Back on Track
A runner's chi.
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
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
"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