Chi Running Workshop Report

Diagram of upright running and its stress on the body versus chi running, working with gravity.A week before my marathon debut in Mississauga (read the gripping three part series here (1), here (2), and here (3)). I went to Toronto to do a level one Chi Running workshop with John and Hyongok, who are certified instructors from Montreal. I had originally considered going to Ohio to do one with Danny Dreyer, author of the book and inventor of the style. But when Sam pointed out I could do a workshop in Toronto, which is so much closer to home, that seemed like a good option and I took it.

I successfully tempted two friends into spending the last Saturday morning of April with me at the half-day workshop: Anita (who I train with a lot and I ran the Scotiabank Waterfront Half with, and who’s also signed up for the Niagara Women’s Half and the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon) and Violetta (a great friend who lives in another town and who I’ve never run with before).

Anita and I stayed over in the same hotel the night before and met in the lobby at 8:15 to run the 3K to the workshop location in a school gym. It was a beautiful day, if a little on the cool side, and the workshop took place mostly inside.

There were ten or so students and the two instructors–John, a proper British man and Hyongok, a no-nonsense Asian woman with few qualms about pointing out what might be wrong with the way people run.  She did most of the hands-on instruction, with John stepping in once in awhile or whispering something to her that she may have overlooked.

Hyongok wore extremely minimalist shoes with no support and hardly anything to them. When she demonstrated running, she almost appeared to float, so lightly did her feet touch the ground. Violette whispered to me, “yes but she’s so tiny!” As if reading our minds, John pointed out that the lightness of Hyongok’s step “has nothing to do with her weight.”

The were quick to point out that most people have too much going on with their footwear and often have their laces tied too tightly.  I like foot support, but I also like loose laces because otherwise my feet fall asleep.

We went around the room doing introductions, each explaining where she or he was in her running “journey.” Almost everyone had been injured or was there to avoid injury. Chi Running purports to offer a pain-free technique that will enable people to run without injury for the rest of their lives.

John the gave an overview of what would be the three focal points of the day: the column (body position), the foot placement, and the lean. Above all, he said, running should be relaxing and relaxed. You should feel like you can run forever.  This strikes me as an awfully optimistic view of running. I love it, yes I do, but I rarely (if ever) feel like I can run forever.

The column is the name for the postural alignment recommended for chi running. In this posture, your upper body is balanced over and supported by your lower body in a straight line. Your hips aren’t pressed forward out of alignment, but rather are stacked over your legs so that when you look down you can see your shoe laces.

Here’s description from an article on Chi Running by ultra runner, Nick Mead, after he did a chi running workshop:

Chi running sets out four steps to a good posture:

1) Stand with your feet pointing straight ahead, a hip-width apart.

2) Lengthen your spine so you’re feeling tall – raising your hands in the air above your head and allowing them to fall back can help, especially for corrections as you run.

3) Level your pelvis, which is generally tilted forwards. To do this, place one hand face down on your tummy with the thumb in your belly button and the other hand face up on your back directly opposite, then gently tip your pelvis back to a level position. You should feel your core muscles engage – but don’t go so far that your core becomes tense or that your glutes tighten.

4) Place both thumbs on the prominent front hip bone at the top of your legs and pivot forwards from there until you are balanced over your centre of gravity.

We spent a lot of time getting settled into this posture, looking down at our shoe laces.  Westerners tend to hang out in the lower backs when they’re standing, hips protruding forward.  So it’s not a natural posture for everyone, though people who have practiced yoga (tadasana or mountain pose) or tai chi (on which chi running principles are based) may be more familiar with the instructions. Some people struggled with the very basics, unable to stand with their feet pointing straight ahead.

As is the case with these types of things, a lot of the workshop involved attempts to explain what a physical posture or movement “feels like” and then asking us if we feel it.  I realize that there’s often no other way, but it’s not always possible to tell if you “feel it.” It’s also not clear to me that everyone feels “it” the same way.  I’m fairly naturally given to walking and running with my feet pointing straight ahead rather than outwards or inwards, but not everyone is like that. It seemed to me that some of the workshop attendees might have needed surgical re-alignment to get their feet to point straight ahead.

