Thursday, February 24, 2011

RunnerDude Chats with Danny Dreyer

Long before barefoot running became the latest thing for runners, long before the terms "forefoot" and "midfoot running, there was a movement for a more effortless, injury-free way of running. What was this movement that's still going strong today? Chi Running, founded by Danny Dreyer in the late 90s. Several years ago, I purchased a copy of Danny's book, Chi Running, and that was the first time I really began thinking more about the mind-body connection of running as well as proper alignment of your body when running. I began implementing many of the key components of Chi Running in my own running and found them to be very helpful.

Over the years, my copy of Chi Running has become a bit tattered. I've referred to it often and even more so now that I'm training/coaching runners. I was so delighted to discover that Danny lives just a few hours west of me in Asheville, NC. Being so close, I had to contact Mr. Dreyer to see if he'd let me treat him to lunch and pick his brain about Chi Running, running in general, and where running's headed in the future. To my delight, he accepted. So, at the end of January (one one the coldest days ever), I headed west to the NC mountains.

It had been several years since I'd visited Asheville and I had forgotten how beautiful that area of the state is. The larger snow capped mountains were evidence of a snowfall Asheville had experienced the prior week. Danny gave me great directions and I had no problem locating the turn-of-the century two-story building Danny and his wife renovated for the new home of Chi Living. I love older homes and buildings, and immediately became enthralled with all the details of this charming old structure as I ascended the wooden steps to the front door. Since it was a business and not a home, I wasnt' sure if I should knock or walk right in. I opted to just open the door to which I was immediately greeted by a large happy dog soon followed by one of Danny's employees who greeted me with a big smile and promptly took me to meet Danny.

Danny is in his early 60s but looks closer to someone in his early 40s. Just a little taller than me and wearing relaxed casual clothes, I knew I was going to like Danny from the get go. (I think, maybe, I own one tie and one sport coat, although I'd be hard pressed to find them if I needed to quickly.) Danny finished up a call and gave me a wonderful greeting and made me feel right at home. He grabbed his coat and said there was a great eatery called Pack's Tavern a few blocks down where we could do the interview. It was a beautiful day with a bright, clear blue sky, but it was about 17 degrees and windy. Quite a bit colder than Greensboro where I live. Danny grabbed a nice warm coat and I had my thin fleece pullover. Didn't really matter. I was numb before we left Chi Living. I couldn't believe I was heading out the door about to eat lunch with the founder of Chi Running. How cool was that!

The restaurant was a large eclectic turn-of the-century brick building with a rich history. Built in 1907, it's been a lumber supplier, automotive supplier, as well as a popular spot for barbecue and bluegrass. It's one of those rare gems with exposed interior brick and wooded beams, wooden plank floors that creak, and large windows that filled the space with lots of sunlight. I warmed up quickly.

While we were seated and our drink orders taken, I thought about the list of questions I had prepared to ask Danny. I decided that instead of a formal interview, what I really wanted to do was just have a rich conversation with Danny about Chi Running as well as get to know more about this innovative thinker sitting across from me.

I asked Danny if he had always been a runner. He responded, "No" with a laugh. He explained the chuckle by sharing that when he was young he was at an inner-city high school flooded with running talent and he was a bit intimidated by that caliber of runner. At that time he had a hard time seeing himself running long, even short spans of time. He did like to ski and so joined the ski club in school. Danny's an avid skier today.

Later during lunch, I asked Danny if there was something about him that may surprise his followers. He responded, "I like skiing better than running." Then he laughed and said, "Don't get me wrong. I love running, but I do it every day. Skiing doesn't happen as often, so I really cherish and enjoy when I get to ski." You may also be surprised to know that Danny was a woodworker before turning full time to coaching running. His wife was transitioning in her career and Danny's hearing was suffering from the machinery used in woodworking. Around this same time his coaching methods were really taking off in California and they felt that they had enough initial success to turn to the coaching and Chi Running into their new career. I'm so glad they made that decision.

