Returning to Fat-Burning Man this week is my running mentor and creator of the ChiRunning phenomenon, Danny Dreyer.
As he explains it, you’ll learn how to “run without your legs” and harness the principles of Tai Chi to increase your running efficiency, endurance and speed. Even if you “hate running,” there’s a special section of this show for YOU, so make sure to listen in.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- How to run without your legs
- The 3 biggest mistakes that prevent you from running faster
- What to do if you hate running
- How to change your movement technique as you age
- And more!
DANNY DREYER: HOW TO RUN WITHOUT YOUR LEGS
Danny Dreyer co-authored ChiRunning, ChiWalking and ChiMarathon with his wife Katherine. These books have introduced the world to the concept of approaching running, walking, and sports in general as mindful practices. Danny has run 43 ultra marathons and has finished in the top 3 in his age group in 40 of them, which is absolutely incredible. ChiRunning is now taught in 12 languages in 22 countries across the world by over 200 certified instructors.
Abel: You’re always one of my favorite guests, Danny, and I can’t wait to get started with this show. Coming at you from our new place right on the Hike-and-Bike trail in Austin – we’ve run here together before!
Oh, that’s one of my favorite places in Austin.
Abel: Beautiful. But the problem is, when I look around me, most people are running wrong. The biomechanics of most runners are straight out of a horror movie. You can tell they’re doing damage by running with such terrible form.
Now that I’m talking to the right guy, how can we help ourselves out of this mess? What are the biggest mistakes people make running?
I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years, but I finally boiled it down to three things that people do wrong. Not only do they want to learn to run, but most people want to get faster. Even if they are a beginning runner, they still want to get faster. And so I came up with the three biggest mistakes that keep runners from getting faster. This applies across the board, from beginners all the way through elite runners.
Mistake One: Most people don’t run using their whole body. Most people are just used to pushing with their legs. From the waist down, and that’s it. ChiRunning is based in my practice of Tai Chi, so it’s all about your whole body. Every part of your body cooperates so your legs don’t have to overwork. That’s another reason why most people get so many leg injuries, is because they’re overworking that one part of their body.
Mistake Two: Most people don’t change their running technique relative to what’s needed. So, people are running along, they go up a hill, they run the same way up the hill as they do down the hill. Same way into a headwind. The same way… Whatever they do, they always run the same way. It’s inefficient not to adapt to the conditions.
So I always go back to my practice of Tai Chi. If I’m coming against an opponent, why would I have the same response no matter what the guy throws at me? I’d be history really quickly. So you need to learn how to change your technique.
Mistake Three: A lot of people don’t first get rid of what slows them down before they start doing all the things that help speed them up. Because if you do more conditioning, more speed work, all of that stuff, and you’re doing it with poor technique, then you could be running faster but still be really inefficient. Too much impact, too much overuse, one thing or the other.
It comes down to three things for most people. So, it’s not running with your whole body, it’s not changing your technique relative to what you need to do, and not getting rid of what slows you down.
Abel: The good news is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for most people to improve their running form. Because it’s a mess. Limbs are flailing. It’s not symmetrical, and it’s not efficient. You can tell they’re not running with a technique that works for them. It’s working against them; it’s slamming the joints. It’s no wonder people have as many injuries as they do.
Before I learned “proper” running technique, I was pretty fast. I was winning races growing up, but I would get shin splints as soon as I peaked, and that was the thing where I’d have to dial it back down for a couple of weeks and stop training. I’d get slower, then I’d get fast again and get shin splints, or hurt my knees or what have you.
The whole up and down thing. Almost every runner has gone through that at some point, and in most places where you learn how to run, you don’t actually learn how to run. You’re just like, “Okay, you’re going to run for five miles. Go.” And you run as fast as you can. They tell you what to do, but they don’t tell you how to do it.
Abel: Exactly. So when you say “running with a unified body,” for example, what does that mean?
Let’s take, for example, how the human body moves.
How most people run is, they push off with their legs. They push their body forward with their legs; that’s what they think. And if you look at where all the running injuries are, they happen generally from the knees down.
When you’re pushing off with your legs, you’re using the lower leg a lot to move your whole body forward. So that’s the smallest group of muscles in your body responsible for your whole movement.