We worked in pairs with the column, pushing down on each other’s shoulders when properly stacked and when not. With the posture in place, you didn’t budge when your friend pushed down squarely on your shoulders. But when we hung into our low back and pressed our hips forward, pushing down on our shoulders made us wobbly and unstable.

Foot placement in chi running is all about the midfoot strike.  They didn’t call it this exactly. They spent a lot of time talking about the outer edge of the foot and trying to help us gain an awareness of its connection to the ground.  Most people don’t connect all areas of the tripod of their foot to the ground. And runners who connect with the heel first are just asking for trouble.

The foot placement is the main thing I internalized from working with the book. I’d been experiencing shin pain and I’d read that it was the result of heel striking.  As soon as I started to work with a midfoot strike, the pain evaporated.

chi running diagram explaining how it works with forces of nature.The next thing we worked on was the lean. The whole idea behind chi running is that you work with gravity not effort. Doesn’t that sound so easy? We don’t even have to fight against gravity, we just go with it. That’s where the lean comes in. You lean forward with the column all nicely aligned. At a certain point–gravity is so amazing!–you will fall down if you don’t put your foot forward.

We stood in front of the wall leaning forward and pushing ourselves off for quite awhile to try to get the feel of the lean.

Another lean drill we did was to lean until we had to put a foot forward, then push back into the original stance and do it again.

The lean is not the same as bending from the waist or hips. Not at all. The column stays straight.

When the one foot goes forward, you don’t push off of it for momentum. You keep leaning and peel that foot off the ground (I like the book’s description “like peeling a self-adhesive stamp off of its backing”) while placing the other down.

The other thing we did was to run with a very small resistance band loop around our feet to teach us to take very short steps. According to Hyongok, people almost universally overstride. But in chi running you don’t want your foot to go forward of your knee.  The stride goes to the rear.

The resistance band exercise shocked me because of just how short the stride was. I always thought I had a short-ish stride. When I see people running in the park, they always seem to have gazelle-like legs taking long, powerful, graceful strides forward. But with the band around my ankles I felt as if I could hardly take a step.

The short stride goes with a quick recommended cadence of 180 steps per minute.  Hyongok and John talked about different settings for the running metronome (every stride, every other stride, or every third stride). They favor every third step because 180 beats of the metronome per minute is just a bit too much noise. Every second step makes you naturally put emphasis on the same foot all the time. Every third is just right. Their metronome didn’t want to work that day so Hyongok mimicked the beats with clapping, explaining that she had internalized the 180 steps per minute.

Here’s what I have to say about that: it’s fast. Faster than I’m used to. And it requires shorter steps. They explained that regardless of speed, you keep the cadence at 180. When you want to go faster, lean more sharply. The stride will lengthen itself. Here’s a great little post by Danny Dreyer about short stride and fast cadence.

At that point I realized I was ravenous and hadn’t brought a single thing to eat. Hyongok did a demo with a banana, something to do with the way it peeled. I just wanted to eat the banana. Then John said that if we practiced up and down the gym with the resistance band a few more times, we could have a snack.  But the practice seemed to go on and on. So much so that Anita actually asked at one point, with a hint of desperation in her tone, “when do we get our snack?”

Since I was the first to try the resistance band thing, I made an executive decision that I would be the first to take a snack: chocolate energy bars — not vegan but delicious — and a banana.

We also learned about arms swinging to the back instead of the front and never crossing the body. For some of these things, I’m not sure if the movement is actually like that or if it’s just something we’re supposed to visualize. For example, in yoga you sometimes get instructions to do things that are impossible, like reach for the ceiling or the opposite wall.  You’re never going to get there, but by visualizing that you get where you need to be.  I felt a bit like this with the arm instructions. Do they actually swing to the back or is that just what you think about, like a difference in emphasis?