Danny continued to explain that even in his early 20s he never ran, that is until he was drafted into the Army. It was 1971 and it was a stressful time, not to mention just the physical stress of boot camp. He began running around the base, not only to help him get into shape, but he discovered that it helped him relax and relieve himself of some of the mental stress he was under. It was during that time, that  he discovered his love for running and he was delighted that it wasn't all for the physical benefits either.

I had read in Danny's book, Chi Running that as a child he was extremely curious about how things worked. He was always taking things apart to see how they worked. I asked him if this intrinsic curiosity played any part in his development of Chi Running. He agreed that it did play a big part. He said that around the same time he was learning to love running both for the physical and mental benefits, he was also beginning to practice meditation. With his teacher from India, he learned techniques that helped him quiet his mind so he could listen to his body. The two, running and meditation, began to become intertwined. This stirred Danny's curiosity into how the physics of running were affected by the "energies powering it." And this began Danny's quest into discovering the best way to move your body using mental focus and relaxation instead of muscle power...the roots of Chi Running.

For about 20 years Danny tinkered with this mind-body connection, but it wasn't until the late 90s that he really began to put it all together. It happened while studying T'ai Chi with the great Chinese T'ai Chi master, Zhu Xilin. Through Zhu Xilin, Danny learned about the concept of moving from your center and letting your arms and legs follow. Danny shared that T'ai Chi teaches you to direct movement from your spine, so that the movement begins with the center of your body instead of from the periphery. He said it's kind of like a tree's strength coming from it's trunk not the branches. Danny shared  how this center source of power really intrigued him and his natural curiosity made him wonder how this could be applied to running. He described it as "moving the body from its center and letting your legs be pulled along for the ride." He tinkered with this new way of thinking about running and soon discovered that he wasn't working as hard to achieve the same outcomes. He also wasn't as worn out or sore after his runs.

After a move from Colorado to San Francisco, Danny found a new teacher, Master Xu. His new teacher, had a theory that the principles of T'ai Chi could be applied to any sport. Working with Master Xu helped Danny synthesize what he'd learned about T'ai Chi and what he knew about running. Danny explained that in T'ai Chi, your legs are your base, your spine is your source of power and the energy flows from the spine out of your upper body through the movements. Danny took that principle and flipped it. He explained that in Chi Running, your upper body is your base, the spine is still your center of energy, but the energy flows from your center through your legs. It's kind of like T'ai Chi flipped.

Not only is Chi Running about energy resonating from your center, a strong mind-body connection, a spiritual connection, and relaxation, there's are also an important component of alignment and posture. In the revised edition of Chi Running, Danny devotes a good portion of the book to pelvic tilt and how finding that "sweet spot" of your pelvic tilt will add years to your running, improve your overall posture, keep your hips and lower back healthy, and avoid IT band issues. Danny also talked about the importance of pelvic rotation. He said that westerners (especially men) are very tight in the pelvic region allowing very little movement. Everything is pretty much a front-to-back motion, very little rotation or lateral movement. In most other cultures, there is much more movement in the hips providing much better range of motion and actually a healthier longer stride. Check out this great video blog from Danny on posture.

Chi Running allows you as a runner to use the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual to your advantage in a way that helps you work with and cooperate with the force of the road instead of the road being your enemy. Danny drew a cool diagram of how just the physics of a midfoot strike, landing underneath or actually slightly behind your body all work with the road instead of fighting it. Danny sketched out some other drawings to help explain his theories. Looking at them without he explanation, they may not seem to say much, but basically they're showing how Chi Running helps the old cliche of "becoming one with the road" not so much of an old cliche. You really can become one with the road instead of fighting it.

I asked Danny what was the best way to get into Chi Running. He said that actually beginning with Chi Walking is best. Through Chi Walking, you'll learn all the basic principles and techniques used in Chi Running, but it's at a slower pace so you can work on and master the techniques before increasing your pace to one of running. In his clinics for Chi Running, the participants actually begin with learning Chi Walking. It's a great foundation from which to begin.

