The world headquarters for ChiWalking/Running occupy a quaint two-story house adjacent to Interstate 240 in downtown Asheville. “People think we’re a $5 million or $10 million business. We’ve had people come from other countries and they’re like, ‘This is it?’” says Katherine Dreyer, co-founder and CEO of ChiRunning.
Danny Dreyer, her husband and ChiRunning co-founder and president, nods his head and smiles in the background.
“They can’t believe it,” Katherine says.
But from these humble quarters springs an international movement that over the past 15 years has changed the way hundreds of thousands of people run. Countless people have reaped the benefits of the approach since the 2004 publication of the Dreyers’ book ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Way to Effortless, Injury-Free Running. It has since been translated into 10 languages and has sold half a million copies; it continues to sell well all over the world, Katherine reports.
“Running is a very high-injury sport. At least 65 percent get an injury that will stop them from running,” says Katherine.
“That is two out of three people,” Danny adds.
“Our goal is to reduce that potential for injury,” says Katherine.
Danny compares ChiRunning to a yoga practice. “Instead of just going running and putting in your miles, you’re paying attention to everything that is going on in your body. ChiRunning is learning how to listen to your body carefully,” he says.
“Your body will tell you if you’re hitting the ground too hard, your body will tell you if you lungs are overworking, your body will tell you if you’re holding tension in your shoulders, so we suggest ways to get it [your body] to move right,” Danny says.
“We think we’re the first to combine mindfulness and running,” he continues. Thich Naht Hanh, the well-known meditation teacher, Danny explains, was a proponent of walking meditation, “but not of mindfulness in the technique of walking itself. … I can safely say we’re the pioneers in the field,” he says.
ChiRunning has its roots in tai chi, where movement comes from your center, Danny continues. “In [regular] running, that is not the case — it’s your legs. So we’re switching the whole emphasis on how someone goes about learning,” he says.
It is obvious that husband and wife work as a team. Answering questions is a shared process. While one of them speaks, the other often nods or interjects additional information. Although Danny is the runner of the duo and originated the ChiRunning concept, both have nurtured it into what it is today — an internationally recognized method of running and walking that people learn from DVDs, smartphone apps, online training programs, multiple books and 200 instructors worldwide leading live workshops.
Danny happened upon the approach on a whim. One day in 1991, as he was preparing to go out for a jog, he decided to see if what he was learning in a tai chi class about posture and body alignment could be applied to his running style. Up until that time, he was a casual trail runner unable to get past 20 miles without his knees hurting, he says.
But all that changed as he honed the tai chi approach to ChiRunning. He now regularly runs marathons, half-marathons and even ultramarathons of up to 100 miles without any pain. Moreover, he is not just completing these races but often placing high in his age group. Last March he finished first in the 60-64 age group at the Asheville Marathon at Biltmore Estate with a time fast enough to qualify him for the Boston Marathon.
For those who prefer less intense exercise, the Dreyers developed ChiWalking, which “came about from popular demand,” says Danny. “Many ChiRunners had friends, partners, and acquaintances who didn’t run, but liked the idea of a mind/body approach to walking.” ChiWalking attracts an older crowd, he says, as well as injured ex-runners seeking a way back into running without reinjuring themselves.
The technique for ChiWalking and ChiRunning is similar. To aid in teaching, the Dreyers use a number of terms to delineate the different parts of forward motion: foot landing, lean versus tilt, arm swing, stride length, pelvic rotation, arm swing and cadence. In practice, ChiWalking and ChiRunning can differ in the details. For example, stride length increases as speed increases for ChiRunners, while the stride length stays the same for ChiWalkers.
Danny is the teacher and face of the company. Over the next seven months he will lead 16 workshops in eight states. “He is an incredible teacher,” says Katherine.
A former publishing company president and founder of healthshop.com, Katherine focuses on guiding the company’s direction, though product development is a shared endeavor, and they co-write all their books as well as their newest product being unveiled this March — weekly video and audio-lesson subscriptions. Expanding on the ChiRunning brand, the couple have launched ChiLiving, which helps people with injury-free exercise and addresses lifestyle and nutrition.
Despite their busy schedules the Dreyers find ways to bring their expertise to the local community. In May and September, Danny will lead a ChiRunning instructor training in Asheville. The Dreyers hope some locals will sign up because all their local instructors have moved away. “It’s such a drag not having teachers here,” Katherine says. “We’d love to train somebody in Asheville to be a local instructor.”
In addition. Danny is leading the official training program for the Asheville Marathon at Biltmore Estate on March 15. For locals there is also an “Asheville Corner” on the website, and Danny periodically offers talks at area venues like REI and Biltmore Park.
In the past, the view on running was “you know how to run, just do it,” says Katherine. But since 1999, when they first started, there has been a trend toward education about running technique, she says. “We have been blatantly ripped off by many other organizations, but I would say, overall, the company has grown worldwide.”
If he could have anything, Danny dreams of a future where the ChiRunning and Walking approach is taught in the school systems. “Because of the Body Sensing component in the program,” he explains, the chi approach could help with the biggest problems our country is facing— “a sedentary lifestyle with little or no thought being put into teaching a healthy lifestyle curriculum,” says Danny, referring to the high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes (what he calls “avoidable lifestyle diseases”).
“If people aren’t taught how to sense what’s going on in their body, how are they going to know when to stop eating, or stop smoking, or get up from their desk and walk around, or eat well?” he asks. Just imagine, he suggests, what people’s quality of life would be like if they did this from the time they were young.
But for now the Dreyers are focusing on the more accessible goals. “We’re working toward expanding both our on-the-ground instructor program while at the same time producing an extensive network of virtual running and walking classes for those without direct access to a Certified ChiRunning or ChiWalking instructor,” Danny says. “The only thing limiting anyone from becoming healthy will be access to the Internet.”
“An Introduction to ChiRunning: Performance Running for Everyone,” a talk by Danny Dreyer at 6:30-8 p.m., Wednesday, March 4. REI Biltmore Park Town Square, 31 Schenck Pkwy., Asheville. Danny and Katherine Dreyer, chirunning.com; chiwalking.com; chiliving.com or call 252-9828