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Chi Runners Poised for Softer Landings

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Chi Runners Poised for Softer Landings

Your Health

Chi Runners Poised for Softer Landings

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RENE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rene Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In Your Health today, recreational runners try to stick with it. And we have two reports on techniques and gadgets they're using to help.

We begin with a new focus on body mechanics. Some runners want to fine tune their form for softer landings. NPR's Allison Aubrey explains.

ALLISON AUBREY: Asking someone if they know how to run may seem silly. After all, putting one foot in the front of the other is intuitive, and so is going as far and fast as possible.

Dr. MARK CUCUZZELLA (Physician): You know, with pretty much every other sport someone teaches you about technique, and running, we just throw us all out there and you run as hard as you can till something breaks. And that's how I approached running until about five years ago.

AUBREY: That's when foot pain set in for Mark Cucuzzella. He's a physician with a busy family medicine practice. So his schedule is tight. Squeezing in hour-long runs, he says, had always worked well. But when he was diagnosed with arthritis in his toe joint, the specialist he went to see advised him to find a new sport.

Dr. CUCUZZELLA: About three orthopedists said, you know, you probably just should stop running. And you know, I'm like, well, that's what I do for fun. You know, I've got to figure this out. There's got to be a better way. So I had my feet repaired and had to learn low-impact type of techniques to be able to keep running without damaging the joint more.

AUBREY: Cucuzzella says he started researching and watching other runners, such as racers from Kenya who seemed to glide effortlessly with their bodies leaning just slightly forward. As he observed elite runners closely, he says he noticed details of their body mechanics, such as exactly where and how their feet landed.

Dr. CUCUZZELLA: You watch any world-class runner, they're not braking and accelerating. They're running pretty much right under their center of mass. They're landing under their center of mass. They're lifting their legs, not pushing off.

AUBREY: Not pushing off, for Cucuzzella, would mean not pounding that toe joint. That's when he found a technique called Chi Running, which blends some of the elite running form with Tai Chi. Founder Danny Dryer teaches the technique during one-day seminars.

Mr. DANNY DRYER (Founder, Chi Running): Tai Chi is all about aligning your body, keeping it aligned for efficiency, but learning how to really relax it so you don't have to use muscles. So I'm basically showing these guys how to run without using muscles.

AUBREY: Or at least muscles that Dryer says they don't need. During a seminar in Bethesda, Maryland, which physician Mark Cucuzzella attends, Dryer lines up about 60 middle-aged runners around a high school track and starts them on an easy jog.

Mr. DRYER: Everybody, ready, set, go. Let's just - nice, easy, easy pace, real easy...

AUBREY: As they move, Dryer instructs them to focus on what he calls a one-legged posture stance. He tells them to put all their attention on picking up one leg at a time.

Mr. DRYER: Every time your heel comes up off the ground, your toe just drops. Nice and relaxed. Dangle your lower legs.

AUBREY: With chins, ankles and toes all relaxed, the muscle energy comes from higher up the body. Dryer spends a lot of time in the seminar on posture, instructing runners to use their abdominal muscles to help stay strong. Then he adds a slight tilt forward, which he says maximizes the force of gravity for momentum.

Mr. DRYER: Let your upper body go forward. Let your legs go out the back. Let you shoulders fall forward. Let you elbows swing out the back. There you go. Create fluidity.

AUBREY: In line with the pack of runners, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella says using this technique keeps him away from his old bad habits of braking hard and pushing off.

Dr. CUCUZZELLA: You know, right now I'm just - I'm just lifting my legs. You know, I'm not - I've got nothing going on underneath my knees, other than they're there to make me land.

AUBREY: When Dryer tells the runners to take away the forward tilt and go back to the way they're accustomed to running, the group slows down and he spots a lot of the hard heel-to-toe push offs.

Mr. DRYER: Feel that pressure on the balls of your feet? Do you feel that? You can feel every muscle in your lower leg working. Okay. So you have a choice. Either use them or don't use them.

AUBREY: Not using them has helped Mark Cucuzzella. But the new technique did not come overnight. He's been working with videos, books and instruction for a couple of years.

Dr. CUCUZZELLA: Probably a testimony to this that I think it works, at least for me, is, you know, the Boston Marathon is a downhill marathon, so it uses all your e-centric muscles, so you're landing, you're using those muscles to break yourself, all these impact forces. And I used to, after that race, be sore for weeks.

AUBREY: But last fall, using his new technique, Cucuzzella says the race seemed kinder to his body. More like just a weekend run.

Dr. CUCUZZELLA: I've never experienced that before. It's not that I ran any faster than I did prior, and the goal of this isn't about running faster. But you know, I felt like, wow, I don't hurt now.

AUBREY: Now Cucuzzella is looking for evidence that there's something real in the biomechanics of chi running that he could teach to his patients. He's working with researchers at George Washington University to try to measure impact forces and injury rates of runners who give the technique a try.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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