One of the things I like about Danny, is that he not only practices what he preaches, he lives what he preaches. He's been using the techniques of Chi Running for over 20 years and has a life of experiences to stand behind his teachings. Just to make sure this wasn't something unique to Danny, he surveyed thousands of Chi Running customers. 95% said their running had improved. 91% feel Chi Running has played a role in preventing running injuries. 90% said they were probably or definitely able to change their running mechanics with Chi Running. 61% said they were a heel-striker before practicing Chi Running, and 71% said they were a midfoot striker after practicing Chi Running. 60% said they were able to make noticeable corrections in less than a month, 31% said immediately. This was just a sampling of the positive feedback provided by the survey. Now more science is underway to further biomechanical studies of Chi Running technique.

Danny is quite an accomplished runner himself. He prefers the longer distances and has done quite well in ultras. He ran his first race back in 1995 (a 50-miler). He's completed 40 ultramarathons since then. He's won his age group in 14 of those races and placed in the top three in his age group in all but three of those races. Danny's run 50Ks, 50-milers, 100Ks, and 100-milers. He ran his first marathon (Big Sur) in 2002, winning his age group with a 3:04. Danny's quick to say though that Chi Running isn't just a technique for long distance runners. He strongly believes that it's for any runner, novice to elite.

I asked Danny, if he had a particular type or brand of shoe he preferred. While not a barefoot runner, he does prefer more of a minimalist shoe. He said the new "high-tech" minimalist shoes are fine, but a good pair of racing flats will often work just as well. He said he wished Nike still made those original racing flats from way back. Danny did say that Newton sent him a pair of their shoes to give a try and he did set a PR running in them.

We talked for about and hour and a half and I was completely enthralled with the conversation. To hear Danny explain Chi Running, it really does all make sense. Whether or not you become a Chi Runner, reading Chi Running, is a wonderful exploration of your own running and I bet you come away applying many of the techniques.

Danny's Staff at Chi Living

I asked Danny what should we expect next from Chi Running. He was excited to share that he's currently working on a book about how to run a pain-free marathon. I've been sworn to secrecy, but from what I know about the book, it's going to appeal to many runners. You'll definitley find a review of the book on RunnerDude's Blog shortly after the book is released. Danny was also excited about revisions made to the Chi Running website After I returned home, I spent some time going through the website and they've done an excellent job. Be sure to check it out. You can also access the Chi Walking and Chi Living websites from the same link.

I'm so motivated and inspired by my talk with Danny, that my goal is to become a certified Chi Running instructor. Hopefully that will all come to be this summer. You guys hold me accountable and check in with me next fall to see if I've achieved my goal.

Thanks again to Danny and his staff at Chi Living for making this lunch an interview possible. To learn more about Chi Running, check out the video clip below from Danny.


misszippy said...

That's really cool that you got to chat with him one on one like that. I am taking a chi clinic with him at the end of March. Very excited by it!

Joan said...

Please let us know if you get certified. I've read Chi Running and have the mp3 guide but in-person instruction would be best. It seems like the closest clinics are in Raleigh or Asheville.

Nicki said...

Great interview! This book is on my MUST read list.

Cherylrunner said...

Thanks for sharing your interview! I've been practicing ChiRunning for about 8 months and it has transformed my life and running!!! Just finished the Instructor Course. You will love it!

RunnerDude said...

Hi MissZippy! Awesome! Let me know how it goes!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Joan! The summer sessions were full, but I'm registerd for the Septermer course! Yea!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Nicki! Let me know how you like the book!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Cherylrunner! I'm signed up for the September course!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dude. I started running just a few years ago and a friend recommended Danny's book. I read it and attended a seminar and my running has improved, I've never been injured and owe it all to this philosophy. I feel this Danny and his methods are under-rated so thanks for posting!