While skiing still has more than a month to go here it's time to get back into running and cycling now that the weather has improved, the days are longer and the vicious winter bugs have backed off at last.
First Spring run this year was a 5k using Mizuno low profile trail running shoes. Although I enjoy using "barefoot" style shoes for running and all walking (even through winter) the lack of cushioning doesn't seem to suit for long distance running. Despite years of working on improving technique and awareness any break in running with “barefoot” shoes would lead to debilitating "doms" (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) on returning to the sport and on any subsequent increase in distance or speed. Usually when the legs finally adapted to this a painful issue would then crop up with the upper metatarsal joint leading to the little toe on the right foot. This always became chronic and for a couple of years was actually mistaken as being caused by narrow cycle racing shoes. This run effectively proved that good technique along with some cushioning underfoot can completely avoid "doms". The legs were certainly tired and a bit stiff for skiing next day but there was no “doms” pain or discomfort.
Chi Running just comes naturally now, especially thanks to practicing the movement deeply all winter with every turn made on skis. It's not just an "extra" movement or minor adaptation it is the core movement and key to everything else; a big and significant movement. While developing this skill it was previously always hard to engage the core muscles. There is a strong emotional connection with the abdominal area (we vomit when scared or get "butterflies" etc.) so somehow it's very easy to avoid using the core when moving and it's hard to connect with it when dealing with the discomfort of sustained effort. Skiing provides the opportunity to focus on initiating every movement strongly and clearly directly from the core - over and over again. Integrating the cross lateral body movements involved in skiing through active use of the core has a powerful consolidating effect. The action in skiing is very clear and pronounced even compared to other activities so this is very beneficial and is why when starting running again it feels more natural and effortless to use the core. Having all the body actions initiated from the centre when running gives a feeling of connectedness with the body. The active core protects the back as the postural muscles are only activated through reflex (there is no conscious control over them). If the core doesn't work with the appropriate coordination with all motion beginning there and the stride extending behind (not in front) then posture automatically collapses. During the past year, running, skiing or cycling I've experienced no lower back problems whatsoever despite having a history of three major surgical interventions on the lower back and a permanently compressed sciatic nerve.
Chi (nasal) Breathing (and Posture)
I’ve decided to stick “Chi” in front of everything now. All my running this is year going do be done with nasal breathing. What is “Chi” about this? Well all of the coordination is concentrated right down in the centre of the body. The abdominals have to relax to breathe in properly and then they have to be allowed to contract to breathe out effectively. The cross lateral motion of the body can be used actively in this contraction process. The hard part is maintaining posture while relaxing the abdomen. The key here is to maintain a pelvic tilt – up at the front. For many years I thought this was wrong for my lower back – which is generally too flat – but the answer is to keep the hip flexors relaxed and free so that all the parts are independent. Breathing makes you much more acutely aware of the pelvic alignment necessary for good posture (and hence for good breathing). Breathing is about quality not quantity – it must be in and out through the nose and low down in the lungs using the diaphragm and abdomen. This is coordinated with the running motion – all the motion coming from the centre and all attention being centred there. Just completed another 10k run – it took 5k just for the breathing to sort itself out. The body (nervous system) adapts quickly to higher CO2 levels from deliberately restricted breathing (the exercise itself generating higher CO2 levels) and this gives better tissue and brain oxygenation – the oxygen release being dependent on CO2 being absorbed into the blood.
The first hill climb of the year was the usual Granier 8km workout. Interestingly, despite a heavier belly it was minutes faster than the final miserable attempt at the end of last year! The good part was the great feeling of "technique" working. All the bits and pieces of technique hanging together and doing so automatically is not something you might ever expect to be relevant to cycling efficiency - but it is! Many cyclists are already at the 2000km mark this season but that's just not possible nor appealing to me. The goal is to lose weight, increase technical efficiency and then ramp up performance while enjoying it and using it to improve the body - not to wreck it with repetitive strain injuries pedalling blindly and in horrible weather.
Climbing while working the core gives constant pressure on the pedals. The slight (backwards) internal rotation of spine works in conjunction with the forward push at the start of the downstroke through the core muscles. This ties up to the backward "scraping" of the recovering foot through the cross lateral body action. If the hip doesn't move backwards as the foot presses forwards and down then this cross lateral core function is not possible. In skiing, if the hip is not pulled back as the ski begins its turn then likewise all connection between the upper and lower body vanishes and there is genuinely "upper/lower body separation" in the sense that this disconnection causes posture to collapse and the back to be destroyed. Having the workload shared through all of the main leg muscles and core simultaneously (quads, glutes, lower abdomen, lower back, obliques) means that the potential for endurance is far higher.
Using this mechanism clearly in skiing all winter seriously helped me avoid tiredness during long days on the mountain – frequently with no lunch break. Given that we don’t get stronger as we get older it pays to learn to make smarter and more efficient use of the body.