Finally, at the end of the day we went outside and did a few laps around a short track, practicing our “gears.” Gears come from the lean. This is one of the concepts that I’ve never really gotten a good grip on. I lean forward more sharply but I don’t actually feel as if I’m going faster. I’ve got my swimming gears and my biking gears all figured out. But in running, I’m terrible at gears. I just go. And then my pace slows because I get tired.

We took turns running up and back in groups, with the other group providing “critiques.” I got some feedback that I didn’t fully understand, something about my legs swinging up too far behind me (which, frankly, I have no sense of at all — when I run I often feel as if I’m hardly even picking up my feet).

By then, almost four hours into with just ten or so minutes to go, my feet felt really tired, the way they might if you spent a lot of time standing in one place, which we kind of had.  But we still hadn’t run up and down hills, so we proceeded to the parking garage ramp.

There, we ran down — short steps, minimal lean (so as not to do a face plant), arms swinging to the back.  Then we ran up — shorts steps, forward lean, arms punching up (like an upper cut), and it should feel “effortless, like you’re not going up a hill at all.”  I’ve been practicing that one on hills ever since and I’m not convinced that it feels as if I’m running on a flat. Maybe it’s easier. I’m just not “feeling it” yet.

We got a hand-out and did a little go-around where everyone said what they got out of the workshop. I can’t even remember what I said.

I was more excited about the workshop than Anita and Violetta because I’ve been dabbling with the principles of chi running for almost three years now, ever since I read the book.  See here and here for my previous posts on it. I thought a workshop might help solidify some of the teachings for me.  But the “do you feel that?” approach didn’t help me as much as I’d hoped.

Since the workshop, I’ve had some check-ins from John, who is quite willing to answer questions. I told him the truth, which is that I practiced a few things and found them awkward. My lean feels unnatural and when I relax I slow down so much that I’m hardly moving.  I tried a cadence metronome app and I had a world of trouble trying to do the three steps per beat thing that they recommended. Then I tried 90 beats per minute, two steps per beat, and got all tangled up and frustrated.

I get that these things take practice, and to be fair, they recommend that you spend a lot of time doing practice drills that are extremely focused on one particular thing at a time. And that you set the Garmin aside, stop worrying about speed for awhile and just get a feel for it.  I suppose as with all things, the repeated attention to detail will eventually (we hope) yield an epiphany. I had that experience in yoga once: I’d been in Iyengar classes for about five years when one day I did a make-up class that was a lower level. My shoulder stand was pretty good already, but then the instructor said something that made me experience it in a whole new way. I became stronger and more stable on the spot, my shoulder stand forever improved.

Chi running might be like that. Let’s hope.

To find a Chi Running workshop check out the list of upcoming sessions with certified instructors all over (mostly in the US) here.

Mississauga Marathon Part 1: Taper Time!

Exciting times! On Sunday I’ll be running my first marathon ever! Sam, who has a gift for generating blog ideas not just for herself but also for me, made a special request for a three-part series: 1. Taper week; 2. Race report; 3. Recovery week.

I’m not sure if anyone else is as interested as she is, but I’m going to oblige anyway.  Having set aside my terror, I’m feeling kind of stoked about the upcoming marathon. Here’s what I know. It may not be pretty, but I will make it across the finish line.  In my experience with anything I’ve not done before, feeling confident that I can finish one way or another is one key ingredient to making it to the end.

I’ve never gone into an event worried about a DNF, so why start now? I had my moment when I thought I might demote my registration to a half marathon, but I’m over it. A marathon it will be!

So what does taper week look like for me? I don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of what’s required. I didn’t do a lot of reading. I just consulted my coach. She suggested three short-ish runs this week: 40 minutes on Tuesday, 30 minutes on Thursday, and 20 minutes on Saturday. Nothing particularly exerting save for a few super-short sprint bursts on the longer run.

