I've never enjoyed running. But because I knew it was good for me, I ran as a part of my weekly workout regimen for years. Marathons? No chance. My usual route was a simple, partially hilly three-miler. The small distance suited me just fine. And yet, no matter how often I ran, it never got any easier or more fun. I'd grind my way through, wanting it to be over the minute I started and wondering why I hadn't just signed up for spinning class instead.
That was before I discovered ChiRunning. Skimming through a fitness magazine one morning, I came across an article that described it as running more smoothly and efficiently, and making it feel less like hard work. Sign me up.
Begun in 1999 by Danny Dreyer, a San Francisco runner, trainer and author of "ChiRunning" (Fireside, $14), the technique is based on the same principles as yoga, Pilates and tai chi: working with core muscles and alignment; integrating mind and body; and focusing on overall performance and well-being. It teaches relaxation while running and how to use your center to power your body rather than your legs, debunking the popular "power running" myth of developing bigger leg muscles in order to run better and faster. It teaches a way of training your mind to focus so your body doesn't have to work as hard. Sound too good to be true? I thought so too. And my fiance, an accomplished runner who has competed in multiple marathons, was skeptical to say the least.
But before completely dismissing the idea, I wanted to give it a try. So I did the breathing and relaxation exercises Dreyer's book suggests, putting the four basic components of his technique -- "Posture," "Lean," "Lower Body Form Focuses" and "Upper Body Form Focuses" -- to work in a run at the beach. The result: My usually labored three-mile run turned into an invigorating and almost effortless five-miler. Convinced my distance and enjoyment was just a fluke, I attempted the same run the following morning. I didn't repeat the five-mile run, but I did run four. And the experience was the same: I ran smoothly and efficiently. I even had fun.
Impressed by these initial results, I signed up for a local ChiRunning workshop to ensure that I was doing things correctly.
Along with about 30 other runners -- male and female, young and old, casual and serious -- I listened and watched as Dreyer explained and demonstrated the ideas behind ChiRunning. The most important: form. "Having good posture is the cornerstone of the technique and it's crucial to building strong core muscles," says Dreyer. "Running with your posture out of alignment can create tension, fatigue, discomfort and even pain."
Another bottom-line principle is what Dreyer calls "body sensing" -- that is, developing a communication link between your mind and body. "It's really learning to listen to your body carefully and responding correctly," says Dreyer.
Admittedly, there was a lot to take in and even more to apply. And at $195 for the one-day session, I wondered if it was all worth it. But the testimonials, such as the one from fellow workshop attendee Betty Smith, were convincing. Smith, a Rockville resident, has run 47 marathons. Since applying the ChiRunning techniques last year, she has gone from 12-minute miles to 81/2-minute miles. Oh -- and she's 64 years old. "It's like meditation on the run," says Smith. "You're out there, but you're floating. . . . It's like dancing on the terrain."
Of course, ChiRunning isn't magic; there are no guarantees that you'll drop several minutes off your pace. Learning the approach takes time and remembering so many things about proper form and technique can distract from the exercise itself. But as with anything new, the more you practice, the better you get; eventually, the body should apply this technique intuitively. I'm now running four to five miles five days a week, rain or shine, and it's an activity I look forward to. My fiance still has his doubts, but I'm sold. Who knows, maybe there's a marathon in my future after all.
ChiRunning one-day workshops are scheduled for Dec. 10 and 11, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, 4301 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. $195. 866-327-7867.
Here is the ChiRunning technique, explained very briefly. While you can certainly employ these components right away in your running, a copy of Dreyer's book can provide a more detailed explanation as well as helpful visual aides. It is available at www.chirunning.com and local booksellers.
This is the cornerstone of the ChiRunning technique. Says Dreyer in his book: "When your body is aligned properly, your structure is supporting the weight of your body instead of your muscles having to do it."
Sounds weird, but it's not. Simply put, lean forward in your running stance -- a full body tilt, not a bend at the waist. "Leaning allows gravity to 'pull' you forward, instead of your legs having to pull you through," says Dreyer.
Pick up your feet instead of pushing off with your toes. Keep your lower legs limp. Let your stride open up behind you, not in front of you. Relax your hips.
Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle and relax your arms. Swing your arms to the rear, not to the front. Soften your shoulders and keep them low and relaxed. Relax your hands and don't let them swing across the center of your body. Use your arm swing to set your cadence, and keep it steady.