Chi Running Author Danny Dreyer Breaks Down the Integration of Tai Chi Into Running for The Indie Spiritualist

December 14, 2010 by Chris Grosso

Danny Dreyer is the creator of ChiRunning® and ChiWalking®,  revolutionary forms of moving that blend the subtle inner focuses of T’ai Chi with running and walking. His work is based on his study of T’ai Chi with Master Zhu Xilin and internationally renowned Master George Xu, and his 35 years of experience, running, racing ultra marathons and coaching people in “intelligent movement”. He has taught thousands of people the ChiRunning and ChiWalking techniques with profound results.

Danny’s first book, ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-free Running was released April, 2004, by Simon & Schuster. ChiWalking: Five Mindful Steps to Lifelong Health and Energy was released in March, 2006.

Danny has been a featured speaker at the prestigious Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego Marathons, as well as at hundreds of other health and wellness events across the country. He has taught the ChiRunning and ChiWalking techniques to training groups such as the San Francisco Marathon, the AIDS Marathon, Team in Training, USA/FIT, AARP and many others. He has been on CNN, NPR and other news programs. He publishes a monthly newsletter and has been published in Running Times, Body & Soul Magazine, and others. He has received press in Time Warner’s Health Magazine, AOL, Shape Magazine, Fitness Magazine, Elle, Washington Post, New York Times, Web MD and hundreds of newspapers,  journals and web sites across the country and abroad.  For a list of some current media attention, see our In the News page.

Dreyer is an accomplished Ultra Marathon runner (races longer than a marathon) and has raced every distance from a 10K to 100 miles. He has successfully completed 40 ultra-marathons since 1995, finishing in the top 3 in his age group in all but one. In August 2005 he placed second in his age group in the USATF National 50k Championships.

Danny has lived a lifestyle steeped in holistic living, meditation, and personal wellness for over 30 years. Healthy eating, physical exercise and rejuvenating activities are mainstays in his life and the foundation of what he teaches.

He empowers his students to live pro-active lives. Whether coaching a runner or a corporate executive, he teaches techniques that tap into one’s inner strength and power.

Danny resides in Asheville, NC, with his wife, Katherine and their daughter, Journey.
(Courtesy of www.chirunning.com)

The Danny Dreyer Interview

TIS:  So You’ve trained under two T’ai Chi masters and I was wondering if there were any lessons you learned from them which specifically guided you in creating Chi Running?

DD: Well I remember my very first day of Tai Chi class and my first master, as he spoke about posture. That’s what really started me on the search to blend the too. He was teaching me about moving the body and how the posture needs to be aligned nice and straight, so when you rotate your body, it’s rotating around a nice axis. If your posture is twisted or bent over anywhere, it’s not going to rotate as easily, and you won’t move your body as easily, nor will you be supported by your structure. So the whole structural support is what really intrigued me. As soon as I started integrating some of the posture techniques into my running, it all of the sudden became a lot easier. When most people run or walk, the support stage of their stride is where all of their injuries happen, not when you’re in the air. They happen when you come down on the ground, and it depends on either how you impact the ground, or how you support your body while you’re on the ground. Is it efficient or not, and if it’s not, that’s going to cause a problem and become a repetitive stress injury.

So posture is one of the biggest ones. The other is making sure that all of my core muscles are engaged and all of my moving parts are relaxed, that my arms and legs, hips and shoulders were actually swinging while running. That follows the same principles in Tai Chi. You want to have your core engaged but the moving parts need to be very free to move. So you have these two things going on that are really Yin Yang. The Yin is the engagement of your alignment, your core, and everything internal. The Yang is the expansive, easy flow of the moving parts, your arms and legs, etc, so it becomes a really nice blend. Those were probably the two main lessons of Tai Chi that I’ve spent the last twelve years trying to expand upon.

TIS: Well I can say from firsthand experience that ever since I read Chi Running last year, my running practice has improved in all areas.