When I say I didn’t do a lot of reading, that’s because the reading I did start to do overwhelmed me. Much of what I saw on the internet suggested that my tapering should have started before this week. It kind of did, in that last week was a bit of a wash. But not in a structured or intentional way.

Then there’s the nutrition. Sam sent me this post about nutrition the week before the marathon. I started to read it but when it started talking about grams of carbs per 500 grams of body weight, it felt too complicated. For one thing, I’m just not all that good at counting grams of carbs.  And for another, I’m just not all that good at seeing to it that I get a certain number of grams of anything.

So far my week-leading-up-to-the-race nutrition doesn’t look much different from any other week.  Maybe I’ll regret that. The one thing I do plan to implement is low fiber, high carbs, and low fat for the 2-3 days before race day. I don’t need to count to be able to do that and it seems like a sensible plan.

I’m also going to follow the suggestion of 30-60g of easily digestible carbs for each hour that I’m out there. I can count race food–gels, shot blocks, dates–and figure out how much to bring and how best to spread it out over the duration, which I estimate will be at least five hours.

The psychological impact of taper week is that you have a lot more time to let your head mess with you.  I first heard about that in this video that Caitlin of Fit and Feminist talked about when she wrote about her taper leading up to her BQ a few weeks ago. Here’s the video:

Call it heightened sensitivity or whatever. But yes, I can relate. I’m hyper-aware of every physical thing going on. I attended a Chi Running workshop on the weekend (blog post coming) and something we did that day (maybe the part where we ran without shoes–which I did against my better judgment) really activated my plantar fasciitis all over again. My mind went into a spiral: How am I going to run 42.2 km with this feeling in my right foot?

It’s fine now.

They also talk about getting lots of rest. I’m trying, but there is a ton going on in my life right now besides the marathon. So as much as I want to make race day the focal point, it’s really just one thing among several this week and that’s not what I had in mind when I signed up way back in the fall.

So I wouldn’t say this taper time is going especially well or that I’m doing it “properly.”  But right now I can’t be too preoccupied with that. I’m getting in my runs as precribed, putting a halt on resistance training for the week, and doing one swim session on Friday.

I only have two real goals for race day (which I’m happy to report is expected to be partly sunny and warm but not hot hot): 1. Make it to the finish line and 2. have at least a little bit of fun.

Reconnecting with Chi Running: Chi Marathon Training

Book cover for chi marathon. A group of eight or nine people running on a wide path with green grass on either side.Way back at the beginning of our blog, I wrote about Chi Running. Chi Running is a style of running that touts itself as “injury free.” For many, the idea of running without any injuries at all is a wishful thinking.

I was doing pretty well for awhile. I’d incorporated some of the techniques of chi running, like the midfoot strike, slight forward lean, and keeping a well-aligned “column.” All of this changed my running and over time it’s come to be something I really love.

But…

I’ve been training for the Around the Bay 30K on March 29th. It’s a race with a venerable history — first run three years before the first Boston Marathon! It’s a challenging course and many say that if you can do ATB the you can do a marathon (I guess it depends on the marathon). There’s usually a killer hill at the end, even more severe than Boston’s Heartbreak Hill. This year, road construction means we’re detouring past the brutal hill.

Back in November I joined a clinic to train for the race.  We do hills on Wednesdays, tempo runs on Thursdays, and LSDs (Long Slow Distance runs) on Sundays.

The distance runs have slowly, and then more quickly, built distance. Back in November 13K seemed long. But a few weeks ago, we did 23K, up from 19K the week before that.

And my knee. My poor knee.  About 18K into the 23, I felt a twinge on the outside of my knee. For the last little bit of the run, it just got worse and worse. And I couldn’t warm up my hands no matter what I did. And my feet got wet. But I made it. Not just that, I added an extra block to the route because with the store in sight we were still short of our 23 by 0.5K.

