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It’s Not (All) About the Lean

The ChiRunning concept that seems to be most referenced is that of a subtle forward lean forward to aid in propulsion. There are challenges in the subtle forward lean position (Blog Post: ChiRunning Common Challenges, Lean) and there are challenges implementing other concepts to support overall balance. One very important supporting concept is relaxation; and specifically relaxation in the lower legs, ankles and feet. To “get” ChiRunning, it is not so much about leaning some amount as it is about relaxing in any angle of lean. Lean too much and you will likely tense up. Just tense in general and you are inhibiting your subtle forward fall.

For the fall forward to “work” you need three things:

  1. The support foot is on the ground stationary due to the force of friction.
  2. The body’s center of mass moving forward of the ankle hinge joint.
  3. You “letting” yourself subtly fall forward from roughly vertical to a few degrees forward as the ankle hinge joint closes.

These same three things are needed for anything to fall forward (or fall over). Take a tree: A leaning tree does not fall over unless the foundation breaks or its “ankle” relaxes.

If you watch “most” runners and walkers, the first two requirements above happen with every step for almost all gait patterns. At some point, the foot is on the ground behind the body’s center of mass. But it is the last point that is a challenge for “many” runners and walkers. If you can’t relax the ankle hinge you are limiting the effect of gravity on your position. And if you push off from a tense ankle you could be limiting each opportunity to “let” yourself subtly fall forward. Of course you get to choose whether to push off with the feet (small body part) or subtly fall forward with the whole body (big body part) or use some combination of the two.

On one of the online forums someone recently reposted a physics opinion stating that leaning and gravity cannot help you move forward. The opinion provided an example of a person standing on a skateboard. The person leans forward slightly. The opinion stated that since a person standing on a skateboard leaning slightly forward does move forward, then gravity cannot help you move forward.

Well, the person standing on the skateboard leaning slightly is not “allowing” themselves the fall forward by holding the angle hinge locked. So they don’t have #3 above as one of the requirements to fall forward. The opinion goes on the state that if the person leans more then the skateboard with fling out the back and the person will fall down and not forward (over). Well, the skateboard provides little horizontal force of friction so they don’t have #1 above as one of the requirements to fall forward. Remember, it is a system of forces that results in falling forward. If you don’t have all the necessary forces present, you won’t fall forward.

Why this person decided to use a skateboard to try and support their hypothesis for a runner/walker on the ground, I have no idea. In my response I suggested that in nature a leaning tree falls “over”. If you put the same leaning tree on a skateboard it will also fall “down”. Nuf said. Ironically this opinion was posted onto a minimalist/barefoot forum … and probably the number one piece of advice given to this group: relax, relax, relax your lower leg, ankles and feet.

Here are just a few things that can help you relax the lower legs, ankles and feet:

  1. Ankles Rolls Body Loosener on page 196 of the ChiRunning Book … as often as possible.
  2. Flexibility, in the calf and Achilles to extend the range of motion.
  3. Leaning Less, it is much less lean than you probably think.
  4. Balance, developing confidence over your One-Legged Posture Stance leads to greater levels of relaxation. This comes from practice.
  5. Core Strength, the stronger your center (needle) is, the more relaxed your extremities (cotton) can be. See principle of Needle in Cotton on page 35 of the ChiRunning book.
  6. Focus on your Center, the more you focus effort to your center the less active effort in the extremities.
  7. Let your foot land relaxed with less micro-managing exactly how. Attention to foot strike can create effort and tension in the feet. The goal is to land and load using the fullfoot so the structure of the lower leg, ankles and foot can do the work and the muscles can stay relaxed.

A relaxed ankle hinge can allow “most” runners and walkers to add a subtle fall forward to each step. This happens as the body moves forward over the stationary foot and the ankle hinge can close. Most are using this concept to at least some degree without even knowing it, even the naysayers that say gravity can’t help you move forward. To take full advantage, it is important to learn how to “let” it happen through greater and greater levels of relaxation.

It is not ALL about the lean; and how much you can lean. It is more about staying relaxed no matter how much you are leaning.

[For a physics analysis on the effect of gravity on a runner/walker, see this blog post: The Physics of Running, Lean Analysis.]

[See the Physics Resource Page for even 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 Monday, Jun. 11th 2012 6:31 AM | by echifitness | in All, ChiRunning, Gravity | 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “It’s Not (All) About the Lean”

  1. Rob Bruendl Says:

    David, I first found out that, while running, when I feel that my shoulders and arms are tense I focus on wiggling my fingers. For me, I cannot maintain tense arms and shoulders while my fingers are wiggling. I tried this approach next with my ankles and legs by making a point of wiggling my toes. The first thing I find is that I cannot maintain tense feet and ankles while wiggling toes and that I can transfer that relaxation up my leg through knees and hips if I think it through. I’m not sure if this would work for everyone but it has been a technique that has gotten me through some pretty demanding runs in the hills I run on here in Utah. Thanks!

  2. echifitness Says:

    Thank you for your comment. This loose extremities focus works for me as well.

    You might also notice that if you have tense hands then you will probably also have tense feet. The T’ai Chi principle is “as above, so below”. So not only do hands/fingers affect your arms/shoulders back to your center, they are also mirrored in your feet.


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