DD: Yeah and the whole new thing is really making running a “practice”. I don’t know of anybody who’s really thought of it like that outside of Tibet, Nepal or China. The western guys are more into power, performance, speed, and fast times.

TIS:  Right, so can you elaborate more on how Chi Running differs from the more common form of “power running”?

DD: Well power running is called that because it literally takes power to run that way. How Chi Running differs is that it takes the effort out of running, and that’s really been my goal, finding a way of running where I really don’t feel much effort? So anybody who’s practiced Tai Chi at all realizes that the whole idea is to be able to move your opponent through cooperating with their forces, and also through allowing energy to move through your body to move your opponents. So Tai Chi isn’t about moving your muscles at all. It’s really about regulating the flow of your energy, learning how to relax your body, and align your body so all the Chi can move through you, and that’s what happens when you approach running with those principles in mind. Instead of thinking like a power runner and believing you have to push yourself, to actually push with your legs and kick with your feet, and swing your arms hard to move your body down the road. Well you can do it that way, but it takes a lot of muscle to do that. It burns a lot of fuel and tires your body out.

Or you can use a different set of rules, and that’s what Chi Running is all about. These rules incorporate having your body well aligned so you can relax. The other part which people often forget as they get older, and is a very practical part of running, is allowing your body to just gently run forward as you run. That’s how we all ran as kids. I don’t know if you remember, but I remember running as a kid, and I would always lean with my head. If I wanted to run somewhere I just “fell” that way. More often than not, if you’re a younger kid, you fall down when you run. I ask in my running classes all the time “Is there anyone who never fell down when they ran as a kid?” and nobody has ever raised their hand, yet. You fall down because you’re constantly trying to balance yourself in this forward fall. Little kids don’t have very strong legs.

Even now, you can go to a playground and see little kids run leaning forward, and the Kenyans and other great runners of the world who run leaning forward. What happens with power running is that as you get older, people tend to not want to fall down when they run, so they run vertically, and once you run vertically, then your center of mass is right over your point of contact with the ground, and gravity is pulling down with you and not forward. As you fall, gravity wants to pull you further forward, so if you’re falling into gravity, then you’re really allowing gravity to assist you in your forward movement. That means whatever amount of force of gravity you allow to pull you forward with, you can subtract that from the use of your legs. Does that make sense?

TIS: Absolutely, it makes perfect sense actually.

DD: Yeah, so you don’t have to push anymore. It’s learning to constantly balance yourself in this nice forward lean. It’s very much like trying to ride a unicycle. A unicycle rider doesn’t go forward by pedaling. He falls forward and then he pedals to keep up with his fall. The proportion of a unicycle doesn’t come from the fact that you’re pushing yourself forward with your legs, it comes from you falling forward and keeping up with yourself.

TIS: That actually correlates with another question I had for you regarding our body movements, and how they should be in-sync with the laws of nature, as you discuss in your book.  So what exactly are the laws of nature and how do they affect a runner’s performance?

DD: Sure, well I’ll name two laws of nature. One is the pull of gravity. It’s always there, and it’s always going to be pulling you towards the center of the earth. There’s a downward force in your body all the time. In Tai Chi, one of the basic ideas is that you learn to cooperate with forces, you don’t go against them, that’s really sort of crazy, you know? When someone throws a punch at you, you don’t want to punch them at the same time because that doubles the force of their punch. So if somebody is punching you and throwing their fist in your direction, you want to move in the same direction of that force, so you reduce the impact to as little as possible. If someone is throwing me a punch, I’m moving backwards because I don’t want to move into the punch, and if somebody is pulling me I don’t want to pull against them, I want to move with their pull so I can stay in balance and use their force. So if gravity wants to pull me all day, I’ll let it. I’ll just fall into it and cooperate with that force. I’m not fighting gravity by trying to push against it, I’m letting it do its work.

