ChiRunning: Ultimate Running Enlightenment or Expensive Stupid Crap?

This is a guest post from Susan Lacke.

Running is hard. It’s supposed to be, isn’t it?

516z+LoJ SL 199x300That’s the very reason why some of you run: to push the limits of the human body and remind yourself that you’re alive. There’s a little bit of sadistic pride that comes with having sore muscles after a brutal hill workout.

Even though it’s hard, running is something that comes naturally to us. We’re hardwired to do it; No one should have to teach us. As children, it’s a natural part of development: First we scoot, then we crawl, then we walk, then we run.

For that very reason, I’ve always had a great disdain for products or services which promise to make people better runners. Such items, in my mind, fall into one of two categories: Stupid Crap or Expensive Stupid Crap. So when some readers suggested I do a review of a ChiRunning workshop for the site, I began plotting an endless barrage of jokes outing ChiRunning as Expensive Stupid Crap. Most of them centered around a Himalayan Zen Master in a mountain cave, smoking some serious grass and encouraging compression-short-clad runners to “Wax on, Wax off.”

“Effortless, Injury-Free Running”

The folks from ChiRunning sent me a copy of the book and DVD to review before the workshop. Within both, I was able to learn more about what ChiRunning actually is (and no, the words “Wax on, Wax off” do not appear anywhere). The concepts of ChiRunning seemed pretty legit, with a focus on biomechanics and form to make running feel easier and reduce the risk of injury.

For example, ChiRunning encourages the use of a mid-foot strike when a runner’s foot lands, as opposed to landing on the heel or the ball of the foot. When you land on the heel, you’re essentially “putting on the brakes” with each step. When you utilize the mid-foot strike, your making it easier on yourself to keep the continuous motion of your legs going seamlessly.

Here’s a video of ChiRunning’s Danny Dreyer talking about how to avoid heel striking, to give you an idea of what ChiRunning is about:

Makes sense, right? Pretty much everything described in the book makes logical sense, and actually parallels what a lot of “experts” say, such as the need to engage the core muscles while running.

To be honest, the book is a pretty dry read. Granted, running form is not exactly juicy stuff, but still, a little bit of entertainment (might I suggest a stoned Zen Master character?) would have helped. Plus, still pictures and written descriptions can only do so much – I needed to see what I was supposed to be doing to employ the concepts of ChiRunning.

Enter the DVD. It was good to see the concepts in action, and having talking heads was slightly more entertaining than the book. As I practiced the form adjustments demonstrated in the DVD, I found myself getting frustrated: Was I doing it right? Was I making mistakes? What the hell am I doing? My poor dogs must have thought I’d finally gone batshit crazy, watching a DVD, pausing it, and running laps around the apartment cursing.

The ChiRunning Workshop

Remember Carnivore from the great NMA Chamois Cream Experiment? I asked him to come with me to the 4-hour ChiRunning workshop that Saturday morning. At first, he rolled his eyes and made jokes  (“You want me to teach you how to run right, Susan? Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. Quickly!”). Then I think secretly he was just glad I didn’t ask him to subject his frank and beans to NMA scientific inquiry again. At any rate, he agreed to come along, though both of us were already convinced the workshop would be a waste of a perfectly good Saturday morning.

jpg 300x224We were greeted at the workshop by Mark Wallis, an extremely approachable instructor. Mark began teaching ChiRunning after discovering the skills involved with the approach eliminated injury for him during his own running. His basic philosophy: Running should be fun, comfortable, and injury-free. Running should make you happy. When you’re learning from him, you can’t help but agree.

We began the day with Mark videotaping each participant running. We then watched each person’s video and Mark helped identify each person’s cadence, or number of footfalls each minute. In ChiRunning, the ideal cadence is 174-180 footfalls per minute – most of us run with far less. The initial video also helped identify basic form errors each participant had and how they could lead to injury down the line.  From there, Mark guided us through a series of drills to help us understand concepts such as keeping a straight posture; leaning forward from the ankles (as opposed to leaning backwards or from the hip); and lifting your heels to avoid the slow “marathon shuffle” so many runners settle into.

