Running isn’t all about strong legs. In fact, it isn’t about that at all, says Danny Dreyer, running coach, ultramarathoner, and co-author of Chi Marathon. Here’s how he uses principles from tai chi to run faster and injury-free.
How did the whole ChiRunning idea first come about?
Danny Dreyer: It stemmed from a combination of two things. I started doing ultra-marathons in 1991 and didn’t retire until 2005. So I spent a lot of years running long distances, up to 100 miles. I was always studying how to get more efficient. It was an internal practice for me. I was really into meditation and stuff like that, and I just thought, “How long could I run if I were just calm and relaxed out there?” It was good chance to learn about myself.
It wasn’t until 1998 that I was introduced to tai chi. When I took my first tai chi class, the instructor was talking about how you always only move from your center, because that’s where your energy comes from. Your strongest muscles are there. All of a sudden, it was like things totally broke loose—I saw how much easier my running could be.
What is wrong with the way most people approach training for a marathon?
Most people run by powering with their legs and pushing with their feet. It means they have to propel themselves forward with the smallest muscles of the body. They’re relying too much on those small muscles, as opposed to the much stronger muscles of the core—and that’s why the predominance of injuries are from the knees down. There’s no question that’s why it causes so many problems.
So how do you change from using those small leg muscles to using their core?
ChiRunning is based on posture. If you’re posture is really good, your core muscles will automatically be engaged. It involves a forward lean that starts down at your ankles. If you lean at your hips, you still have to push yourself forward with your feet.
From there, you allow yourself to fall forward—it’s a controlled fall, which makes running easier because you’re gravity-assisted. As you fall forward, your legs don’t have to be a propulsive force. The only work your legs have to do is support your body and to keep up with your fall; it just requires picking up your feet. You become not only more efficient, but you’re also not overusing those small muscles. It also reduces your impact.
The successful tai chi artist doesn’t resist a punch, he cooperates with the force and moves in the same direction. In ChiRunning, there are two forces: the pull of gravity, which you cooperate with by leaning into it; and the road coming at you. The last thing you want to do is stick your foot into that oncoming force. If you can land with your knee back and your foot underneath you, the road sweeps your leg behind and helps move you forward.
What’s the hardest part of teaching people to change the way they run?
The biggest difference in technique and the biggest challenge I have in coaching people is just getting them to pick up their feet instead of using them to push themselves forward. You have to kind of start from scratch and feel what your legs want to do—which is just to keep up with your fall. I’m trying to hit the reset button: Kids all run with a lean, they just intuitively do it that way. It’s getting people back into that natural, original form of running.
How long does it generally take people to learn how to do it correctly?
The vast majority people will get it in one day. For most people, if they practice the focuses [detailed in the book], their posture, how to hold their arms, etc., and if they have a reasonably good connection with their body, they can get to a point where it feels very natural within a month.