After 40 years of pounding the pavement, John Bryant learns how to relax and run like a child
It was the promise of learning “how to run without using your legs” that hooked me. I’ve been a runner most of my life, and so have spent more than four decades kicking out the miles.
I’ve punished my legs in more than 40 marathons, and once, along the way, they got smashed up in a major road traffic accident that left me briefly in a wheelchair. I know only too well that running can hurt.
So the hope dangled by a two-day running workshop in south London – the keys to “effortless, injury-free, life-long running” – seemed irresistible.
The man peddling the promise is Danny Dreyer, 55, a San Francisco-based ultramarathon runner who has created a system called ChiRunning. He aims to harness the inner concentration and smooth flowing movement of t’ai chi, along with the power of gravity, to take the panting, pounding, agony and sweat out of distance running.
“Most people run thinking they need lots of power and force,” he explains. “They use the big muscles that soon get tired. It’s a macho approach, but they are wasting so much energy. They run with pain and they usually end up injured.”
Dreyer, a furniture-maker turned full-time guru, coach and author, knows what he is talking about. He began as a recreational runner back in 1971 and made a cool and long-term decision that, as he lacked basic speed, he could excel as a competitor only by running very long distances.
His first race was a 50-miler back in 1995, and since then he has logged an impressive number of ultramarathons, often taking the trophy for the best in his age group and usually looking fresher at the finish than men half his age.
What Dreyer’s early races taught him was that aches, pains and injuries were the real problem with this type of running, and that he would have to learn to listen to his body to eliminate them. What he learnt, and what he now teaches in his courses and books, is how to use less and less of his muscle mass and how to hitch a ride using the power of gravity.
“It’s all about posture,” he says. “Lean gently forward from your ankles, and pick your feet off the ground. That’s the efficient way to run.”
Everything – feet, hands, body and head – should move forward in a straight line, with no wasted effort.
“Imagine yourself being pulled forward by a bungee cord attached to your chest. Let your feet follow, landing gently and flat. Don’t push off from your toes, just lift your feet up in a smooth, flowing movement. When I think about doing a 30-mile race, I realise that all I have to do is fall forward for 30 miles.”
There are about 40 of us in the workshop, all trying to figure out how to defy the law of gravity and desperately groping for the secrets of perfect posture. My classmates range from young athletes of both sexes, with postures yet to be beaten up by gravity, to a 70-year-old veteran eager to try out this new style of running in a marathon next year in Holland.
Among a handful of instructors is Catherina McKiernan, the Dublin-born runner who won the 1998 London Marathon. Eight years and two children later, McKiernan has retired from competitive running. But she still looks as if she could lean gently forward and waltz her way through a marathon any time she wants.
“You should try to run like young children,” urges Dreyer. And when I look at McKiernan, it suddenly seems possible to run that way whatever your age.
Of course, ChiRunning isn’t magic. Nor is it the first time that exercise enthusiasts have incorporated gravity into running. It’s a concept as old as the apple dropping on Newton’s head. It bears similarities to the “Pose” method of running, popular among many triathletes.
And, in a book published 105 years ago, I came across a very detailed account of running with bent legs, leaning forward and using the force of gravity.
But Dreyer doesn’t make any claims of outrageous originality. His contribution is to add his experiences of t’ai chi. His body is his laboratory, and his enthusiasm and common sense turn him into a formidable teacher.
After leaving Dreyer and taking his techniques out for a run, there is inevitably too much to remember. He advises that you keep it simple, concentrating on just one of the lessons learnt at a time. A week after the workshop, I find myself lining up to attempt 32 miles of the South West Coast Path between Exmouth and Charmouth. His words ring in my ears: “All you have to do is fall forward for 30 miles.”
The path is hot, steep and rugged. I try the gravity thing and sometimes it works. But out there on the path into Sidmouth, I experience the downside of gravity. As I lean, the earth comes up to meet me, very fast.
My face smacks the dirt and I land on my nose and lips. By Lyme Regis, I’ve stopped bleeding – and I’m still running. I finish and the next day, surprisingly, my legs are fresh enough to run again. Within three days, they are fully recovered – which is at least a week faster than my recovery from recent marathons. My face takes longer to heal from the grazes.
Out on the coast path, I’ve learnt to show some respect for gravity. But I may just have stumbled on the paradoxical secret of “how to run without using your legs”.
- Danny Dreyer is contactable at www.chirunning.com.
Posture Central to the ChiRunning technique. “When your body is aligned properly,” says Danny Dreyer, “your structure is supporting the weight of your body instead of your muscles having to do it.”
Lean Sounds crazy, but not as dangerous as it seems. Don’t bend at the waist – lean forward from the ankles like a ski-jumper. Gravity should pull you through.
Legs Pick up your feet, don’t push off from your toes. Relax your hips and keep your lower legs limp.
Arms Bend your elbows at a 90° angle and slacken your arms, swinging them to the rear. Soften your shoulders, relax the hands and don’t let them swing across the centre of your body. Use the arm swing to set a rapid cadence.