To help us see our accurate use of the mid-foot strike, Mark had us run through sand and analyze our footprints. In order to feel the correct amount of lean, we tilted our bodies so our foreheads were touching the wall. To get us to pick up our feet, we did kicking drills, Riverdance-style (the homeless people watching us in the park were thoroughly amused, I’m sure). We ran up hills and down hills, and through it all were given solid constructive criticism.

The moment of truth came when we were videotaped, once again, at the end of the workshop. It was somewhat surprising to see how quickly everyone’s form changed in such a short period of time.

The Verdict

Going in, C and I both thought the whole thing was going to be a load of B.S. We were so looking forward to outing ChiRunning workshops as Expensive Stupid Crap.

And we can’t. We just can’t.

jpg1 300x216Mark, our instructor, gave us some new weapons in our arsenal to make us stronger runners. We were given great feedback in the classroom, and the drills made the application to running form easy. All videos from the class were emailed to us after the workshop, along with links to multiple resources that would help us continue to monitor our progress.

Though C and I both attended the workshop as guests of ChiRunning, we agree we’d have paid for this: the video analysis alone is worth the cost of the workshop (usually $125). Having Mark there to provide us with immediate feedback during the drills is so much better than trying to figure it out yourself while reading the book or watching the DVD.

The stamp of approval: If you can afford the workshop, do it. s not a waste of a Saturday morning, and it is not, in fact, Expensive Stupid Crap.

So now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find someplace else to use all those stoned Himalayan monk jokes.

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Comments

  1. My husband has this book and while I’ve never read it myself, your review has peaked my interest.

  2. I’m glad that you did a post on this because I was wondering what a “real” person thought about it. I first learned about ChiRunning on Sara Snow. It was about a 3 minute segment, and honestly, I wasn’t convinced. Sara said she wasn’t a runner, and after she talked with Danny (I think), she said that running wasn’t hard for her anymore. I wasn’t convinced that she could go from “running is hard for me” to “this is easy” in 3 minutes.

    This will definitely make me take a second look. Thanks!

    • It takes a little longer than 3 minutes. ;) I went from “running is hell” to actually enjoying running — and occasionally having moments where I feel like I’m flying! — after about 6 months.

      I read the book a few years ago, but it didn’t sink in until I took a workshop. The DVD is really good though.

    • Susan Lacke says:

      I’m with Elaine on this one — it isn’t a “Voila! I’m cured!” type of thing. It’s more of a “Hey, this is kinda cool, I think I’ll keep trying” thing. I still have to remind myself of my “form goals” before each run (mainly, my big issue is from tensing up my shoulders), but every time I go out there, I find that it gets easier to naturally fall into the “right” form and hold it for longer.

    • Susan Van Abs says:

      I am a beginner runner at age 50. I’ve run three 5ks and they were sort of hell on earth. Just took the Chi running full day workshop and I was amazed at how much easier running was using the techniques. I know if I keep practicing the techniques, my next 5k will be a lot easier.

  3. Hmmm, ChiRunning sounds really fascinating! Typically, I am in your boat–highly skeptical of these types of things–but it sounds like there’s actually something here! Thanks for the info. Definitely worth checking out.
    ~Allison
    Fit&Fab Living

  4. I picked up ChiRunning a year ago and have been using it ever since. I was constantly having shin splints and beginning to get plantar fasciitis, as well as IT band problems, so I knew my form was crap. I picked up the book for $7 on sale, and along with the barefoot (vff) running method, I’ve been injury free. The guys at the running store openly scoff at my approach, but like I told them, if they don’t want to try it, then don’t try it. I’m not trying to convince anyone, but it did & does work for me.

    • Susan Lacke says:

      To each his own! I’m not a big fan of the VFF trend for myself, but I know of a lot of people who swear y it. Far be it from me to tell anyone their method is right or wrong. If you’re happy and running, then I’m happy! :)

  5. I think the easiest way to eliminate a heel strike and start ChiRunning is to take off your shoes, or just wear truly minimalist shoes. That way, if you land on your heel, it hurts. So you naturally, automatically, correct your form to land on your toes or midfoot.

