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Your Inner Unicyclist

When describing the concept of running or walking like a kid and cooperating with gravity to aid in forward propulsion, a good analogy is that of a unicyclist. When I unicyclist wants to move forward, do they:

  • Pedal? <OR>
  • Lean first, then pedal just enough to keep up with their forward momentum to stay balanced?

I will suggest that if they pedal first, then they will likely fall backwards. So they lean first. But how much do they lean? They lean enough to create the desired momentum, then pedal to stay in balance. But there is a limit to their lean and speed because:

  • You can only pedal so fast.
  • The pedaling effort is uneven which limits a smooth turnover for consistent balance.
  • At high angles of lean, the narrow support point is significantly behind the center of mass which also greatly affects maintaining balance.

Speed is a function of gear (stride length) and rpm (cadence). As shown below, a unicycle generally has only one gear, so its speed comes from cadence or turnover. Meaning the relationship between one pedal revolution and stride length is fixed. Note also that a faster unicycle may have a larger wheel or crankcase, but may also be not very smooth or balanced at slower speeds.

But your unicycle, even though subject to the same concept of a forward fall and momentum, is a little different:

  • Your unicycle can maintain its initial support point closer to under your center of mass for all angles of lean. This helps maintain balance as lean and momentum increases.
  • Your unicycle can have a larger gear (stride length) as forward momentum and flight time (*) increases. This stride length can be further enhanced with pelvic rotation/hip extension to the rear.

[*Note that in walking, there is no flight time which constrains stride length. It is still possible to add stride length with pelvic rotation/hip extension to the rear. Since stride length is limited, cadence becomes the primary way to increase speed as in the real unicycle above. In this walking case, the wheel or crankcase arm is relatively small.]

In the images above, notice that as the ChiRunning lean increases so does the stride length – which is equivalent to your unicycle wheel or crankcase arm. This allows your cadence to stay relatively constant even though your speed is increasing. This is the same thing that happens in a vehicle. The vehicle is designed to be efficient across a small cadence (RPM) range and the transmission shifts to stay in that range as much as possible.

  • If the vehicle is below that range, then the gear is under-powered. To put it in ChiRunning terms, the cadence is not high enough to keep up with your forward momentum.
  • If the vehicle is above that range, then the gear is over-powered. To put it in ChiRunning terms, the cadence is too high to support an efficient stride length and/or allow pelvic rotation.

[* This cadence range is generally between 85-90 or 170-180 steps per minute depending on how you define it; one side or both. More on this in the ChiRunning book on page 111.]

So, your Inner Unicyclist runs with a subtle forward lean from relaxed ankles, then picks up its feet at a relatively constant cadence to keep up with its forward momentum. A good image for this motion is to consider you are riding a unicycle and your effort is on the up part of the pedal motion; from the bottom to the top. Your focus is on only picking up on the pedals which lifts your heels behind you.

And your Inner Unicyclist walks leading subtly with the body again with relaxed ankles. Then picks up its feet at variable cadences to keep up with its forward momentum since its stride length is limited.

… next time we will look at what your Inner Unicyclist might do on a hill.


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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 Tuesday, Oct. 18th 2011 12:13 PM | by echifitness | in All, ChiRunning | No Comments »

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