To the outside world, the running community may look cohesive and monolithic. But this is deceptive. Look a little closer, and there’s a startling number of different schools and types of running. It’s like Christianity with all its sects and sub-sects, which may not be so obvious to many non-Christians.
There’s barefoot runners, there’s trail runners, jogglers, ultra-runners, track-runners, backwards runners, and there are also countless approaches when it comes to marathon training. Different dietary approaches among runners further divide us. Besides this, there are runners who love running in the rain, and runners who hate it.
In spite of all these differences, us runners generally do manage to get along, usually quite well, and we never go to war with each other. We settle our differences by racing.
Just when you thought the running world had more than enough sects, along comes Chi Running. What is Chi Running? It is an approach to running that borrows ideas from T’ai Chi, and is said to help improve running and decrease injury risk. T’ai Chi is a martial art that emphasizes proper posture, balance, breathing technique, and “aligning the body with the mind”. It is a very meditative and gentle kind of martial art, so it can help the mind relax.
Of course, the core concepts of T’ai Chi aren’t all that unique to it since they are used in many other martial arts, it’s just that T’ai Chi isn’t generally used for rigorous self-defense training, it is done for therapeutic purposes. The concept of “chi” is central to T’ai Chi, and roughly translates as “vital life force”. This concept, which is also used in traditional Chinese medicine, and is supposed to be some kind of subtle “energy” that can supposedly can be manipulated to treat disease or improve our athleticism is pseudo-science. The “Force” from Star Wars is roughly similar to “chi”. However, this doesn’t mean T’ai Chi isn’t a good exercise, in my opinion.
Now I think that borrowing ideas from T’ai Chi to help improve running is not necessarily a bad idea(except for the mysticism). However, it’s not like there is anything novel about this. Any good running training program teaches proper breathing, posture, and balance. Chi Running proponents claim their program can help you run more efficiently, as well as focus your mind to improve your running, among other things. This sounds great, but it seems to be a mere repackaging of basic running technique. It’s not like Chi Running experts just “discovered” these things!
At least Chi Running proponents don’t claim you have to learn T’ai Chi to practice Chi Running. You just have to understand the concepts, and incorporate them into running. Since the emphasis on balance and posture isn’t new, the eastern mysticism that underpins much of Chi Running may be what draws many people in. But the thing is, you can improve your posture, balance, and focus without believing in any of the mystical esoterica of Chi Running.
Because it is so new(it got started in 1999, and has become much more popular the past several years), there have been no good scientific studies done on it to see if it is beneficial for runners. Try it out if you want, but unless you need your posture or balance improved, it probably won’t improve your running. Proper posture, balance, foot-strike, and mind focus are all important for running – you don’t need a Chi Runner to tell you this.