    It takes time to adjust to it, and very short runs to train up muscles you haven’t used, but in the end, it’s awesome.

  6. While I have read this book, I am no good at learning from books alone and would probably benefit from a course like that.

    • I know this article is old but I’m wondering if you ever did try it. I’m signed up to do one in May and I’m hoping it’s what helps this middle aged lady be able to run without sore knees. I’m not overweight, so that’s not contributing. I looked at the DVD and read the book a year ago but as you said it’s too hard to see if you are doing it right.

  7. I knew I needed to re-learn how to run. I have read and tried different stratagies and felt realy weired. Will check this one out.I need all the help I can get.

  8. Yeah, the title sounds hokey, but it’s a great program.

    I’m really glad you didn’t slaughter Chi Running… I took a workshop in February, and since then I’ve been able to ditch both my $400 prescription orthotics AND my knee pain.

    If it wasn’t for Chi Running, I think I would have had to quit running altogether.

    • Elaine,
      I was really glad to see your comment, as I have knee problems to and am signed up to do a Chi Workshop in a couple of weeks hoping it will help. I am already running mid foot but I’m hoping there are some other things that I’m not doing that I will learn. It’s been 2 years but if you see this message and are still running comfortably I would love to hear from you.

      Thanks,
      Terri

  9. Excellent article again! In my humble opinion, (and I don’t have many humble opinions), Chi Running is particularly useful for those that have persistent running injuries or those wanting to become more efficient. I am convinced that running shoes, pavement, side-walks and treadmills are excellent sources of awfull running techniques. You want to run beautifully? Take off your shoes and do a nice easy run in a soft grass surface. Do it often and you will develop the strong neuromuscular pathways required for a good running stride in any surface with any types of shoes.

  10. I’ve been a chi-running follower for years. Never fails that when I get injured or have pain it’s because I strayed from my chi-running form and when return my focus back on it those problems disappear.

  11. Fishback Boy says:

    It is interesting stuff and it is a huge help to actually watch someone run that has the system down as I have done. I had the chance to do a 16 mile trail run with a Chi runner and asked lots of questions. I have adopted some of the basics and I like the results.

    • Susan Lacke says:

      That is another great strategy, though I’ve discovered since the workshop that there are some people who read the book and my not be applying the concepts of ChiRunning correctly. Like I said in the article, the book and DVD are good, but until you have the human feedback, I didn’t quite understand whether or not I was doing something right (and it turned out I wasn’t!). The best way to be sure you’re doing it right is if you have a certified coach working with you.

  12. interesting. I’ve researched pose and evolution running. Pose is so rigid in the exercises and form and turned me off a bit. Evolution is pretty simple in concept and I’ve been following the form recently. I know that I’d be better off with some “coaching”, but there’s nothing available at this point. There is a Chi clinic in Feb around here… $225 might be more than I can swing though. I think the thing that I struggle with the most is being able to do and keep up with a cadence @180. I need to go back and do some of the evolution drills to see if I can get more out of it, though I do feel better than the previous heel pounding form.

  13. This has been my favorite post by you, Susan! I loved the comment that running should make you happy. I think so many people forget that.

  14. I’ve been doing the Chirunning techniques for about 6 years and I love it. I agree with an ealier post, when I get injured now it’s because I’ve gotten sloppy. I’m just not fully sold on the barefoot/minimalist craze`yet. I really enjoyed “Born to Run” but barefoot/minimalist form is just not for everyone.

  15. DO you automatically revert back to your “non chi-running” stride when you stop thinking about it? I’d love focus more on chi running, but I hate the thought of thinking so much for my fun runs!

    • Susan Lacke says:

      The first few runs, yes — but now, I’m finding that it doesn’t require as much thought. I did have one “sloppy” run the other day, but I was tired and stressed and the run actually ended up being “junk miles.” When I run with purpose and remind myself before the run of what I’m doing, it’s pretty easy for me to fall into the right form now. Running is still fun. I promise. :)

  16. I have the ChiRunning book and think the principles make sense. I even bought a copy of the book for my mom. I have attended a free 1 hour class from Mark Wallis here in Vegas and found it helpful to get a little bit of explanation in person about the practice. I have always thought I would LOVE to attend a ChiRunning workshop, so I’m glad to hear that you actually find it worth the price.