The next Sunday, we went back down to 19K and again, the knee acted up. And finally, I actually scaled back the week after that, running what should have been an easy 14K with Anita (my Scotiabank half marathon partner).  I limped along in thick slippery snow with a funky right knee for much of that route. That’s when a week of rest started to sound like a plan.

I’ve been seeing a great physiotherapist who encourages me to run through the pain if I can. But when I went in last week and said, “I’m thinking of taking a week off of running,” he thought it wasn’t a bad idea. His words: “If you’re thinking of taking a week off, then you should take it.”

I’ve been diligently doing my physio exercises to strengthen my hips and glutes so that my IT band has more support.  And my plantar fasciitis, which is the main reason I started going to my physiotherapist, is pretty much gone!

But I’m also supplementing all of that with a renewed interest in chi running. I picked up a book at the library called Chi Marathon. It’s also by Danny and Katherine Dreyer, authors of the original Chi Running book.  It’s reminded me of a lot of what’s recommended in the original book, and when I get back to running later this week I plan to practice some of what I’m re-learning.

Sam and I are making provisional plans (just ironing out some details) to attend a chi running workshop in Dayton, Ohio in May, with the man himself, Danny Dreyer.  I’m serious enough about running that I’m willing to drive a few hours for this sort of thing. I’ve read that the workshops make a huge difference and, frankly, I could use some feedback concerning my running technique.

All that is going to come a bit too late for the Around the Bay in March, and, gulp, the Mississauga Marathon that I’ve signed up for on May 3rd. They say that sailors get a thing called “foot-itis,” where you want a bigger and bigger boat.  I think a lot of runners get this too — distance-itis!  I’m guessing that in the end I’ll settle in at the half marathon distance. But I’m not going to do that until I run at least one marathon.  So, Mississauga here I come.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that this is all going to fall into place. When I first wrote about chi running, I’d been experiencing shin pain:

Where I used to have some shin pain and lower back pain before I tried Chi Running, the posture and foot placement alone have dealt with both. If I feel any discomfort when I am running, I just re-focus on my posture (they call it ‘leveling the pelvis’) and check in with my foot placement.  Giving this kind of attention to the form of running helps me address the source of discomfort as soon as I start to feel it, and to correct it right away.

I had high hopes that chi running would transform my running:

 

Learning to run without serious risk of injury means a lot to me. So far, I feel optimistic that Chi Running, once mastered, will help me achieve that goal.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in a gentler approach to running. Reading the book will give you enough of an idea of what Chi Running is about to decide whether you want to follow up with a workshop. I plan to do just that in the spring and look forward to reporting back once I do.

Well, I would hardly say I’ve mastered this approach.  And I’m happy to have an incentive (knee and hip pain and tight IT band) that has taken me back to the basics, renewing my commitment to chi running. I want to run for a long time.  And, as a friend pointed out to me the other day, we’re not in our twenties anymore!

 

Om…Fitness Practice as Meditation

jordand_patch-meditationThe first philosophical problem I ever encountered was the mind-body problem. The question: what is the relationship between mind and body? How do they interact with each other when the body is physical and the mind is mental? I returned to this problem many times as a philosophy
student, both in my undergraduate studies and graduate studies.

But it wasn’t until I started to practice meditation that the mind-body connection became meaningful to me as more than just a philosophical puzzle. A meditative approach to my physical activities has had a transformational affect on my experience of them and my performance at them.

I learned to meditate as a graduate student. I picked up a book called The Joy Within: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation (by Joan Goldstein and Manuela Soares). I wanted to find a way to settle my spinning mind.

At the beginning, two minutes of sitting in silence with my eyesclosed (I wouldn’t yet call it “meditating”) seemed like an eternity. But using the exercises in the book, I eventually developed the capacity to sit for 20-30 minutes. For many years, practicing the techniques outlined in that book, I sat in meditation for 20-30 minutes every day.