You’ve got all these strong core muscles in the middle that are built for moving your legs, so why would you want to just use the very tail end of your legs and think that’s going to be safe or efficient? So I’m trying to get people to really, not only work more from their core, but also engage their upper body. There’s so much you can do with your upper body.
The whole idea of leaning forward is so you engage the pull of gravity to assist your movement. That helps you move forward so you don’t have to push as much with your legs.
You can also bring in your arms swinging. Very few people are taught about what they should do with their arms. So people hold them tight, or they don’t swing them right, or they get so much tension from holding them wrong. But it’s really learning how to get your arms to cooperate with your leg swing. So, there’s this nice upper-lower synchronicity.
Abel: When it’s working right, it’s beautiful to watch. You can tell.
Oh man, yeah, yeah. It’s really beautiful to watch.
When you’re running in balance, when every part of your body is playing its proportional role, then there isn’t any part that overworks.
In Tai Chi, my Tai Chi instructor would say, even down to your fingers, every part of your body has to be involved. Your fingers are not involved in a big way, because they’re pretty small. But every part of your body is proportional to its size.
It’s very Marxist, set up in that way. From each according to its ability. Yeah, it’s Marxist running. So you got these little tiny feet and these little toes, and small calves or whatever.
Abel: If you stub your toe and you try to go for a run, you really appreciate how important your toes are.
Yes! So how you hold your hands, that makes a difference in the muscles that are used to carry your arms.
Your head position. A lot of people run with their head up. When you think about it, your head is 15% of your total body weight. If your head tilts back, what does that do to your center of mass? It’s like your body is going that way and you’re trying to go forward. It works against you. So it’s really getting your whole upper body to cooperate with this nice forward movement, and with counter-balancing the movement of your lower body. So when I say whole body, that’s what it means: just really becoming cognizant of how every part really does play a role.
Abel: Yeah. Not tight, but engaged in the right way.
Yeah. Definitely not tight. Because the whole idea in any kind of really efficient movement is to have your body aligned well. That way you’re moving symmetrically.
That center line through the middle of your body is where the only… It’s not tightness, it’s kind of this gathered feeling. You know what I mean? You kind of feel that when you’re running in balance or you’re doing anything that requires balance.
Everything outside of that, especially when you’re a runner or a walker or some kind of a moving athlete, everything about the moving parts, your arms and legs and hips and shoulders, needs to be as relaxed as possible. If they’re not, it’s holding you back from the movement you could have.
Abel: Yeah. And just before we get ahead of ourselves, pretty much everything we’re talking about also applies to walking. So even if you’re not a runner, this applies to how you’re living your life, how you’re sitting.
I found that running, in particular, is a great place to learn a lot of these skills that later apply to sitting and standing and other positions we’re in all the time. Because when you’re out there running, it’s usually the only thing you’re doing. You might be listening to music, but you’re paying attention. And sometimes in today’s modern world, it’s difficult to learn when you’re in front of screens and computers. So going out and going for a walk and trying to apply some of these things—it’s a fantastic way to do it. You can learn very quickly.
You can learn an incredible amount. And the cool thing is that most people spend way more time sitting and walking than they do running. So that’s the bulk of your life; it’s not running. What are you doing the rest of the time?
This is a great way to pay attention to your body the rest of the day. Because if you run for an hour a day, or 45 minutes, that’s it and it’s done. But you’re sitting in your car driving, you’re sitting at your desk, you’re walking across to get to your car, whatever. That’s when you bring in all these other postural focuses. You can relax; you can practice moving. And that’s why I’m trying to get people into this whole idea.
Mindful practice doesn’t just last for an hour a day. It’s your life. You do it all day long.
And then when you’re practicing it all day long, when you do go out to run, it’s like everything comes together. It’s really cool. So for an hour you can totally focus on it, because that’s all it is. Like you said, that’s all you’re doing.
HOW TO USE BODY SENSING TO IMPROVE RUNNING TECHNIQUE
Abel: Now, the number two mistake is failing to change technique based on different positions or terrain—whatever you’re up against. What’s the best way to engage that skill – what are you doing to adjust?
Well, the best way to learn it, obviously, is to throw yourself into all kinds of different circumstances and adapt. And the best way to do that is really through body sensing. It’s a big theme through all the ChiRunning work, is just body sensing.
