Before I finish the story of my trip to California and the medicine walk I took, I want to tell you about the chi running workshop I went to last weekend. Angela James taught the workshop. She is the only certified chi running trainer in Vancouver. Danny and Katherine Dryer developed this method and wrote about it in ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running. Danny is an ultra-marathoner (running distances of up to 100 miles!!!), and also does T’ai Chi, an ancient martial art that works with our chi, or life force.
If you’ve never felt your chi and wonder what it is, try this simple exercise. Rub your hands together in a circular motion until you feel a lot of heat in your palms from the friction. Then hold your hands about an inch apart and sense the space between them. (You might want to close your eyes to allow your other senses to become more sensitive.) You might notice a “cushion” of air, which feels like a slight resistance if you bring your hands slightly closer to each other. Then gradually bring your hands further apart, feeling the energy between them, until they are so far apart that you no longer feel the energy. Then slowly bring your hands together and see what happens as they get closer. It might feel like the space between your hands gets denser as the energy concentrates when your hands come closer together. The energy between your hands is your chi, or life energy. Chi is also all around us, available for us to gather from the air, ground, and living plants.
With chi running, we can gather this chi while running to help energize us on long runs. I noticed I could do this while running through Stanley Park in the Vancouver half marathon—the trees definitely gave me energy in a way that concrete buildings on other parts of the route did not. And we can also replenish ourselves with chi at any time during the day (not just when running). T’ai Chi and another practice called Qigong teach ways for gathering and working with the energy, and opening the channels in our body to help it flow more freely. It is subtle energy, and you might not believe it even exists if you’ve never felt it, but hopefully the simple exercise I showed you will help you to feel it.
I first read the ChiRunning book about four years ago, and practicing the method helped me increase my capacity from the 10K distance to the half-marathon. The techniques show us how to run using the body mechanics most efficiently and effortlessly, allowing us to run long distances injury-free. Previously, pain where the IT band attaches to my left knee prevented me from running long distances. But using the chi running technique, in combination with my yoga practice, I was able to gradually and gently increase my distance from 10K to 21.2K!
So as you can imagine, I was very excited about going to the workshop and learning about the technique from an expert. The workshop was terrific, and I highly recommend it. Angela is a very supportive, skilled teacher. A few students she has coached were also there, offering their insights from the perspective of people who are still learning the techniques. We learned some of the “focuses”—specific techniques—indoors, and then went out on a track to practice them. I was amazed at how using these simple techniques really increased my speed. It was almost scary!
But afterwards, something funny happened. I didn’t want to go running. Hmm, what was going on? The next day was supposed to be my Sunday long run, but I didn’t go. I planned to do it Monday instead, but Monday came and went without a run. In the training program I am following to prepare for the Vancouver marathon this May (which will be my first full marathon!), it says never try to make up a missed run. So Tuesday I did a shorter run, just 56 minutes. And I realized I didn’t want to use what I had learned at the workshop. I didn’t want to mess with my comfortable, slow, plodding running style. I like to just go out and not think about running. I don’t want to go faster! I don’t want to change! Don’t harsh my mellow!
I had my worst running week ever, totally blowing off the training schedule. I only ran three times, though I did do a long run of 2 hours and 40 minutes on Wednesday. But I still didn’t want to try the new techniques.
This experience taught me something about learning, and about the ego. The ego does not want to change, not really, even though we might think we want to change. There are calcified structures within us that keep us going in a familiar groove, doing the same things, thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same feelings. It takes a huge amount of effort to carve new neural pathways in the brain, which is part of the process of learning a new behaviour. We have to have a lot of motivation and focus in order to persist with this. It is hard to go out of our comfort zones and into new unknown territory. Why, even getting up early on a Saturday and going to the workshop was hard to do, and created an irritable resistance within me that I had to overcome!
So I’m going to give myself a break with the running. I intend to practice what I’ve learned for short periods during a run now and then, but most of the time I will just let myself be. And I think that when things start to get hard in the marathon, that occasional practice of new techniques will pay off. I’ll have some new things to try, to keep myself interested during the 4+ hours of the run. But more importantly, running with the new methods will use my muscles slightly differently, giving me a rest and allowing me to go beyond the limits that my comfortable old style has.
#1 tip from the workshop
Chi running uses the principle of “cotton and steel.” Imagine a needle in a ball of cotton wool. This is what our body can be like when we’re running. The needle is the spine and the core abdominal muscles of our body. The cotton is everything else: our legs, butt, lower back, arms, hands, feet.
Steel: To embody this while running, draw your spine up really long, lifting your head up off your neck (keeping the back of your neck long and tall). Draw your belly in ever so slightly. This engages the core muscles. The long spine and resilient, engaged core muscles provide the steel—the support the body needs to glide effortlessly along, hour after hour.
Cotton: Now let the rest of your body totally relax. I love the feeling of letting go and noticing the muscles in my back loosen and let go like a liquid, from the waist and butt down all the way through my legs to my feet. It feels amazing to let all these muscles totally relax, and to trust that they know what to do in response to the changes of the terrain—I don’t have to do anything. Try this the first time when going downhill, and you will be amazed at the feeling of lightness and freedom!