To begin running, you don't need buns of steel. You don't need iron muscles. You don't even need a masochistic mindset.
It may surprise you, but even the most sports-challenged of us can become runners, and do it without sustaining injuries.
How? Learn to run using your mind-body connection, drawing from traditional Chinese medicine, explains Danny Dreyer, a nationally ranked ultra-marathon runner in the San Francisco Bay area. He lays out his plan in his book Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running.
In Chinese culture, chi (pronounced chee) is the subtle energy force that flows through all parts of your body, he says. By practicing mental focus and relaxation -- principles from the ancient practice of T'ai Chi - you can train your body to stay centered, relaxed, and move efficiently.
"If you use your brain, you don't need to work your body as hard," Dreyer tells WebMD. "ChiRunning is about having a constant conversation between your mind and your body, getting your mind to train your body to relax, and listen to what your body trying to tell you."
Effortless running is about relaxing muscles, opening tight joints, and using gravity to do the work, he says. Here's a quick how-to-start outline:
Step 1: Focus Your Mind
"It's the mind that does the bulk of the work in ChiRunning," writes Dreyer. "Your mind turns off the chatter and focuses so it can listen to your body."
Your mind instructs your muscles to start working or relaxing. Your mind orchestrates the perfect run, starting out slowly, finding the perfect tempo, he adds. Your mind takes in the beauty of your surroundings so that you finish relaxed, and full of energy.
When you begin running, your mind must also push against the body's natural inertia. "Your body is like a dumb animal," Dreyer tells WebMD. "It will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force like your mind. You have to train it."
Step 2: Sense Your Body
Pay close attention to what your body is doing. Practice listening to any little nuances that you can detect. Feel your foot hitting the ground. Feel your posture.
Is your body moving in the way you intended it to? Is your movement easier or more difficult? Are there subtle changes you should make?
As you begin running, you must develop body sense. Then you will become your own best teacher and coach, says Dreyer.
Step 3: Breathe to Tap Into Chi
The more efficiently your body can take in oxygen, the easier running will feel, Dreyer explains. If you're not breathing deeply into your lower lungs, you're not getting as much air as you could -- a common problem when people begin running.
To belly-breathe, stand or sit and place your hands over your belly button. Now purse your lips as if you're trying to blow a candle out, and exhale, emptying your lungs by pulling in your belly button toward your spine. When you've blown out as much air as you can, relax your belly and the inhale will occur naturally.
Practice breathing out for three steps, breathing in for two steps. Try matching your breath with your cadence.
Step 4: Relax Your Muscles
Tight muscles can't get the oxygen they need. The cure is easy: Just relax! Don't take yourself so seriously. Drop your shoulders. Smile. Relax your glutes. Float like a butterfly... lighten up, says Dreyer.
When muscles are loose and relaxed, the oxygen carried in your blood can enter the muscle cells much more easily than if your muscles are tense. Keep telling your muscles, "Softer is better!"
Step 5: Practice Good Posture
Having good running posture is the cornerstone of ChiRunning. When your posture is correct, energy or chi flows through your body unhindered, he explains.
Your aligned body has a centerline that runs from head to foot. It is the "steel" that supports your body, which allows your arms and legs to relax. Running with your posture out of alignment creates tension and fatigue.
Stand in front of a mirror. Straighten your upper body. Then look down at your feet. If you can see your shoelaces, it's a good bet that your dots are connected in a straight line - perfect. Memorize how this feels. Practice it.
Step 6: Start Slow
When you begin to run, take it gradually, says Dreyer. "Practice your posture. Really memorize what it feels like to have good posture. Feel yourself standing in straight line. Practice alternating do on one foot, then switch. Shift weight back and forth. Feel yourself keeping posture line straight while on one foot a time."
Then, it's time for a little jog. Connect with your posture. Feel your feet down at the bottom of your posture line. Start to jog slowly. When one foot hits the ground, feel it hitting at bottom of your posture line. Practice moving from one foot to the next, taking baby steps."
"Speed is not a factor here," Dreyer says. "That's the very last thing you should think about. You're working on form -- holding it little bit longer each time. Stretch that over a block, two blocks, three blocks. That's building distance, until you can hold your form over distance."
It's True: Mind Over Matter Works
Sports physiologists have long known that "there's a huge connection between self-talk and running," says Tom Holland, MS, exercise physiologist, sports performance coach, and lecturer for the American Running Association.
Whether you call it ChiRunning, or mindful running, the research is clear. "Studies show that when athletes dissociate, when they wear a walkman when they run, they don't do as well," Holland tells WebMD. "Many runners want to think of anything but the running. But our thoughts literally change our physiologic reactions. Our thoughts are performance cues. When you do positive self-talk, you do fine."
When you begin to run, take it slow, he says. "Get outside the door. Set short term and long term goals. Plan to run, but take walking breaks. We're debunking the myth that walking is bad. The goal is to get somewhere with the least effort."
Example: Decide to go three miles, regardless how many times you walk, how many you run. Or go out for 15 minutes. Or set one lap around the block as your goal. Set small goals that are concrete, attainable, realistic. Set dates for achieving them. Do your first 5K in six months; your first marathon next year.
"Running is 95% a mental game," Holland adds. "What's the number one thing want to achieve?" Is it losing weight? Fitting into your wedding dress? Looking good at Cozumel? Set a goal, and suddenly you have incentive. You will begin running!