Though she ran cross-country in high school, Natalie Isaac didn't really get serious about fitness till a dozen years ago when she discovered, and is now a co-owner of, InsideOut Gym. She loved pounding the pavement, but pain and fatigue took its toll. That's when she took up ChiRunning, which was started by holistic guru and nationally ranked ultramarathoner Danny Dreyer. A social worker for nearly two decades, Isaac — whose next workshop is January 16th — is now the only ChiRunning instructor in Memphis. She slowed down a few minutes to explain its fundamentals and how it revived her joy in running.
What prompted you to get fit?
I was going through a divorce and was on a lot of antidepressants. [Friends] would tell me I could live without them, but I was really defensive. Then one day I woke up and I quit. I said I don't want to live this way, medicated. So I started exercising and running and learning other ways to deal with stress.
Tell us about the pain.
I was in the Memphis marathon in December 2008. Though I'd done a great deal of training, I was surprised at how difficult it was for me. My feet, lower back, neck, upper body — they all hurt and felt very fatigued. I had felt this way awhile in running long distances. I was very discouraged. Running wasn't fun anymore. I knew I'd injure myself if I kept on. So I flew to Mexico for a workshop on ChiRunning.
At first skeptical, and not very hopeful. But by the end of the first day I was ecstatic. Most people the first time they do it, they say it's like being pulled by a a bungee cord. You feel light, effortless. That's because you learn about the two forces that make running hard.
The force of the road coming at you, while you're trying to go the opposite direction. And the force of gravity constantly pulling you down. My first video in Mexico shows me running almost tilted backwards. The road would just push me back.
How does ChiRunning help you manage those forces?
You learn to work with them instead of against them. You learn proper body alignment. It's as if your body is a pipe with water running through it. If the pipe is twisted, the water doesn't run freely or easily. That's how alignment allows your chi — which means life energy — to flow freely.
Lots of people with twisted pipes?
Oh, yeah. And there's this whole macho way of thinking, "I don't need a coach to run." But without knowing what to correct, most runners become frustrated and hurt themselves.
Talk more about correct alignment.
The concept is called "needle and cotton." The needle supports you and the cotton ball rotates around the needle, soft and relaxed. You lean from your ankle so that gravity pulls you forward rather than straight down. You lift your heel behind you so that the road just goes by, and you land in the middle of your foot, not the heel. Most important, you keep your pelvis level to engage core muscles,
Can it make you run faster?
It makes you more relaxed, and you're not hurting, and for most people that can lead to being faster. One guy ran the half-marathon and his time was two minutes off each mile [of his previous records], very significant.
But running faster isn't the main benefit.
No, it's not about running a marathon. It's about understanding how your body feels and how you're using it. ChiRunning is natural, gentle, and makes sense.