I'd run most of my adult life, but lately my attempts just weren't working. On a recent evening jog, I couldn't believe how out of step I felt. With each footfall, I felt more plodding.

An aging baby boomer, I wasn't alone in my slowdown. Plenty of us are having an uphill struggle and experiencing more aches and pains than we used to. That fact has spurred a trend toward kinder, gentler running techniques, says Richard Cotton, a Salt Lake City exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. For instance, more people are now mixing walking with running, which is easier on middle-aged knees and backs.

East Meets West

Dreyer's approach, which he calls "chi running," is the latest twist in the easy-does-it trend. It's a form of running that incorporates the principles of tai chi, an ancient Chinese discipline believed to enhance energy and improve health. It's helped propel Dreyer, who's 51, to a successful career as a nationally ranked ultramarathon runner. This year alone, he's won three 50-mile races. Not only does the "chi" approach spare him injuries, he says, it boosts his energy. "I feel so good after a race that I come home and clean the house," says Dreyer. I figured he must be doing something right.

Chi running, which Dreyer teaches to individuals, running clubs, and corporate clients such as NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., combines the inner concentration and smooth flowing movement of tai chi with the power and energy of running. Instead of pushing through pain or muscling your way along, Dreyer emphasizes ease, using as little effort as possible.

"Running form is a big contributor to injuries," says David Hannaford, DPM, a sports-oriented podiatrist in San Rafael and San Francisco, Calif., who sends patients to Dreyer. "But there are ways to smooth things out and avoid injuries if one is taught properly."

At root, Dreyer's teachings come from the animal world. Many of the slow moves in tai chi are based on the movements of the cheetah and the greyhound, two of the fastest animals on earth, but ones that don't rely on large muscles for their speed, says Dreyer. In human terms, that translates into moving in a way that's as relaxed and efficient as possible, avoiding the overuse of muscles.

"It's a way to use running as a relaxation exercise and still get a great workout," says Dreyer, who says his own running has become a form of moving meditation.

Running With Finesse

To help shift to this new style, says Dreyer, imagine a bungee cord hooked to the middle of your chest. Hook the other end to a big tree, say, in the distance, and imagine the cord pulling you forward as you run. Let your feet follow, lightly, in smooth, flowing movements. That keeps you in an optimum posture -- with your center of gravity out in front of your feet -- and it seems to have a psychological effect, too.

"When I think about doing a 30-mile race," Dreyer says, "I realize that all I have to do is lean forward for 30 miles."

Dreyer admits that adding tai chi to running is a hard concept to explain. "It takes a lot of focus and practice," says Dreyer, "but then that's what tai chi is all about -- creating positive changes through focused attention." The rocket scientists he often coaches don't go in for ethereal explanations, though, so he talks about efficiency. "It all checks out in terms of basic physics," says Dreyer.

Trying New Steps

The day after my session with Dreyer, I took my new moves out for a run. At first it seemed a lot to remember: Check your posture, lean forward, use your upper body to pull you ahead; keep your lower legs loose, lift your lower legs rather than pushing off with your feet. Move rhythmically, making it feel as easy as possible. Oh, and don't forget to swing your arms from the elbows, gently. Don't push ahead and make an effort so much as lean forward and let your feet take you where you want to go.

When my running began to feel rough and I reached that old plodding, heavy, too-tired-to-go-on-feeling, instead of stopping, I did what Dreyer suggested: I checked my posture, leaned forward, lightened up the load on my feet. Then, I attached my imaginary bungee cord to a big old tree a few hundred yards ahead and let my new moves pull me toward it.

Soon I noticed an unfamiliar feeling, as if -- dare I say it? -- I was gliding along. Maybe I wasn't quite cheetah-like, but I was sure lighter on my feet than before. I kept running, farther than I had in recent memory, and I came home smiling. Not only that, I found myself looking forward to the next day's run.

Note: Chi running classes are available so far only in the San Francisco Bay Area -- though Dreyer is working on a book and videotape -- but other low-impact approaches can help runners who are experiencing difficulty or injuries. To find a coach, check out a local running club, says Richard Cotton, a spokesman for the American Council on Fitness.

Karin Evans is the author of The Lost Daughters of China: Abandoned Girls, Their Journey to America, and the Search for a Missing Past (Penguin/Putnam 2000) and a former editor at WebMD.

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