“Look at her run,” says Shelli Stein, taking up a stance directly behind a jogger trotting down a path at Ala Moana Beach Park. “She’s flaring on her right side. Or him,” she says, gesturing at another runner. “He’s striding too far, landing on his heels.”
Both of these runners might be able to jog for a limited distance and time, but if they push themselves they are almost certain to sustain an injury because of their running style, according to Stein.
Stein is a “movement coach” who teaches fitness privately and through Kapiolani Community College. She is also a certified instructor in ChiRunning, a style of running being billed as a “natural running technique” said to ease the load on joints and decrease injury while allowing runners to go faster and longer than ever before.
“If you’re just a recreational runner, (you think that if) you can walk, you can run,” Stein said. “Unfortunately, the way we see most people walk, they shouldn’t be planning to go out for a run.”
ChiRunning is the creation of Danny Dreyer, an ultramarathon runner, author and inspirational speaker. He based his ideas on the Chinese concept of “chi,” which is roughly defined as the “life-giving energy.” Dreyer established a company called ChiLiving, which promotes his running and walking techniques and offers information on nutrition and “mindful living.”
Postural alignment and relaxation are the cornerstones of ChiRunning, according to Dreyer’s website. The technique includes “landing with a midfoot strike, using a ‘gravity-assisted’ forward lean and engaging core strength for propulsion rather than leg strength.”
Though Stein is certified in ChiRunning, she is hesitant to label what she teaches as exclusively ChiRunning. Instead, she focuses on using the body efficiently, principles common among trained runners but often unknown to casual athletes.
“If you were an elite athlete in college, if you came up running, then you got all this stuff, which is good, efficient, biomechanical running,” she said.
Depending on your current running style, it might be easy or difficult to learn ChiRunning. Stein will watch you stand, then walk, then run, checking you from front, side and back to help you point your feet straight.
Then she’ll have you do what in ChiRunning is called “leveling your pelvis.” She calls it “dropping the tailbone to the ground,” putting her hand on the base of her back and pulling down, tilting the pelvis a bit forward. The hips should fall into alignment with the knees, shoulders and ears to form a straight line.
Gravity is allowed to take over. Holding your chin level, you are told to lean forward slightly. You can’t lean very far before feeling off-balance, at which point one of your feet will move forward to stop you from landing on your face. But that foot, rather than striding out ahead and landing in front of the shoulders, is directed almost straight down, with essentially the entire foot landing squarely on the ground rather than just the heel or the toe.
Taking stride after stride in this style involves lifting each foot slightly, landing it lightly and then kicking it back behind you, with the heel rising almost to knee level. The foot seems to travel in a circle, rather than reaching forward, pulling underneath and kicking back.
The arms swing comfortably, keeping the forearms pointed forward rather than across the body and held parallel to the ground.
To go faster, increase the body lean and your stride will lengthen naturally, says Stein, who has her clients run with beeping metronomes to keep an even pace. “If you look at the top runners in the Honolulu Marathon, their bodies are leaned way forward,” she said, sloping her hand to a 1 o’clock angle.
Stein keeps a collection of photographs of runners to help students identify running styles and flaws. One photo shows African youngsters running barefoot, many of them appearing to be cut off at the knee as their legs kick up behind them. This is the “natural” running technique that helps make African distance runners so good, she says.
Though it seems simple, learning and maintaining proper form takes practice. One of Stein’s KCC students, Karen Noyama, said it has taken about four months to adapt to ChiRunning. During that time she increased her distance to seven to eight miles per run from four to five miles.
“I’m able to run a lot longer than I used to without injury and without feeling tired,” she said.
Another student, Lee Curran, recently hiked the Inca Trail in the Andes Mountains and found afterward that the toenails on her big toes fell off. Through Stein’s class she discovered she had been landing hard on her toes.
“Something I had never done is lift my feet a bit more, so you can actually see the soles of your feet, and that helps your knees and helps you avoid knee injuries,” Curran said. “We want to keep on going for a long time, another 30, 40 years.”