That Chi running study…

Posted on June 26, 2013

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On a recent post someone left this comment:

“People need to relearn how to walk. Chi Walking and Chi Running does just that. You’ve gotta look into it!”

Because I’ve received four comments, not counting ones I’ve deleted, telling me to check out Chi running, I replied:

Dear Chi / Wholistic running people,

If any of you would put a worthwhile comment on my site, something more than “Chi Running is the shit, trust me, check it out,” I may do so. Until then, stop spamming. I’m not going to let you put a link on my site just so you can increase your google ranking or whatever it is you’re trying to do.

The person replied they weren’t spamming, then emailed me. They apologized if they came across as spammy, gave me a paragraph or two about Chi Running, and directed me to a study.

“A 2012 study by UNC-Chapel Hill shows that ChiRunning reduces impact and injuries more than traditional shoes, minimalist shoes and the POSE method.  The Chi Running method is simple and very effective.”

Ok, this is better. I asked them if they’re going to tell me something is fantastic, at least give me something more comprehensive, and they did. Let’s look at this study.

Preface

This is not about Chi Running, what I think about it, its efficacy, etc. I know nothing about Chi Running. I hate running, think most runners are lunatics, and have no interest in getting people to run marathons.

This is about the study Chi Running uses to endorse their methods.

Finding this thing

The title of the study is “A Comparison of Lower Extremity Joint Work and Initial Loading Rates among Four Different Running Styles.” When referencing studies I typically include a hyperlink to the journal / pubmed entry. I’m not going to do that here.

Because there isn’t one.

Pubmed no Chi running study doesn't exist

The reason this doesn’t exist in a journal, pubmed, or google scholar, is because this study is a dissertation by a grad student in the process of completing his Ph.D.

The only source I can find for this study is… ChiRunning.com. Their site hosts the synopsis of the study, as well as the full study.

My bullshit antenna has not only elongated, it’s been struck by lightning. However, I’m trying to become less cynical these days. It appears people like the adviser listed on the paper is real, the student seems legit, the person who sent me it seems to be a genuine dude; I figured I’d at least read the thing. Plenty of studies never get published for a variety of reasons, and plenty of awful studies do get published.

What the study says

According to the cofounder of Chi Running, Danny Dreyer states:

A new 1-year study at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shows that the ChiRunning technique was found to produce less impact and higher efficiency, when compared with other common styles of running: the rearfoot strike and the anterior (forefoot) strike.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Four different running styles; Chi Running had the least amount of impact.

Let’s look closer.

Damn you methods section!

Running speed

I’m going to cut to the core issue. Read the methods section closely enough and you find this one sentence (bolding mine):

“During the actual data collection, subjects were asked to run for 5 minutes on the treadmill at a self-selected speed “…that you could maintain for several miles, not a sprint”.”

The speed each group of runners ran at was NOT controlled. This throws a hole the size of the Grand Canyon into this study. Run faster = greater impact. Run slower = less impact. You could also say, in terms of impact,

Sprinting > Running > Jogging > Walking > Standing > Laying down.

Quick recap: Four groups of runners were measured for the amount of impact their joints had, and each runner ran at their own pace. Overall, Chi Runners had the least amount of impact.

Anybody want to guess which group ran the slowest?

(TSR = Traditional Shoes, MSA = Minimalist anterior striker, Chi = Chi Runners, MSR = Minimalist rearfoot striker.)

Chi Running study running speed

Well, no shit they had the least amount of impact. The Chi Runners ran the slowest.

The trying to be less cynical side of me wants to say this is easy to overlook, after all this dissertation is 80 pages long. Not hard to conceive missing a couple lines here or there.

The cynical side of me wants to say the statement on running speed is in the fucking abstract. There’s no excuse for missing or ignoring it.

Knee stress

The other big draw of this study, according to Chi Running proponents, is they had less eccentric work at the knee.

Chi Running Study Knee Highlight

For instance, compared to the minimalist forefoot strikers Chi Runners had 7% less work. -0.144 compared to -0.155. Yeah, but they also ran 12% slower. 2.53 m/s compared to 2.87 m/s. Think that might matter? Obviously.

