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December 2020 Instructor of the Month: Matthew O’Connor

Matthew O'Connor ChiRunning & ChiWalking Certified Instructor

Tell us a little about you. Where you live, what your background is. What (if) you do in addition to being a Certified Instructor.

I was born and raised in Western New York.  I am a movement enthusiast!   I love to move.  My personal and professional life have revolved around my passion for movement.  I attended Ithaca College and earned a B.S. in Exercise Science/ Athletic Training.  I attended the University of New England and earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree.  I currently live in Brunswick Maine with my wife, Abbey, my son, Thomas and my dog, Stewie.  I work as a physical therapist in an outpatient orthopedic setting.  My passion is to teach people about sustainable movement practices.  I love to see people get excited about movement.  My family and I enjoy outdoor activities in the beautiful state of Maine, including running.

How did you start running? 

The easiest answer I can give is, you are who you are when you are born.  As soon as I figured out how to run as a child, I RAN.  Running was simply, who I was as a child.  I loved to run.  It was the most authentic expression of who I was.  I did not understand it at the time, but I loved the sensation of moving over the ground with ease.  I loved to test the components of running and feel the effects on speed and ease of running.

Distance running technique came into my life in grade school.  At that time, each student performed the Presidential Fitness Test.  One of the components was a 1-mile run.  At that time, all I really knew was, running fast, for short periods.   So when the start gun went off for the 1 mile run, I ran at the only speed I knew, FULL SPEED!  I ran as far as my feet would take me, then something strange happened, I couldn’t run anymore??  I had to walk.  I repeated this Run/ Walk cycle for the rest of the 1-mile test.  My overall time did not meet the passing standard for the Presidential Fitness Test.  Although I was discouraged, something special happened, I decided that I would figure out how to meet the passing time.  There was only one student who met the passing standard for the 1-mile run.  I remembered watching him during the run.  He had a completely different approach than I did.  He used a slow, consistent pace.  He had a more upright posture.  He used shorter steps and more limited arm-swing.  I spent the next few months running around my parents’ greenhouses trying to internalize this new strategy of running.

When I was tested again for the 1-mile run, I employed my new strategy.  I ran a 7:15 mile and passed the Presidential Fitness Test.  I remember my gym teacher shaking my hand after the run and simply saying, “that was an amazing change.”

It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life.  I learned how to set a goal and create a plan to achieve it.  I learned that your movement strategy can and should be different for different movement tasks.  I learned how the body can change with focused practice.  Most importantly, I learned to love the process of change!

When and how did ChiRunning come into your life? 

My passion is and always has been, movement.  Running, was the movement that started it all.  The freedom of running and the exhilaration of covering ground in a controlled way, made running, my first passion.  I competed in track and field as well as cross country.  Running continued as my primary means of cardiovascular exercise, until several injuries, a surgery and chronic venous insufficiency, took away my ability to run.

Medically, I was told that my mobility has an expiration date, and nothing I do can alter that.  Like any good origin story, there is adversity, that adversity forces a choice, that choice determines the direction of the story.  I chose to go back to the beginning, back to running, and I would make every step count.  After years of focused efforts to regain running, I ended up in a ChiRunning Workshop.  During the workshop, I was able to feel efficient running technique again!  My wife said it best, “I drank the ChiRunning cool-aid and I was hooked”.  Since starting ChiRunning practice, I have been able to revitalize my running at 5k, 10k and ½ marathon distance.  As a father of a young son, ChiRunning, gave me hope that I will be able to keep up with him for years to come.

In what ways has Chi changed your perception of and success in running?

Movement originating from my Dantien!  Learning how to create forward motion with the forward position of my Dantien was a game changer for me.  This concept has allowed to me to decrease the stress on my legs while running.  It allows me to cover ground with greater ease and has cut down on my recovery time.  It has allowed my running to evolve into an enjoyable PRACTICE rather than just a mode of exercise.

Relax Into Speed!!!  ChiRunning gave me a much better appreciation for relaxation while running.  I love the sensation of changing speeds without a drastic change in effort level.

What do you think is the biggest misconception of ChiRunning?

