ChiRunning combines softer biomechanics and sharp mental focus into a style proponents believe is safer, and more efficient and rewarding

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Watch this month’s Seattle Marathon and you will see striders and lopers and chuggers. You will also see those who practice “ChiRunning.” They tread softly, as if padding across a sheet of ice.

The ChiRunning concept, about five years old, requires an aligned body, but with a slight forward lean. It also eschews the usual heel-toe foot strike in favor of landing squarely on the midsole. Instead pushing forward from their feet, ChiRunners let the momentum of their lean do most of the propelling.

ChiRunning was invented by Danny Dreyer, both a runner and practitioner of Tai Chi, as a way to mix softer biomechanics and sharp mental focus into a style he believes is more efficient, safer and more rewarding.

Beth Cline, co-owner of 5focus, a South Lake Union wellness studio, is one of eight ChiRunning instructors in the area. She acknowledges that it takes practice and focus to perfect the physical principles, which often seem counterintuitive to veteran runners. First she emphasizes posture and movement concepts like lean, “ankle lift” and proper (controlled) arm swing. The mechanics are about, she says, energy efficiency and injury prevention.

But the mental-mindfulness component is just as important.

“Often, people go out for a run and aren’t even connected to their body,” she says. “ChiRunning really teaches you to connect to what’s going on, to be mindful of any tension, where you’re foot striking, if you have any pain, breathing. … I encourage my students to choose one or two things to focus on each run. That doesn’t mean that their minds can’t wander … but always to bring it back to focus.”

Jenni Minnis says she suffered through a lot of toe pain — “running on razor blades” — while using the usual running method to finish her first half-marathon.

“I was almost crying at the end,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to run more races, and eventually a whole (marathon) so I started searching for ways to run pain free.”

She learned about ChiRunning when she went to 5focus for a yoga class, began taking lessons from Cline and says she runs pain-free now. She also says she no longer feels “zapped” of energy after running.

Instructors such as Cline teach students to begin by standing with feet parallel and hip-width apart and to make sure the knees are not locked. Then, they straighten the upper spine, place a hand on the back of the neck and lift the head high as dancers do. This is intended to stretch the muscles of the back of the neck so the chin stays low and your upper spine straightens. Then, they tilt slightly forward from the hips but most of the lean comes from the ankles.

ChiRunning requires the runner not only to hit the ground with the midsole, but also to come down either directly under the knee or even behind it — never in front. They are encouraged to lighten the foot strike as much as possible — “run as if you’re running on egg shells and you don’t want to crush them.”

What ChiRunners must keep it mind, says Cline, is that the body lean is doing the work, not the legs. And the amount of lean can influence your pace.

The style isn’t for everyone, but it is for Minnis. She plans to run half the Seattle Marathon and plans to complete her first complete marathon in June.

“I’m convinced it is a ‘practice,’ ” Minnis says, “and you can feel the difference when your posture is not there, or you are slipping back into the bad habits of running. Now I notice and see why people don’t like to run — because they aren’t using the gravity and their body as a conduit of that.”

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241

or rseven@seattletimes.com