 The other thing that every runner or walker has to consider is, whenever you’re moving laterally across the earth, there’s a force always in the opposite direction of that movement, of any movement. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that’s just simple physics. So say you’re running down the road at a ten minute mile pace, that means there’s always a six mile force coming at you and that’s called the road, the oncoming road (laughter). So I’m moving down the road in one direction, and the road is coming at me, it’s just like a big treadmill. It’s like I’m running on a six mile an hour treadmill and I need to learn how to cooperate with the force that is coming with me, and the last thing I want to do is stick my foot out into that force. The problem with how a lot of people run, is that they lead with their legs. They throw their leg out in front of them, trying to pull themselves forward. What that ends up doing is when you’re swinging your legs forward, and landing with your foot out in front of you, you’re actually throwing your leg against that oncoming force. That doubles the force of the speed of your body, which then has to absorb it,  by your ankles, shins, knees, your hips, your pelvis, lower back, whatever you weak spot is, it will be what goes out first, and for most people, that is their knees.

That’s how runners knee is developed, by people landing with their heal out in front of them. It’s called a heal strike. So those are the forces, and in order to cooperate with this oncoming road, your legs need to land in a way that they’re already swinging towards the rear, so they’re already moving in the same direction of that road when they land. That completely reduces or eliminates the impact of going against that force. So you have the force of gravity and you cooperate with it by falling into it and letting it pull you, and then you just balance yourself within that force. The other force is the force of the road coming at you, and you cooperate with that force by having your legs always swinging to the rear. I never think about my legs as swinging forward. They swing to the rear and then they return back to where they started, which is underneath me, not in front of me. My foot strike is either underneath my center of mass or behind my center of mass, which is even more ideal.    

TIS: Right on, I think that breaks it down in a user friendly way. Something else I think is often overlooked, but equally important, is our diet. In Chi Running, you write about this and how it will improve one’s running. So what foods and eating practices acutally make a difference?

DD: Well part of it is the food and part of it is the types of foods. For example, I had a track coach once tell me, if you want to run fast, you have to burn high octane fuel. So if you have a very fast, highly tuned car, a big fancy BMW, you can only put premium gas in it, it needs that premium fuel. If you wanted to be an average or competitive runner, you wouldn’t want to be burning low octane fuel, because your body would have to work that much harder to process it and get any energy from it. So one of the basic rules I follow is that I eat a mostly organic diet. I don’t eat pre-packed, or canned, or processed foods. I don’t eat any of the fast food stuff. All of my families meals are prepared fresh the first time. I don’t eat leftovers, only fresh food that is cooked from scratch, and just that, even if it’s not organic, is better than foods that are already processed. Those foods have way more salt than you need, they always have high fructose corn syrup which you don’t need, and all kinds of extra ingredients like colorings and preservatives etc.

So I think the healthiest diet is one that consists of the cleanest possible food, as clean as you can make it. The more natural the food, the cleaner the energy supply will be. Any additive, or preservative or processed foods all take away from the natural Chi that’s in the foods. So ideally, you want to have it cooked as close to its normal, original state as possible. Culturally, we’re a culture of over eaters, so my family always eats out of a bowl, that way we always eat the same amount. That’s our practice of portion control. We don’t do seconds, you know how much your body needs, and that’s how much you eat during a meal. If you have a big pile of food spread out over a plate, you don’t know how much you need, but you’re more likely to eat the right amount if you eat the same amount. It won’t be more than you need. It will be enough to make you comfortable, where you’re not going away hungry.

That brings me to another principle, which I learned from Tai Chi, which is body sensing. Body sensing is really just tuning into what your body feels like, the sensations, the thoughts, the feelings, all of the stuff that makes you a human being. It’s there for a reason, it’s there to give you information. The only way you’re able to exist on this planet is because you have a body, so it’s really important to pay careful attention to your body, it’s your message system. Tai Chi really teaches you how to listen to every part of your body, so you learn to listen and feel for tension, feel for when your body is, or isn’t, moving efficiently. You learn to listen when thoughts are not really appropriate, and are just a drain of energy. When you’re obsessing it’s worthless mental work. So you really learn how to feel and sense your body, and that’s part of the practice of Tai Chi, and what we try to integrate into running and walking.