Anybody who’s trying to be an athlete or grow in their practice, that’s a bottom-line requirement: you’ve got to learn how to sense your body. So, you’ve got to learn how to tell, even if you don’t visually see something different going on, to feel it in your body: “Oh my God, I’m feeling just a little bit more tension here. I’m feeling a little more work happening.” I could be running along and all of a sudden I’m not paying attention. I’m looking around and I’m heading up a hill, and all of a sudden I’m going, “Wow, wait a minute, what just happened? It feels harder to move.”
Well, when you realize you’re on a hill, you just go, “Oh, okay, so I’m on a hill. What changes can I make to make this hill easy?” So then you shorten your stride. You lean into it. You do a number of things to make an adjustment. So by throwing yourself in all of the different circumstances, you really get to practice all the different ones. You throw yourself into hills. You throw yourself into a headwind. You throw yourself into downhills, or in the rain, or in cold, or in a crowd, or on sidewalks and streets, or canted roads. All of these different circumstances are going to be thrown at you. You need to practice the little focuses it takes to adapt, in the moment, to what you’re doing.
Abel: As in Tai Chi, any martial artist has to come up against an opponent at some time. And you never know what they’re going to throw at you. The guy might kick you one minute, and pull you the next minute. You need to know what to do in every single circumstance. So you practice with a partner that pulls you, that tries to kick you or punch you. And then you learn your natural responses well enough that it almost becomes intuitive, so when it happens, you’re right there. Just instant response.
That’s the same thing with running, walking—whatever you come against, whatever nature throws at you. If it’s a race course, you have the right response. So then you’re really mastering your movement in the moment. Then the practice is being in the moment, which is everybody’s practice! You know, if it isn’t, it should be. But this is good training for being present.
Running and music were my first training in mindfulness and meditation (without me realizing that’s what it was back then). But mindfulness was definitely happening during those practices. And I think it was one of the reasons why I liked both running and performing so much. The more you engage in that mindfulness, which combines with body sensing, those skills start to branch out into all different parts of your life. And it’s really a beautiful thing.
Yeah, when you’re playing the guitar, and you’ve got a new drummer, and he’s going with a really cool beat, and you want to stay with him, you’ve got to adapt. Play with it. And that’s when it gets really cool. You’re playing with other musicians, everybody’s playing a different instrument, and you can really blend with everybody. And that’s the whole idea of what you’re getting at with music, yeah.
HOW TO PRACTICE BALANCE (AND WHY I RUN WITH MY DOG)
Abel: To extend that a little bit farther, if I’m only playing death-metal guitar all the time, it’s going to be really hard to jam with someone who’s playing bluegrass. And if you’re always running on the hardtop, at the same speed, on the same race course, you’re building deficiencies, in fact. You’re building imbalance in your body. What are the ways you can remedy that to make sure you’re practicing balance?
The first one is awareness. You’ve got to be aware that you have a tendency to keep doing the same thing over and over.
So let’s say you live in Florida. It’s always flat. You always have the same terrain. It’s always just here, or there. It’s, like, two-dimensional. So you’ve got to start figuring out how you can actually throw in new circumstances when new circumstances don’t exist.
When I was training in Florida, I’d find parking garages. I’d wind my way up to the top level and come back down. I did freeway ramps, you know? Anything that gives me a little elevation.
If I couldn’t find that, then, for instance, if I was running a really long, flat event, I would run along, and every few miles, I would run as if I were running up a hill. So I’d lean more, I’d pick up my feet, I’d lift my knees a little higher, I’d change my stride.
So if you don’t have the circumstances around you, you need to create the circumstances. Put it onto your body. That’s one way to do it. You can change up various parts of your body. If you, for instance, live in a place with not a lot of external changes going on, you can switch between just running with your upper body for a while, just running with your lower body for a while, just completely running off relaxation for a while. You know, really mix it up so you challenge yourself. You can get really creative with this.
Abel: These days I run with my dog, and she’s all over the place. She’s almost 80 pounds. She’s a perpetual puppy. Instead of fighting it, I like to have fun with it. So we’ll go out and run together.
One of the big problems with certain types of training, including running, for a lot of people, as well as CrossFit, is that they’re only training certain ways of moving, like front, back, and to the side. But none of those moves that are a little bit diagonal, or in any of the infinite directions.
As humans, we’re supposed be all over the place, like that puppy dog, right? What I like to do is, we go out to the park. And we just kind of bounce back and forth, in all sorts of different directions, and chase each other around. I’ll even do that if the trail is a little bit empty in one spot. I’ll start running diagonally, on purpose, and I find I’m engaging a lot more of my body, and my mind, in fact.