  17. After a year or so of injury after injury, I was desperate for a new technique. I recently came across chi running, watched a few videos, and have been running much more ‘effortlessly’ and comfortably since. Coincidentally, I also reviewed chi running a couple days ago on my blog – http://benalter4.blogspot.com/2010/10/not-born-to-run.html

  18. Just wanted to respond to Amanda – you don’t so much ‘think all the time’ as you ‘feel’ and respond to that. For ex., your back starts hurting, you level your pelvis, and voila! your back stops hurting. Plus there are tricks to help get it to be a habit in your body – like, practicing a focus (say, level your pelvis). You set your watch to beep every minute and for one minute you concentrate on that focus. Beep beep – you enjoy your surroundings, have fun, whatever. Beep beep – back to focusing for one minute. In a 30 minute run, you’ve focused on leveling your pelvis for 15 minutes without your brain getting bored. Make sense? It’s a great technique for connecting your mind and body, and teaching you to run mind WITH body instead of mind OVER body. That said, there is a learning period but with consistent practice, that quickly turns into a good habit.

  19. I bought the ChiRunning book about three months after I started jogging. I was suffering from really bad hip pain after my runs. Reading the book helped me to fix my alignment, and I haven’t had a running injury since. Although the book has a “new age-y” title, it does utilize some principles of tai ch’i. But most of the theories are just plain old physics, biomechanics, and common sense. I would not have been able to complete the training for my 1/2 marathon last week if not for this book!

  20. I have a friend who found Chi running very helpful I think, based on my enormous blister on ball of my foot post Chi(cago) marathon I’m a front foot striker and could use help. I found your initial skepticism in this process and product honest and actually now makes me want to try it more. Do you know where there are workshops in NYC? Good info, none of us want to do the “marathon shuffle”!

  21. It sounds like this is a fairly technical, well-researched concept, so why wrap it up in voodoo terminology? Associating it with “chi” doesn’t make it more credible, and it would definitely have stopped me from even taking a second glance at the program. Too bad the marketing isn’t as good as the actual content!

    • I think of it like “tai chi running,” which is more credible in my mind since tai chi is a sport. The author also credits his tai chi master with the posture basics of Chi Running (solid core & relaxed limbs for example), which also makes sense.

      They do talk about chi energy a bit in the intro of the book, but it’s applicable in the same way that prana is applicable in yoga. It helps you visualize proper muscle tension. But you could probably skip that part and still benefit. ;)

  22. I took the 4 hour workshop in Seattle this weekend and also found it very helpful. Our workshop wasn’t exactly as this article described (only videotaped at end for instance and didn’t run in sand); however, it was still worth the money paid. The hill work still amazes me. I can run up and down most hills now without any difficulty now. Have run since then and noticed improvement to my running technique and speed. It was amazing to feel the difference once we tried it with what we learned at the workshop.

  23. As a recent newbie to running I found your article to possibly save me a wasted weekend of trying chi running. Now that you have caught my interest I will be looking at anything that will help.

  24. Picked this book up randomly last summer at my local B&N. Stayed for an hour and read most of it, but was too cheap to buy it at the time…

    It’s an excellent book.

  25. RunnerBrett says:

    Matt,

    I am a Chi Running fanatic. It changed everything about the way I run. BUT, I didn’t know there was a DVD.

    I got the audio book and loaded it onto my mp3 player. The audio book had me do some simple exercises while I listened.

    I did the drills and then practiced them each time I ran. At times the changes were awkward but I kept at it.

    After about 3 months it all started coming together. I stopped heel striking, I have almost no up and down when I run and my feet are almost silent. It’s very cool when I run with someone, I tell them to listen to their shoes hitting the ground; then I tell them to listen to mine. They say, WOW! I say, that’s Chi Running.

    Because I don’t heel strike I avoid injury.
    Because I have almost no up and down I run more efficiently.

    Matt, I want the DVD so I can go through Chi again and see it from another ankle (just kidding) from another angle!

    Thanks Matt

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