It’s called a mindful practice for a reason, but it’s not all mind. Mind and body are really two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. They’re both very interdependent. So this whole aspect of doing mind/body work, or spiritual work, you can’t do spiritual work unless you’re sensitive to the invisible world. Well how are you going to be sensitive to the visible world if you’re not sensitive to the physical world? You have to start somewhere. So running can be great training for spiritual practice because it gets you highly sensitive to your body. I brought that up because if you’re sensitive to your body, you’ll know what the right amount to eat is, you’ll know what the right amount of rest is, what the right amount of work is, or whatever the case may be. You really learn to be appropriate in your actions and how to live your life.

TIS: Right, and you talk further about that in your book when you reference having a “beginners mind”, which is also a common saying in Buddhist teachings. Can you elaborate on this?

DD: Sure, when I think of “beginners mind”, I think of learning something in two different ways. One of my favorite phrases is “suspended disbelief”, that’s a beginners mind. You suspend your disbelief and you completely open yourself up to all possibilities. That’s a real beginners mind. A beginners mind isn’t someone who approaches running and says I ran a 3.51 marathon last year and this year I want to do a 3.45, and I want to finish third in my age group, and beat my neighbor, and win a medal. That’s somebody who already has a lot of consideration in their head. Adyashanti is one of my favorite spiritual teachers.

TIS: Ah yes, me too. He has a wonderful approach to teaching!

DD: Yes, he always talks about living an uncontrived life, and that’s the epitome of a beginners mind, living an uncontrived life. He nailed it, right on.

TIS: Agreed.

DD: Yes, so that’s the beginners mind. How much conditioning can you get rid of to actually see, what there is to see.

TIS: Right. So one of my last questions was actually something my dad mentioned to me as he’s read your book (and loved it) but didn’t see this topic addressed anywhere. He wondered if there’s any differences in applying the technique of Chi Running between runners with good foot arch support Vs those who have flat feet?

DD: Oh good, I’m glad he enjoyed it. As far as the question I would say this, as with anything that is like Tai Chi, where you’re constantly working on improving the right parts and how you move your body, your stance, your body support, how you engage your core and how you relax other parts. The more you follow the “recipe”, the more your body will gradually, over time, adjust to what’s necessary and what’s required. So that means if you have flat feet, you should work at engaging your core, leveling your pelvis, and whatever other method you take to work at having a stronger core.  All of your muscles, and in fact almost every part of your body is interconnected with the inner system of connective tissue, and that connective tissue is like the unity of the body. It’s the one thing that goes through everything, right down to the cellular level of connective tissue.

So as you work at strengthening the parts which need to be strengthened, all the other parts down the line will feel a certain increment of increase, and their own amount of tone and strength. And by the time you get all the way down to your feet, if you’re constantly working on core strength balance, like how to move correctly etc, you will actually begin to build arches. I’ve seen people do it. As they begin to run correctly, their feet take more of a correct position. So people have flat fleet generally, I feel, because their core is not strong enough to support all the connective tissue that runs all the way to support that arch. You can’t get a strong a strong arch from getting a strong foot. All the medial connections all the way up the inside of your legs are what you need to hold up that arch. So if you want to build up your arches, you need to start from your core, not your feet. Most people don’t think in those directions.

In Chinese medicine, they’re always looking for the reason why something happens, for the original reason. So if you trace an injury etc all the way back, you can usually find an original reason, and it’s rarely at the spot where the problem happens. If you look at somebody with flat feet, the problem isn’t flat feet, their problem is a weak core, or a misaligned spine. So you start working in those areas from just doing the basic exercises of running or walking or Tai Chi or whatever you do, and gradually all the rest of the body will start coming into alignment and playing the same game, having a mind of its own. 

TIS: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, and I personally don’t think I would have made that connection.