Yeah, exactly. That’s why I love trail running. It’s such a natural fit, because you’re always doing something different every 10 seconds, and that’s the beauty of it. But if you don’t happen to have that, then yes, you’ve got to throw in artificial circumstances.
Abel: You’ve got to keep yourself entertained. Okay, so, number three was to gain speed. Most people don’t get rid of what slows them down.
People don’t think about this. You go to any training site, and they’ll go, “Okay, you want to get faster? Okay, on Tuesdays, you’re going to do intervals, you’re going to do the ladders and sprints, and all this stuff.” And most trainers are into cardio-aerobic fitness. Your aerobic has to get better, or you’re getting your muscles to be stronger or your heart to be stronger.
What I’ve found is that a lot of people still carry too much tension in their body. They don’t work on their range of motion. So if your body doesn’t have good range of motion, how are you going to get a longer stride? And if you don’t have a long stride, how are you going to run faster without working harder? So, range of motion, relaxation of both your hips and shoulders, how your arms swing, how your legs swing. And what slows you down is also when you’re not really aligned with the direction you’re headed so there’s efficiency in your movement.
If you run like Rocky Balboa, that’s inefficient. If you bounce up and down, that’s not going to work.
Abel: Because you need that energy.
Yeah. If you hold tension, if you just run with your legs and don’t swing your arms. So, there’s all these ways your body can slow you down or make other parts of your body have to work harder.
The biggest thing I see with people that slows them down is they don’t take advantage of this whole process of falling forward. Because especially as you get older, people get afraid of falling, so they back off that lean they had when they were younger, as a kid, and so when they start running upright, the physics changes. All the physics changes, so then you’re not working with the pull of gravity; you’re actually working against the pull of gravity.
So it’s cooperating by leaning, cooperating by relaxing, cooperating by finding the areas of your body that just don’t work with the rest and contribute their fair share.
Abel: Let’s talk about ChiRunning taking off in Asia. You’ve been working with Westerners for a long time now. We come to the table with a lot of baggage and with a lack of understanding about certain concepts, like Chi. How is it different when you’re coaching people in Asia?
Oh, it’s literally worlds apart. Everybody in the West is really into results, and it’s, “How fast can I get? How far can I get? How strong can I get?” So people come to me all the time trying to get better in that kind of way—in measurable ways. It’s not to say that people in Asia aren’t interested in speed, but they are really respectful of the process of getting there.
This whole thing was started in San Francisco. I started it in the West. So that’s been my challenge, introducing this whole concept from Tai Chi—how to move from your center and relax the moving parts in order to become a better runner, how to integrate this into your running.
For the first 10 years, people are going, “Oh my God, this is such woo-woo stuff. I’m not sure if I can deal with this. You going to make me eat granola mix for breakfast or something?” And I’m going, “I feel like a salmon swimming upstream. What’s this Chi stuff? I just want to run, just come on, show me how to run, get me faster.”
When I go to Asia, people are going, “Chi, oh my God, this is so cool, because I’ve been hearing about this my whole life. I grew up with it. We know what Chi is, it’s life-force energy, we work with it, we do it. Tai Chi is a part of our culture.” Martial arts is a part of their culture, and so explaining what your center is, your dan tien, or what Chi is to them, it’s like me explaining to you what a peanut butter sandwich is. It’s like, “Oh my God, really?”
Abel: For better or worse.
For better or worse, yeah, that’s true. And so they understand the Chi thing. And the beauty of what’s happening right now, in Asia, is that they are actually going through their first running boom. We had ours in the 60s—Frank Shorter and all those guys came back from the Olympics going, “You know, I think everybody could do this.” But they’re going through their first boom. And especially greater China. They’ve never had a middle class; they’re getting a little more economy going in places like India and Southeast Asia. They’re really getting much more of a middle class that has a little bit more time and expendable income.
So these people are going, “Wow.” Especially the younger crowd are not as into Tai Chi, because that’s what their grandparents did. The old guys—that’s the old guys’ sport. And these kids are going, “Well, I’d like to learn what Tai Chi’s about, but I don’t want to have to do Tai Chi.”
So when I say, “Hey, man, you’re going to learn this stuff through your running, and get all of that same stuff.” They’re going, “Really, I love running, so show me.”