Ankle stress

Let’s ignore the running speed issue for a second. While proponents of the Chi are quick to point out the attenuated stress at the knee, it’s interesting they ignore what happened at the ankle.

(ADEW = Ankle Plantarflexion Eccentric Work.)

Chi Running study Ankle highlights

Chi running elicited the second highest amount of stress at the ankle. (I’m not going to go into the finer details of how this was measured. Read all EIGHTY pages of the thing if you want.)

More on this in a bit.

This is about Chi running

I mentioned at the beginning I wasn’t talking about Chi running. How I knew nothing about it, and my purpose was to examine the study they use to backup their claims.

The following IS about the Chi.

A lot of certified runners can’t do it properly

For the data collection the author gathered 23 Chi Runners. To be included in the Chi Running group “they were screened to verify completion of a corresponding training course prior to enrollment.” They then coordinated with certified instructors via video analysis to verify subjects represented the running style properly.

Of 23 runners, 11 were removed from the Chi Running group due to not demonstrating adequate Chi mechanics.

Therefore, while I can’t exactly argue with this statement from the Chi,

“Additionally, and contrary to some running experts’ beliefs, this study also shows that low-impact, more efficient running technique can be learned,”

I can say the Chi are pretty bad at teaching their methods. To the tune of a 48% failure rate.

Preachers of the Chi who want to say their methods help reduce injuries can’t really even say that. Half of their runners come away incorrectly employing the methods. Maybe these runners just hadn’t had enough time practicing the method? To which the study says they had been practicing the Chi for an average of 2 and a half years!

Chi Running study amount of time utilized highlight

If a member of the Chi clan comes back 2.5 years later claiming they got rid of all their injuries, feel great, Chi running made their penis bigger, whatever, there’s pretty much a coin toss probability they didn’t even start Chi Running.

Training speed

If Chi running does “work,” a big reason may simply be employers of the method run slower. The Chi Clan reports a slower training speed than other running styles.

Chi Running Training Timeline Table

They also had the least amount of miles ran each week (Reported Weekly Mileage). The Chi Clan was the oldest of the group though. Perhaps why they ran the slowest? Who knows. Another issue to take into consideration.

Footwear

Chi Running does not only change running form; suggestions are made for footwear too. From the study:

“Dreyer recommended that runners discard more traditional heavily padded running shoes and use a more minimalist running shoe that involves thin sole material and limited supportive features.”

With footwear comes heel strike patterns

From the study, when talking about Chi running have a more anterior foot strike pattern,

“Therefore, a more anterior initial foot contact used during alternative running styles may decrease the initial rate of vertical loading, reduce knee joint loads, and possibly reduce injuries at the knee. However, a more anterior foot strike may increase mechanical work at the ankle, and result in excessive cumulative metatarsal strain, possibly leading to increased injury rates at the ankle and foot.”

Point being the Chi Clan are quick to celebrate their reduced stress at the knee, but fail to mention their increased stress at the foot complex.

Extra eccentric plantarflexion work (read: extra ankle work) isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if it helps mitigate stress at superior joints, it’s probably a good thing. However, the minimalist shoe anterior strike (MSA) group had the highest amount of work here.

Chi Running study Ankle highlights

Because Chi running advocates wearing minimalist shoe wearing, and in this study the Chi group contained some subjects who wore them and some who didn’t, the simple change in footwear for Chi Runners may be all that’s responsible for their results.

Summing up

  • Chi Running does not have a published study to back up its claims; it has a dissertation.
  • This dissertation found:
    • Chi Runners ran the slowest of the groups, run the least each week, and have the slowest training pace.
    • Noting the above, Chi Runners mitigate stress at the knee but, if anything, exacerbate stress at the ankle.
    • Whether these changes are due to actual Chi mechanics, footwear changes, or running speed, isn’t clear.
    • What is clear is you can’t state much of anything about the benefit of Chi mechanics from this study.
      • The only thing you can state about Chi Running mechanics is nearly 50% of their certified runners can’t do it properly.

Sorry Chi Clan. This isn’t my opinion. It’s what the study…err, dissertation…actually says.

(Before anyone emails me or leaves a comment going “But this method worked wonders for me, my best friend loves it, etc.” please read this. And keep in mind I defend the method multiple times as well.)

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