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Back on Track

A runner's chi.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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 right.

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 muscles.

"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 moving meditation.

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