Qigong (pronounced ‘chee gung’) is a form of health exercise that originated in China. Related to tai chi, its movements are slow and meditative. But beneath the apparently simple exterior, qigong contains many principles that can help runners prevent injury, maintain health and improve performance.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that you can benefit from integrating a Qigong practice (or even just some qigong principles) into your running.
Posture and alignment
Good running form is really important. It will make your running stride more efficient so you can run faster and further, but will also help prevent injuries. One focus of Qigong, especially in the early stages, is getting good postural alignment. But it doesn’t stop there. Once you’re in a good posture, we then focus on releasing unnecessary tension. Developing sensitivity to what’s going on in the body so that we can identify tension takes a bit of time, but is hugely valuable.
Stretching and opening the body
Most runners know they should be stretching, but the purpose of stretching is often misunderstood. The idea of stretching (at least according to Qigong) is not to pull the muscles so they are longer (which can reduce their power), but to open up the joints and tissues of the body. This means we stretch in a slightly different way that is in some ways more similar to yoga. Working through our range of motion and gently opening up the joints creates more space for the movement of blood, lymph and synovial fluid.
There’s also the fascia / soft tissue network to consider. This tissue network is everywhere: between skin and muscle, muscle and bones, even within muscles and organs. Fascia lays down new fibres all the time, growing like a candy floss structure. When part of the body moves, the new fibres are broken, but where we don’t move, the new fibres gradually thicken up until they become more rigid. This is an ingenious system that supports areas that shouldn’t move, while keeping mobile areas moving fluidly. But if we don’t move part of our body for a while, it will gradually stiffen up. By regularly engaging in movements that go through our full range of motion, we keep everything moving properly. This means you shouldn’t just stretch your legs, but work through the whole body as we do in a Qigong practice.
Running demands good oxygenation of the muscles. This means your speed and endurance can be limited by your breathing. In Qigong we use particular breathing methods to achieve different effects. The most basic of these is abdominal breathing. Most adults tend to breathe into their chest, with the breath becoming increasingly shallow as we age. We want to reverse this, breathing deeply into the lungs, allowing the abdomen to expand as we breathe in. This allows us to bring in more oxygen with each breath, so we can keep fuelling the muscles to run faster and further.
One of the key principles of Qigong is developing an awareness of what’s going on in the body. Because there’s a reasonable amount going on, it’s fairly easy to focus the mind (certainly easier than in meditation). But because Qigong movements are fairly simple and repeated, it’s possible to cultivate deep mindfulness. Running can provide a similar benefit, but only if you use your mind and awareness in a particular way.
Especially if you’re training for a long distance event, recovery is a vital part of your routine. If you don’t rest and recover adequately, you’ll suffer more injuries and they’ll heal more slowly or not at all. Learning a Qigong routine can give you an excellent option for your rest and recovery days. This will give you something to do that can promote recovery but also improve your performance.
How do I integrate Qigong with running?
Firstly you would need to learn some exercises to practice the principles of mind, body and breathing that Qigong develops. You would practice these on your rest and recovery days (or preferably more often). Next, you begin to apply these principles to your running technique.
How can I learn Qigong for runners?
I run Qigong classes in the Malvern Hills. Find out more and sign up for details of upcoming classes here.
We’re also developing an online course. While it’s no substitute for learning in person, this will introduce the key principles you can apply to running and exercises to help you develop the skills covered in this article.