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The Physics of ChiRunning, Lean

So the discussion is on. Question: Should I lean when I run? Here is my answer: If you don’t think leaning will help you, don’t. If you think leaning might help you, experience the effects first hand and draw your own conclusions.

Some “experts” suggest that it is not possible for gravity to propel you forward. This is very interesting since I have been using gravity in this way since I started ChiRunning® (“chee-running”, Chi Running) 5+ years ago. I don’t push, reach or pull – yet I move forward. How is it possible for the experts, draped in degrees from prestigious universities, to suggest that what I do is not possible? Perhaps:

  • They have never actually tried it.
  • They think they have tried it but could not get a sense for it.
  • There is a gravitational void which cloaks anyone with a closed mind.
  • They are applying a steady state hypothesis to the non-steady state application (chirp … more on this in a future post).

It seems rather embarrassing, but that may just be me. But in the end it really does not matter what they say or why. The bottom line is everyone has a choice, and hopefully that choice is based on a personal experience. Frankly, I rely on my own experience before I believe a textbook, an opinion, a study or someone else’s experiment. All of that is just information I consider as input to my own experiences.

So here is an experience for you:

  1. Stand up tall and lengthen the back of your neck. Soften your knees.
  2. Feel your feet flat on the ground.
  3. From the ankles, move your nose forward just 1-2″ by allowing your whole body to lean forward (as pictured below). Do not bend at the waist or allow you head/chin to jut forward.

Question: In this position, do you feel like you could fall forward? Most(*) people will answer yes, that they feel their weight come forward into their forefoot and a sense of wanting to take a step forward.

[*OK, so everyone I have coached through this simple exercise has agreed over the past 4+ years.]

So you feel a pull forward, but you are not moving forward. This must mean there is resistance or a brake somewhere. Question: Where do you sense a brake in your body? Most(*) people will say tension in the feet but there could also be tension anywhere to “hold onto” or resist the lean.

Question: What if you released that tension? What would happen? Ready, 3,2,1, release … most(*) people at this point take a step forward.

Next question: Did you have to push off to take the step? Most(*) people say no.

Next question: Did you have to think about bringing your foot forward to catch your step? Most(*) people again say no.

Next question: What if it were possible to turn your running into a series of these micro-falls and micro-catches such that you could run “without using your legs, (wait for it) … for propulsion”?

Now here is another experience for you:

  1. Stand up tall and lengthen the back of your neck.
  2. Feel your feet flat on the ground.
  3. Put your pointer fingers on your hip bones (as pictured below).
  4. From the hip joint, leaving your hips where they are, bend forward at the waist (as pictured).

Question: In this second position, do you feel like you could fall forward? Most(*) people will answer no – that they do not feel their weight come forward into their forefoot or a sense of wanting to take a step forward. They just report some extra effort to maintain this mis-aligned position.

Question: Why? Simple answer: gravity is not affecting you the same way it was before.

Now the experts will pick at the details and impress us with their book smarts, fancy terms, formulas, yada, yada, but here is how these experiences were explained very simply to me:

  • Take a column.
  • Tilt the column into gravity moving its center of mass in front of its contact point with the ground.
  • The result is a forward force on the column. This is the same thing that happens to a falling tree, a unicyclist or with a young child’s instinct – to name just a few examples.

In the first experience, the body’s center of mass came forward … therefore a sense of a forward force. In the second experience, the body’s center of mass is still OVER the feet … therefore no forward force since gravity is still only resulting in a downward force.

So given my very high success rate at helping people feel these two experiences – and seeing the AHA moments on their faces, I can only assume that the experts have simply not tried it or that they don’t feel they need to try it. Neither situation provides credibility or deserves a moment of attention. But as above it really does not matter what happens in their world, it only matters what happens in your world.

Repeat Question: What if it were possible to turn your running into a series of micro-falls and micro-catches such that you could run “without using your legs, (wait for it again) … for propulsion”? What would that mean to your running, to your efficiency, to reducing stress that may lead to lack of enjoyment, discomfort or injury?

