Christopher McDougall started a revolution throughout the global running community by trying something new -- because the same-old way was making his foot hurt.
In fact, McDougall used the question "Why does my foot hurt?" as a launching pad for "Born to Run," which tells a remarkable story about great distance runners while labeling today's running shoes as the cause of ... well, many of today's running injuries. (I'm currently 123 pages in, myself.)
Almost inconceivably, this book -- about distance running -- is hovering around No. 60 on Amazon's bestseller list, seven months after its release. It's almost like a book about flag football being No. 60 on Amazon's bestseller list.
Anyway, "Born to Run" and its indictment of modern running shoes has generated tremendous interest in minimalist footwear. And whether you ultimately become a Vibram FiveFingers convert or not, it's clear more and more injury-prone runners are coming to the same conclusion: Whatever we've been doing just ain't workin'.
So there I am Saturday morning shuffling into Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics with my sore right IT band and my achy left Achilles tendon for a workshop about ChiRunning -- which, at the top of its home page, makes a pretty bold promise: Injury-free running for the rest of your life.
The four-hour class was taught by Charlottean Amy Peacock, a warm, even-keeled blonde of 39 who is among more than 100 certified ChiRunning instructors worldwide. On Saturday, I was one of nine mostly middle-aged men in attendance; there was only a single female student, which came as a mild surprise.
It was no surprise, however, that when we went around the room for introductions, pretty much all nine other participants said they've been running with pain -- everything from plantar fasciitis to knee problems to titanium hip replacement surgery. No one, when asked their reason for coming, said they were looking to "focus their mind" or "lift their spirit" or "open up their flow of chi."
That, by the way, is more language from the ChiRunning home page, and quite honestly, I wasn't fully sure what to expect going in given the slightly New Age-y bent of the whole philosophy. Fortunately, though, Amy never asked us to try breathing through our eyelids and didn't attempt to sell us aquamarine bath crystals during restroom breaks.
After introductions, she went through a PowerPoint presentation that covered the principles of ChiRunning, which is based on a tall, upright posture and a forward lean that promotes a midfoot strike instead of a heel strike. Then she had us stand up and practice the basics of ChiRunning form. It goes a little something like: lengthen your spine, breathe, crane your neck, relax, level your pelvis by engaging your lower abs, breathe, lean slightly forward, relax.
Of course, those are only the broad strokes. In the handout Amy provided, there's a laundry list of "form focuses" -- 16 bullet points in all. And since ChiRunning is based on the idea that you want to "lean into it," there's a lengthy description of how far to lean and what you need to do with your body to get the desired results. (If it sounds complicated, it kind of is. There's a lot to ChiRunning ... enough, in fact, for creator Danny Dreyer of Asheville to fill a whole book.)
In a hallway, Amy took us through some leaning drills (lean into a wall, lean into a partner) to demonstrate how the idea is to "go with gravity" when you're ChiRunning. She mentioned that kids are the perfect ChiRunners: They lean into a run to get started, and continue to lean until they get to their destination.
We then went outside and did some drills in a nearby soccer field, where we practiced using our "gears" -- lean forward one inch, first gear; lean forward two inches, second gear; three inches, third; four inches, fourth. She gave us a crash course in ChiWalking to help us work on rotating our pelvises to improve efficiency, and used a sand volleyball court and our footprints to evaluate our footstrike. In the last hour, we all ran on treadmills for nearly 30 minutes as she walked around cheerfully correcting our form. (The No. 1 thing she kept telling me: "Relax!")
Amy's a great teacher, there's no question. But I don't know how good a student I am. And that's my only real concern: Where do I go from here, if I'm still not confident I've got it down?
For her part, Amy says she's hoping to eventually organize regular group runs, and will coach runners one-on-one for $60 an hour (the class I took costs $95; she offered several similar ones at various locations around Charlotte throughout 2009). Plus, anyone can pore through Dreyer's book -- along with a host of DVDs and other material.
But like I said, it is kind of complicated. Amy demonstrated for us at one point, and she makes it look easy, almost like she's floating, like she's gracefully running in place but being propelled forward as if by moving sidewalk. Meanwhile, probably only a few of us if any were really getting it right, form-wise ... and when we try it on our own tomorrow or next week, we won't have Amy there to tell us what we're doing wrong, or to tell us to "Relax!" Since the ChiRunning community is still relatively small, not many of us have other disciples to lean on/practice with. As a result, any bad habits we have might not get better.
So the practice of it concerns me. The theory, however, does not. The physics are basically rock-solid: Stand upright, lean forward and use gravity instead of your legs to move forward. Quite frankly, I'm less skeptical about the "run injury-free" claim now than I was yesterday -- for the 30 minutes I ran Saturday morning, I had virtually none of the Achilles or IT band discomfort that's been bothering me lately.
Bottom line? I'd recommend attending a ChiRunning workshop in 2010 if for no other reason than because it makes you more ... well, aware (Amy calls it "mindful") of every step you take. It encourages you to really think about form, to check in with yourself frequently about what the various parts of your body are doing, and perhaps most important of all, to try something new -- maybe because the same-old way was making your foot hurt.
For more on Amy Peacock and to see her schedule of upcoming workshops, visit her Web site by clicking here.