Without me trying, the stillness and focus I achieved in meditation started to spill over into other areas of my life. If I was stuck in traffic, for example, it no longer bothered me. Waiting in line for the bank machine became an opportunity to rest instead of an occasion to get irritated. In general, I found myself to be in less of a hurry.

One day, while working out with weights in the gym, I found myself in what can only be described as a “heightened state of consciousness.” I picked up each weight with a sense of quiet, focused purpose. If I was doing bicep curls, I focused my attention on form, on the feeling of the muscle in my upper arm working, on my breathing, in pace with my movements. I felt totally present, as if the world had shrunk down to include only me and the weights I had in my hands. In short, that day (and from then on), approached my weight training with the mind of meditation.

By the end of the workout, I felt completely serene and at peace, much as I did whenever I meditated.

There are many forms of meditation, some associated with religious or spiritual traditions, some not. The most effective meditation course I’ve encountered is on mindfulness meditation. It was developed specifically for Westerners and isolates the practice of meditation from any spiritual or religious context. You learn simply to be present and in silence for extended periods of time (from about 15-20 minutes and longer).

A few years ago, I took such a course — Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Reduction — with Dr. Kate Partridge (London, Ontario). One of the first techniques we learned was the body scan. This is a guided meditation where the guide (either in person or recorded) talks you through a body scan, focusing attention on specific body parts one at a time. In class, Kate always had us engage in mindful movement (yoga lite) before we lay down for the body scan. This physical activity prior to the meditation brought our awareness to the feelings in our bodies.

By the middle of the eight-week course, the body scan exercise became my favorite. It’s the one I think is most useful for athletes. The reason is that it seriously heightened my ability to direct my awareness to very specific parts of my body (e.g. the big toe on my left foot). Doing the body scan brought me back to that experience I had in the gym that day and for many days afterwards. Having gotten away from weight training for some years, I’d forgotten that sense of focus that careful attention to the body can bring. At the end of a complete body scan sequence, I feel completely relaxed and at peace.

Having worked with meditation for so many years, I have taken it into my fitness practice in many different ways. Apart from the experience with the weights — something that I cannot capture when working out with a trainer or a partner, as I am doing these days — I have used swimming, walking, running, and yoga as meditation practices. The capacity to focus on the body that I learned in the mindfulness class is one way of bringing meditation into these activities.

Another common meditation technique is to focus on the breath. This too brings wonderful awareness to physical activity. When I am swimming or running, the combination of focusing on my breath and the rhythm of my stroke or footfalls takes me into a meditative, almost thought-free state where I lose all track of time.

Since I’ve started to practice the technique of chi-running, I have used the body scan to check my form. Keeping my awareness on form in that way also has a meditation affect, bringing the awareness of body into sharp focus in the mind. Approaching running or yoga or swimming or weight training (or anything physically demanding) from the perspective of meditation has the added bonus of making it easier to endure the hard parts (I even use it when I’m undergoing a root canal at the dentist, or getting a new tattoo). One of the gifts of meditation is that it teaches us to stay with difficult feelings instead of fleeing from them. Much like changing my experience of being stuck in traffic or caught in a long line-up, meditation changes my experience of my training when I choose to use it.

I do not always choose to use it. For example, lately I have been experimenting with music while running. It too helps me endure the hard bits, but in a totally different way.

Meditation focuses attention and draws me strongly into the experience, almost as an observer or a witness; in contrast to that, music is more like a distraction. I similarly distract myself when I choose to read on the cross-trainer. No such distraction presents itself when I do laps in the pool. Or when I turn off the music while I’m running (which, for at least part of every run, I do).

Note that, for me, it doesn’t take the place of periods devoted solely to sitting in silent meditation.

For all my experience of the mind-body connection through meditation and physical movement, I have not come any closer to solving the philosophical mind-body problem. But I do know that, for those who are engaged in athletic pursuits, getting the mind focused through meditation can be wonderfully transformational.

Right now I’m enjoying an excellent book, Running with the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham. And I’m just about ready to turn off that music while I’m running!

[Image credit: JordanD]