Chi Running: Sustain fitness long term
WALKERS, marathon runners, recreational joggers and people just hoping to improve their exercise and avoid strain – they're all taking part in a workshop on chi running.
Chi wha? This is a style of exercise that comes from the 2,000-year-old Chinese martial art of tai chi ("supreme fist"), which is rapidly growing in Ireland.
The chi style encourages all of us – from people just starting out to elite athletes – to improve our long-term exercise prospects by focusing on form, flexibility, posture and relaxation.
It says something for the popularity of the chi running classes that they're often booked out six months in advance – a sign of the growing urge to find ways of sustaining your fitness for the long term.
We attended a day-long course in Galway organised by champion cross-country and marathon runner Catherina McKiernan.
Catherina says she was drawn to the method after meeting Danny Dreyer, a star American runner who wanted to find a way of avoiding strain and injury during his gruelling training sessions.
"It just made sense to me," says Catherina, a record-breaking Irish marathon winner, with a time of two hours 20 minutes.
Catherina says her running now is a sheer stress-busting pleasure, and she uses the chi techniques during her regular recreational jogs.
"It's a whole new experience," she told me.
Another chi instructor is Ruth Farrell, who runs programmes in Cork and Dublin, for which many beginners are signing up.
"People are getting smart, and they want to learn this wholistic approach to running," says Ruth, who is involved with the Cork City Marathon. "Others come because they're getting injuries to their knees, hamstrings or shin splints, and they want to learn to run effortlessly and lessen the impact on their bodies."
So what can you expect from a typical course?
A lot of indoor drills, an outdoor run if the weather permits, a bit of craic and a video of each person in the group taken at the beginning and played back later in the day so you can all groan and commiserate as you watch each other commit common pre-chi gaffes. These include heel striking (leading with the back of your foot), over-striding and slumping rather than leaning forward.
Many people are worried their stride is causing them harm, and this concern is backed by recent studies, with a report in the 'New York Times' showing nearly 80pc of recreational joggers suffer running injuries every year. This has caused a spike in the demand for safer techniques, with chi running leading the way.
Launched in America by Danny Dreyer, this method incorporates the movement principles and meditative practices of tai chi, and claims to offer "a real solution" to the high rate of injury of the sport.
Getting a practical lesson in the technique is worthwhile – you can read Dreyer's book and watch his DVD, but both can leave you a bit confused. For example, a key element of the style is a mid-foot strike, in which the foot lands evenly on the ground under the body, rather than the traditional style, in which the foot lands in front of the body, giving a more jarring heel strike.
For my nine-year-old Ruairi, this style is no problem. "Children naturally land like this," she explains.
And the beauty of the method is you use gravity rather than your muscles to pull you along.
So you just run downhill? Ah, there's more to it than that, but the technique soon has you moving in a more flowing and easily maintained style.
Chi, that feels great.