Tour de Tao, Bikin’ Gung

Chinese BikeOne of the traditional applications of Qi Gong (energy exercise) and Nei Gong (internal exercise) is the martial arts.   Beyond any training in power, speed, momentum, leverage, etc., the most sophisticated practitioners are able to utilize their own and their opponent’s energies to their advantage.   If this can be done why couldn’t someone use chi practices to enhance sports performance?

I’m not an athlete but I’ve been informally experimenting in this realm for about 15 years, specifically in my main mode of transit: bicycling.  Part of my commute has been the same for that long and I often like to competitively time myself.  On this one route my fastest time was 35 minutes back when I didn’t know qi gong very well and relied mostly on just pushing as fast as possible.  I’d  finish overheated, wet and winded.   15 years later I’m pushing 60 and my best time is under 32 minutes, about 10% better,  and I finish relatively calm and dry.  Older and faster?  What am I doing differently?

I can delineate maybe 4 things,  3 of which are mostly responsible.  I estimate that each of the 3 accounts for one third of the performance increase.  They can be applied to any sport but I’ll only speak from my own cycling experience.

1. Relax, Dissolve. Once again the essential Water practice.   This means using only the least amount of energy needed to perform well,  while generating the least amount of tension, i.e. finding the sweet spot.  Tension uses too much energy.  Relaxation conserves it.   One way to find this art space is explore how it feels to work with gravity:  How can you fall into every action?  If I  get this feeling well only in the downward movements, and a little in the upward, I increase my speed by maybe 3%.

2. Extension, Expansion, Inflation.  Sticking with the the bike theme, let’s imagine the tires as a metaphor for the human body.  If they are under inflated they will flex and deform, distributing the forces unevenly, and efficiency will be lost.  But when properly inflated they are transformed into single cohesive units.  What would it mean to inflate your body?

The simplest piece of this involves extending your legs, making them feel just a little longer.  You do this however you can.  At first you will use muscle though in a slightly different way than just straightening your legs.

The next part is to actually lengthen the joint spaces which have no muscle to speak of.  This sounds mysterious but most folks can get the idea right away if an experienced person shows them how.   For a fuller discussion go here:   Pulsing  You could experiment with both these by sitting in a chair and slowly increasing and decreasing the pressure of your feet on the floor.

The third part is a bit more sophisticated and amounts to flooding the soft tissues with energy and blood.  The maxim goes ” the mind moves the chi, the chi moves the blood.” The feeling is like filling your lungs with air or your stomach with liquid. It is essentially the quality of Yang. The practice of San Ti is where this is traditionally learned.   San Ti

If you can get some manifestation of the first two parts there will be a noticeable increase in your power and speed, say 2%. The third more difficult part will add another 2%, and potentially much more.

3. Twisting, Spiraling. Several fibers together have more strength than do unconnected strands and will have even greater strength when twisted into a coherent bundle. Thread, string and rope are twisted for cohesiveness, resiliency and strength. The parallel action in humans is twisting the muscles around the bones.

The first level of this is just twisting your legs in and out in any way possible. However you want to avoid twisting the joints, especially the knees which are easily damaged. (So long as you don’t fully straighten the knees the risk is lower.) When I first tried this my legs would get cramped and sore, no doubt from using too much force in an unfamiliar action. Go slowly, use less effort and you’ll figure it out sooner.

There is a shortcut: take hold of either leg with both hands and twist the tissue in and out with just a few pounds of pressure for about ten minutes. This will pattern the nerves and get them accustomed to the unusual movement. Toward the end of the session start using you leg muscles a little, maybe 20% as your hands do the other 80%.

The advanced version we call Spiraling, which means twisting in two or more ways at the same time. What? Yes it can be done, in a few different ways. For example imagine that the top of your thigh turns inward while the bottom turns outward and vice versa. You could easily pattern this action with two sets of hands.

Why Spiral? Primarily because it amplifies the strengthening effect of twisting. Practically, it’s useful for addressing injuries and misalignments. Say you have a knee injury and you’ve discovered that it feels better when you twist out just above it and in just below it. This could make all the difference for you. In the medium/long term spiraling imitates the effects of Tui Na Massage by wringing out the tissues, which promotes the evacuation of waste which in turn makes room for the absorption of nutrients.

I estimate that Twisting/Spiraling adds 3% and that taken together with Extension/Expansion it is power in particular that is increased, which makes them appropriate for slower activities like uphill cycling and weight training. Or the power can be converted into speed.

4. Breathing. This is probably the most accessible but still requires practice. The way to avoid getting winded is to breathe more slowly and fully. Most people take a breath every four seconds or so and use only a fraction of their lung capacity. With time you can learn to lengthen your breaths to 30 seconds and more. Taoist breathing also teaches you to increase your lung capacity and to use it to compress and massage your organs which enhances their functioning. I find it doesn’t add much power or speed but does increase stamina.

A longer discussion of Taoist Longevity Breathing can be found here.

So that’s it, a bit oversimplified:  Relax for speed, Inflate and Twist for power, Breathe for stamina.  There are other practices that could be incorporated into common sports to further refine performance.  This is just a short list that I’ve found to be the easiest to implement for the greatest enhancement. The best way to learn each of them is to first practice without any movement at all and slowly add movement, integrating smoothly and surely.