I went to China in the spring of this year, and I went to Taiwan and to Hong Kong. And I was able to teach a whole bunch of instructors over there. Now I have regional directors in Singapore, in Hong Kong, and Taiwan that are kind of heading up the show over there. And it’s wonderful to see the response they’re getting. It’s very cool. And I’m really excited.
I’ve always said, I think, since I started this whole thing 15 years ago, that if this takes off somewhere, it’s going to be Asia, because I don’t have to explain what it’s about. I’ve just got to tell them how to do it. And it’s kind of what’s happening.
Abel: That’s fantastic.
I’ll give you an example. I think 10 years ago, in Greater China, the People’s Republic, there wasn’t more than maybe 10 marathons a year. Now they have hundreds. In just 10 years, that’s huge growth. It’s really booming everywhere, all over Asia, so it’s really a fun time to be over there, and promoting.
Abel: Have you noticed in the past 10 years that it’s less like swimming upstream in America? It seems like people are starting to open up and appreciate that there’s another side to this whole thing.
I’m definitely noticing the presence and awareness of people seeing that there is really something, digging deeper into your running, to really make it better. And along with that, of course, has been a decrease in our market share, because everybody’s getting on board. Even Runner’s World is on board now. Sounds funny, but once they get on board, then you know it’s mainstream.
So everybody’s really aware of technique, and proper training, and really being mindful about how you move. And there’s still huge, huge debates about, how do you land? You have a heel strike, a mid-foot, a toe-off, whatever you do. So there’s still many more scientific studies showing that it’s really valuable to pay attention to the technique.
All of that is bringing the awareness in as well. So yeah, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in people wanting to learn how to run. When I started, I had to tell people, “You really do need to learn how to run, because you need to see how you’re moving.” It hurts to watch.
Abel: I do think it’s getting better. And it seems like a lot of Westerners get into running, or any sport for that matter, for performance. But now there’s a greater appreciation for running as a practice.
That’s a really cool change that’s just starting up, to really do it as a practice. There are still not many people teaching it as a practice. I think we still kind of have that market pretty well surrounded. But it’s really getting to be wonderful that way, because you can see that both with walking and with running.
With the health crisis in our country, more people are paying attention to, “Okay, I don’t want to be a diabetic. I don’t want to be overweight. I don’t want to have my joints fall apart on me. I don’t want heart disease. I don’t want arthritis.” And so they’re seeing that this really is a practice for a reason. “I want to enjoy my older years.” And so, nowadays, when I’m pitching a walking class, or running class, I’m just telling people, “The reason why it’s a practice is so you can actually have a choice and a say in your quality of life from here on out.”
If you want to have really good health for the rest of your life, you’ve got to start now, and you’ve got to start by learning how to move well, and not damaging your body, and eating well, breathing right, all of that stuff. You want to be healthy, you’ve got to pay.
RUNNING AS MINDFULNESS PRACTICE
Abel: It’s not just about running that one race, or that one season, or anything like that. In fact, since the last time we talked—this was a couple years ago, I broke my foot, and so I couldn’t run for a while. I realized how much I missed it. You start to take things for granted.
Then, not running for a year, I saw how my life changed, even in my own brain state, and how I was operating day-to-day. I think it really reminded me how important it is, and how much of a gift it is, to go out there and move. Because now I do it for the pure joy of it, really. I’m not racing for anything anymore. But as a practice, and I’m sure you can relate to this, it feels like freedom.
Oh, yeah. It’s not only freedom, but it’s also a stress-reliever. Given our culture right now, on setup and just coming out of the election, and stuff like that, it’s a stress-reliever. It’s really a great way to deal with stress, because it gets you in your body, out of your head. You can actually relax, and start to feel the ground underneath you. And it’s a good way to move through this whole process of transition that’s going on in our country right now. It’s a great technique.
Abel: To me, it’s the opposite of driving. Or the opposite of driving in the city, anyway. I grew up in the country. Driving in the country, I always enjoyed; it was time to myself. It’s almost like trail running, in a way. But man, in the city, on the highway, forget about it.
That’s a real exercise in presence.
HOW TO STOP HATING RUNNING
Abel: Exactly. So what are some things for people who may have told themselves, “I hate running”? Because that’s a pretty common thing to say. What do you do about that, if people are coming to it with that mentality?