If you decide to try this, note that is does take practice to sense the position, stay relaxed and remain balanced. And that balance is possible through the coordination of the entire body. Isolating one ChiRunning concept, such as a subtle forward lean, is not advisable. Two resources for more information:

Happy running, umm, I mean (subtle) falling. May the force be with, or more accurately may you allow the force of gravity to be with you …

05/10/12 Update: Part two is now posted which includes a physics analysis for your consideration: The Physics of ChiRunning, Lean … Analysis.

[See the Physics Resource Page for more information.]


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David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor.  For more information on David, please see his About MeContact page or his website at

ChiRunning® and ChiWalking® are registered trademarks of ChiLiving, Inc.


Posted on Wednesday, Jun. 22nd 2011 2:29 PM | by echifitness | in All, ChiRunning, Gravity | 6 Comments »

6 Comments on “The Physics of ChiRunning, Lean”

  1. Jim Stanton Says:

    I enjoy you site and the tricks you have discovered that help with correct running form. There is one little issue though, and that has to do with the “lean” and gravity. When a rigid objet (a person) leans forward with his whole body he experiences a torque not a force. Torque tends to rotate the body about its center of mass not push it forward. If you did not take that step you would just rotate about your ankles and wind up on your face.
    The unicycle rider is a good analogy they lean forward to accelerate and then pedal to keep themselves approximately upright. The steady state (constant speed) lean provides just enough gravitational torque to the drag.
    I don’t mean to be picky but I’m a physicist and when I first started Chi Running I kept trying to maintain a “lean” and of course all I kept doing is accelerating (increasing my running speed). I finally figured out that the proper lean is hardly measurable unless you are running into a strong headwind.
    Keep up the good work you are doing.

  2. echifitness Says:

    Thank you for your comment and feedback on my blog.

    The ChiRunning lean is very subtle and individual to the person and situation. If you feel like you are going to fall (over-accelerating with each step), you are leaning too much. If you tense up trying to control that fall, you are leaning too much. If you are not using your arm swing enough to feel balanced, you are leaning too much. You can only lean as much as you can stay relaxed and balanced.

    The unicycle provides a good analogy but not a complete one. When you are ChiRunning, it is not a steady state even when your pace is constant. You are accelerating with each fall; and then decelerating while in the air and when/after you land until you are in a position to fall again. Many things affect how long you are falling and how fast; and how long you are decelerating and how much. The net is your pace.

    I would suggest the scenario is too complex to deduce implementation and absolute amounts for all individuals. As the blog post suggests, using your own experience is a way body sense what works for you. It takes practice to maintain your alignment and relaxation while staying balanced at varying amounts of measurable lean.

  3. Deborah Says:

    The problem I’ve had in trying to learn ChiRunning is that I know in my head what I’m supposed to do but I’m just about 100% certain my body is not cooperating. Without having a mirror to run past, or someone watching me from the side, I don’t know how to get it right. After months of trying, a physical therapist said I was sometimes leaning from the waist. Epic Fail on my part!

  4. echifitness Says:

    Not an epic fail at all. Just a necessary step to take to develop a deeper understanding of the principles and how they apply to you.

    Consider this visualization to keep you tall but subtly forward:

    The other key focus is on the core (lower abs). If the lower abs are engaged it is harder to lean at the waist:

    Hope this helps.

  5. Jim Stanton Says:

    It really helps if you can get someone to take a 20-30 second video at a right angle to your direction of motion. You will be able to detect any gross errors i.e.(bending at the waist) right away. I had this problem and what helped me correct it was running with my hands clasped behind my back and looking toward the horizon. If you are bending at the waist it will feel very awkward. With some practice and a video every couple of weeks you can get closer to the correct posture.
    Core strengthening is also necessary…
    Good luck

  6. BC Says:

    This is a well-written explanation, possibly one of the best I’ve seen about why chi running works. I’ve used the techniques for more than a year, and have seen some pretty impressive results — enough to convince me of the technique’s merits. I think you’re right — experiencing is believing.

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