DD: Well it also relates to something else. You’ll notice people who say running is such a dangerous sport. There’s shin splints and bad knees and Achilles tendon problems etc. All those injuries are in the lower leg, and they’re in the lower leg for a reason. That’s because the lower leg, for most runners, are required to do way more work than they are designed to. Your body wasn’t designed to be propelled by you pushing off with your feet, those are the smallest muscles in your legs, so there’s no wonder why they get injured. If you really want to run, you should use the largest muscles that you have, because they do the biggest work, they’re built for that, your core muscles are built to do that, not your toes, Achilles tendon, your calves. Those are the little tiny muscles way down at the bottom of your body. Get the work done where it needs to be done, and those little parts can proportionally do their part, which is way, way, way less, and then you won’t get injured.

TIS: Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

DD: The whole idea of Tai Chi is so logical. The Chinese studied the body and realized how it really works. It’s simple.

TIS: Right, I practice Reiki and have done a lot of work with Chi, and while it’s difficult to explain as it’s a formless energy, it’s just as real as anything we’re aware of with the five senses. Once someone learns to use it and integrate into their lives, it makes such a wonderful difference.

DD: That’s absolutely right. It’s great, and running and walking is an everyday way people can approach this stuff. 

TIS: Yeah. So in closing, I was wondering if you could offer a couple of suggestions for someone who wants to take up running for the first time, something that will aid them in having a good experience, so they’ll want to do it again.

DD: Yeah, I would say one important thing is to really take it slowly. Don’t think you have to run a marathon your first year. Really take it slow. In fact, one of the main things I would say is listen to your body. If you go out for a run, sure get some decent shoes, but when you go out, don’t start out fast, and try to go far. Just go however far your body feels it wants to go, and if you start feeling winded or tired, that means your body is telling you to slow down. So slow down for a bit and let your body recover and when you’re ready, run a little more. I would say that if you’re going to start running, start by running until you feel a little bit tired, and then walk for a bit and let your body recover, but only walk far enough to let your body recover, don’t get into walking for walkings sake. Once your rested, go back and run some more, and listen to what your body says. Run until your body says, you know what, that’s bout enough for right now, and then walk for a little bit. Go back and forth. A nice and gentle approach for yourself, no expectations, again, going back to a beginners mind. Really let your body tell you how far, because it’s way smarter than your brain any day.

So listen to your body, and if you start feeling like you’re really tired, it’s time to head home. Then the next day when you go out, do the same thing. If you keep doing that day after day, you’ll improve. In the beginning, you don’t need to do it more than three days a week. And really try not to let your mind get in there, that’s a big piece of advice. Try to make it a good, satisfying experience. Take your time, don’t worry about your speed, don’t run with other people, unless they’re slower than you to start off with. Don’t go out with other runners who are experienced that you have to try and keep up with, because you’ll end up frustrated and possibly injured. Take it slow, gradual and easy. Any progressive thing has to follow the law of gradual progress.

If you start off to fast, you’ll pay. And that’s one of the principles in the Chi Running book, you always have to do it gradually. The other thing ideally would be to get the Chi Running book, so you can get some good pointers on how to hold your body,  and how to move the moving parts, what to focus on. If you go out and give it your best shot, you may do well, and you may not. So that’s why we’ve broken it down into really simple steps on how to start, but above all, have fun, and if it’s not fun, stop and walk. I tell people “run until you get tired and walk until you feel guilty” (laughter), then you won’t walk too far, and just alternate back and forth.

TIS: Well thanks so much for your time. Your book has been a wonderful help in my personal running as well as much of my family. My uncle was the first person to pick up your book after a knee injury. He’s now 59 and after reading Chi Running, he runs marathons and hasn’t had an injuries since. It’s truly amazing.

DD: Oh, that’s so wonderful. Thank you Chris. I’m actually doing work right now on a book called The Pain Free Marathon which will be released in early 2012. It’s been fun talking to you.

TIS: Awesome, and you as well Danny. Thanks for your time and your book!

To learn more about Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running & Chi Walking, or to purchase his books or DVD, please visit his website at:

www.chirunning.com

Visit Danny’s Blog Here

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.