Well, if somebody really hates running, how I approach them is, you’ve really got to suspend your disbelief for one thing. Right off the bat, if you want to learn to love running, the best way to do it is just tiny, little increments. Tiny. It’s a huge learning curve if your health isn’t good, you’ve been sedentary, or anything like that. So it’s such a big leap that most people go, “Not only do I hate it, but I can’t even imagine getting started.”
So what I’ve done is, I’ve come up with a method. It’s a brand new thing. It’s called the ChiRunning School. What I’ve done is I’ve taken all of the teaching that I’ve done over the last 15 years, and I’ve kind of honed it down into a series of just one focus at a time, one little thing of your body to pay attention to. It could be no more than just bending your arms and swinging them in a more relaxed way, or how you hold your fingers, or how you land your feet.
I have it broken up into lessons. It’s two years’ worth of lessons, delivered weekly. So 104 lessons. And it starts off at the beginning really simple, just standing tall. So all week long, to do that.
There’s a video lesson that comes along with each lesson, a video component. Then there’s an audio companion that you could download to your iPhone or your mp3 player or whatever, and take it with you as you go walking around or as you go out on a workout. So that way you get to see what it is I’m trying to show you, and then you get to have me talk you through it. So it’s not like being in front of a class. It’s not being embarrassed with working on something with other people. You can work on this on your own.
Also, you’re only doing one little tiny thing for a whole week. And then the next week, you get another little tiny thing. So if somebody hates running and I can get them to just change one little tiny thing every week, it adds up. After not very many weeks, you’re already kind of moving along, going, “Well, this doesn’t feel as bad as I imagined, because he’s actually telling me how to do it right from the get-go.”
When people really see how much easier it is to move, they get curious, and they go, “Wow, I’ve got two years of lessons. This is pretty cool. I should be able to be an instructor by the time I finish this course.” But people love it. We have gotten so many letters back. We had it going for the previous year, but then we retooled it and reshaped it, took all the feedback from people. It’s in a really nice little fun school package.
Abel: Yeah, I’m really excited about where things are going, because e-learning and DIY learning is taking off. You can learn pretty much anything from anywhere, as long as you find someone who you can trust. But Danny is absolutely fantastic, to all of you listening out there. Even if you hate running.
Yes, even if you hate running.
Abel: Give Danny a few minutes and you’ll figure out that there’s a lot more to running (and life) than you thought. Because to me, if someone says they hate running, it’s like saying you hate moving.
Can you imagine a kid saying, “I hate running”? That’s what recess is for. You go and you get your wiggles out, and you feel like a new human being after you do it.
And you don’t have to run fast. Running, even if you don’t run fast, is probably one of the best ways to get muscle tone, drop weight—anything you want. Get balanced, get a stronger core.
All of this stuff happens, and all you have to do is just go run around a little bit regularly. And it’s not a big push thing; it’s not a competitive thing. It’s not even a lot of muscle work. You build the muscle by the nature of the fact that you’re moving around. You don’t have to go to the gym.
Abel: Right, it’s free.
Yeah, it’s free.
Abel: You can even run barefoot; you don’t need those fancy shoes.
Yeah, you don’t even need shoes nowadays.
Abel: One crazy thing I wanted to bring up in this interview is when I visited your running workshop in Austin. I’m sure you remember this, it was during our lunch break when a man had a heart attack down the street…
A lot of people wonder, “why would you ever run?” I thought that myself. Running seems like a useless superpower.
But while I was out on a lunch break at your workshop, out in front of where we were having that, there was a man, he was in his 40s or 50s, and he collapsed right where I was, right after I pulled my car into the parking lot.
He had a massive heart attack. After a passer-by called 911, I sprinted, basically, for 3 minutes from the street to where you were having your lunch break, because I knew there was a doctor there who was also attending your workshop.
I shouted to the crowd that someone just collapsed and might be having a heart attack. The doctor comes running out, and then another guy, and he says, “I have an oxygen tank, in my car in the parking lot.” So we all sprinted back over there, and they set him up with the oxygen mask before the ambulance came. He got carted off, went to the hospital. But we saw on the news later that it literally saved his life. And he called us his three angels after that. Can you imagine a better reason to run than that?
The fact is that speed was a factor in that sort of situation, and I think that’s what life is. I lost everything in a fire a few years ago, and you need to move fast sometimes. You need to have endurance.
If your car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, you need to go get gas. This is a skill that we are quickly losing as a civilization, as people succumb to obesity and sickness. And I think it’s really important to maintain fitness in one way or another. And this is such a simple, fun way to do it.
This whole thing started out in the San Francisco Bay Area, when I was living out there. Well, I would always travel with a pair of running shoes in my trunk because I never knew when the big one was going to hit. There’s this earthquake that’s supposed to happen that’s going to level the whole West Coast. I never knew when it was going to hit, but I figured, even if I’m like, 25-30 miles away from home, if I’ve got my running shoes in the back of the car, I can leave my car. It’s not going anywhere in the middle of an earthquake. But I always wanted that out. Somehow, it made me feel better about living on the fault line.
HOW TO RUN ULTRA MARATHONS WITHOUT DYING
Abel: You feel like you have something up your sleeve, right? You feel like you’re a little bit more prepared.
But let me ask you this. I’ve run marathons, but not really past that distance. When you’re running ultra marathons, what do you do as different muscles fatigue or your body starts to create imbalance in your movement?
Hopefully, if you’re good enough at it, you make the adjustments before your muscles fatigue. You plan ahead, you refuel, you take rest breaks. But otherwise, you do what I was talking about where you use other parts of your body to run with, besides your legs. Then you can do that, intentionally resting your legs while you’re still moving.
Then you’ve got to make sure you’re up with your fueling. Make sure you’re getting your carbs in and your hydration, all of that stuff. So it’s this whole science of balancing. Every bone of my body really wants to go, “You know what? I could use a nap right now.”
But it’s really, “What do I have that I can use?” And using that, and really putting everything else on the back burner, letting it rest, letting it just minimally work. But hopefully you’ve done enough training and longer mileage runs in your training that you can really know how to use that, and when to see the need for it as it comes up.
Abel: There’s also a big difference between redlining and running at a pace where you could go all day. I think you mentioned this before, that you pretty much always breathe out of your nose. What’s the importance of that?
When you’re only breathing in and out through your nose, one thing is that it’s a smaller air stream, so the air goes faster through your nasal passages and it gets deeper into your lungs. But the main thing is that when you’re nose breathing, it really allows you to belly breathe. So you’re breathing much deeper into your lungs. If you breathe through your mouth, that’s chest breathing. So that’s when you start panting, and that’s when the air only gets so far. There are very few of the alveoli, the things that take air oxygen and put it into your blood oxygen. They aren’t in your upper lungs; they’re in your lower lungs. So chest breathing is fine if you’re in the fight-or-flight mode. If you’re a sprinter, catching somebody at the end of the race, for brief periods of time, going anaerobic, chest breathing, is what you’re supposed to be doing.
You need lots of oxygen for a small period of time. But if you’re endurance running, if you’re out there all day, if you’re persistence running, then you need to breathe more slowly; you need to get less into the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system, which really burns different. It supplies your body with different hormones and stuff like that. It’s not cortisol and adrenaline. It’s serotonin, and the ones that really calm your body. You can turn it into a meditative state.
It’s a whole mind-body change. It’s like settling your whole body in, “Okay. We’re out here all day. We’re getting into a groove here.” So it’s the mindset of ultras that really is the beauty of it. I’ve never been wanting to be a fast runner. I was always a fast ultra runner, but I never pushed the redline in ultras.
You always want to end with something still in your tank. Otherwise you didn’t do it right.
Abel: Most of the way that we learn here in the West, is: “Redline all the time. Go until you hurt. Then take a little time off. But then go more and go faster.” And that is not a complete equation.
It’s not a complete equation, because… well both of them end in death, but one is longer away.
Abel: But another cool thing is when you’re nose breathing, you’re also literally using a different fuel for your body. You have a lot more in your tank when you’re burning fat. You ran a 50k in 3 hours and 46 minutes. That’s not slow. For non-running listeners, that pace means Danny is cruising along for 30 miles. But big difference between that and being totally gassed, going anaerobic, redlining and burning pure sugar. Because you can only do that for short periods of time.
It’s like 90 minutes’ worth of glycogen in your body. And so if you take off too fast, if you’re redlining all the time, you’re going to burn through that glycogen really quickly, and then it’s called hitting the wall. I’ve never once, in 43 ultras, never hit the wall.
Never ever. Never got to a point where I go, “You know what? Take me away.” So the whole idea of that kind of slow fat burning is that you need glycogen to burn fat. It’s always a ratio. It’s absolutely a ratio.
So, if you’re nose breathing, if you’re calming yourself, then you’re burning much, and if you’re relaxing your body, moving a little slower than you are burning less glycogen, and because of the chemical balance in your body, actually, your body starts learning how to burn fat.
I remember when I was training for ultras, I would finish one of my workouts, and my body heat was way up for the next six, eight hours. So I was burning fat sleeping through the night, because my body was just in this slow mode of burning fat. And people think this whole thing about high-intensity interval training, that’s kind of fun, maybe, when you’re young, but if you really want to just get into a lifestyle of slow burn and good health, there’s a really different way to go about it.
Abel: You mean you don’t do burpees as a lifestyle?
No, no, no.
HOW TO AGE GRACEFULLY
Abel: When you’re talking about something that’s very effective for getting strong, getting fast, losing fat super quickly—yes, you can do super-intense exercises, and I do sometimes… but I have trouble believing that I’ll be doing ridiculously intense workouds when I’m 70 or 80, whereas going out in cruise mode and going for a nice run or a hike? That’s something I hope to be doing for the rest of my life. It’s one of my favorite things on earth.
Yeah. And so you know as you get older, and I’m getting older, I’m starting to feel my speed coming down and my body not recovering as quickly. It’s really just making me even that more sensitive to how I move and when I take breaks and how often I walk and all this stuff. So, I’m actually learning to enjoy this little bit of a slower ride, you know?
Abel: A lot of folks who listen who are over 40 or 50. Do you have any tips specifically for them?
Yeah. I would say as you get older, it’s really important to shorten your stride, but keep your cadence. So I’m a big proponent of a steady cadence no matter what speed you run. Because it keeps your body used to a certain gear, speed-feeling.
So as you get older, your body doesn’t produce the testosterone to build more muscles and more muscles. And so you need to adapt. You need to learn to relax more. As you get older, you need to keep your range of motion. So yoga classes, any kind of stretching like that, that really keeps your range of motion.
So, range of motion, shorter stride. I know those seem opposite of each other, but it’s still really important, when you do increase your speed, to be able to have that range if you need it, and just really working on that whole slow fat-burning mode.
You don’t need to be in a hurry as you get older. Let the young guys burn themselves to the ground.
Abel: I’m not as much an elder as you, but I have a feeling that’s great advice.
I do kind of feel like the village elder. When I show up at a race… If I show up at a race, I win my age group nowadays. But I’m enjoying it. It’s still fun.
Abel: And that’s the whole point, anyway. That is why we train: because it’s fun. And whether we like it or not, we’re all still kids. And I think when you go out and run, or even walk, in the same meditative state, you appreciate that, and you let a little bit of that out every day. It changes your mental state.
You’ve got to have fun. That’s all there is to it. You’ve got to have fun. And whether it’s through running or walking or just getting out the door, or walking your dog, you’ve got to get out of your head and into your body.
Abel: Get out of your head, now more than ever. The world is crazy. We have technology bleeping and blooping at us nonstop. At the very least, going out on a run or a walk is a great excuse to get away from that for 10, 20 minutes a day.
Oh, yeah, “Sitting is the new smoking.”
I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to help people get there, help people love running. We’re going to get you to love running. Just as a short aside, I’ve had so many triathletes, I can’t tell you, that have come to me and said, “I hate running. It’s my least favorite part of a triathlon. If you can get me to love it, I’ll thank you for the rest of my life.” They usually come back, and a couple years later, they’ll say, “Oh my God, running is my favorite part of the triathlon because it’s the last part, and it’s the easiest.”
If I can convince those guys, I can convince anybody.
WHERE TO FIND DANNY DREYER
You can find Danny Dreyer and ChiRunning on Twitter @ChiRunning, Instagram @ChiRunning, and on Facebook @ChiRunning. Also check out all the materials and the new running school on the ChiRunning website.
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BEFORE YOU GO… 20 POUNDS DOWN IN 3 WEEKS?
When I met Kurt, he was winded just walking around and weighed 352 pounds. Just 14 weeks after starting The Wild Diet, he lost 87 pounds and went rock-climbing with his wife!
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How often do you go for a run? Leave a comment below to let us know what you thought of this interview with Danny Dreyer.