I think the biggest misconception of ChiRunning, is that ChiRunning, is not for everyone.  Although not every component of ChiRunning practice is appropriate for everyone.  ChiRunning is incredibly comprehensive.  There is a component of ChiRunning practice that can improve everyone.

What motivates you to run?

2 things motivate me to run:

#1: I love the experience of running.  I love the feeling of moving efficiently over the ground.  I love the feeling when all my body parts work in harmony to create an efficient running gait.  I love the lessons of patients, persistence and consistency learned from running practice.

#2: My son, Thomas Jacob O’Connor, was born January 1st 2018.  I need to maintain my running practice to keep up with him.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I am extremely proud of becoming a ChiRunning Instructor and the honor of Instructor of the month!  2020 has been a challenging year for everyone.  It means so much to me to help other people during this time as a ChiRunning Instructor.  Efficient movement can change your life!  I also greatly appreciate the honor of Instructor of the Month!  I can’t say enough about the exceptional character of everyone involved with ChiLiving.  I am inspired and refreshed to be associated with people who elevate each other.  Thank you all for the honor and I look forward to paying it forward as an instructor!

What led you to become an instructor?

Becoming an instructor seemed like a perfect fit for me.  I am passionate about educating others on efficient/ sustainable walking and running technique.  I think there is incredible value in these two movements.  Humans are specifically designed to be upright and moving on 2 feet.  Walking and running are fundamental movements that we use for forward motion.  These two movements help us regulate ourselves and maintain overall health.  If one, or both patterns are lost, the options to stay healthy diminish.

I think at some point we all ask the same question.  How do we sustain movement over a lifetime?  One thing I can say is, efficient movement is more sustainable than inefficient movement.  How you move, dictates how stress goes through your body.  Efficient movement affords less stress on your body and promotes sustainability.  Efficient walking and running technique can be learned through focused practice.  Becoming an instructor, improved my understanding of efficient walking and running technique.  It also improved my ability to help others learn sustainable walking and running techniques.

I also became an instructor to allow me to help others have a positive experience walking and running.  I think of movement, as a vital life experience.  Nothing lights me up more than developing enough skill in a movement, to feel it all come together in a graceful flow.  I want others to be able to experience walking and running in this way.  The sensation of efficient movement can be such a source of joy and I want everyone to have that experience in their life.

I believe that a coach can change your life.  I realized that if I want to become a better coach, I needed to find a great coach.  Becoming an instructor would allow me to learn from running legend, coaching legend, and ChiRunning founder, Danny Dreyer.  While becoming a ChiRunning instructor, I had the honor of learning from Danny Dreyer.  Danny is one of those rare coaches who will change your life with both his amazing character and wisdom.  I am forever grateful for Danny’s willingness to teach me.  He has made me a better runner, coach and person.  I hope to carry forward what I have learned and have a positive influence on peoples’ lives.

Why do you enjoy being an instructor, and how has it affected your life?  

I feel extremely blessed to be an instructor.  It has provided me with an opportunity to pursue happiness.  I love to move and I truly want others to experience the joy of movement.  Seeing people light up during a workshop when they experience efficient movement is priceless.

Being an instructor allows me to focus my efforts.  People attending ChiRunning or ChiWalking workshops are actively looking for education on efficient/ sustainable movement practice.  This allows me to get right to work, doing what I am passionate about, educating others about efficient movement strategies.

I enjoy being part of the ChiLiving Community.  I truly believe, when you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.  I am grateful to be surrounded with such a positive, passionate and caring group of people.  We all need support to grow, I feel that ChiLiving provides a great environment for my continued growth.

What does your average week look like, run-wise?

Currently, most of my running happens when I play with my 2.5 y/o son.  I also try to build in 3 runs a week.

What other forms of exercise do you practice to compliment ChiRunning?

To compliment ChiRunning I perform a regular strengthening program focused on posture line stabilization and single-leg strengthening.

I believe that sustainable movement requires the ability to select an efficient movement strategy for a given task.  In order to maintain a sufficient amount of adaptability within my body, I use strategies to maintain a neutral/ adaptable posture.  I also make a conscious effort to keep a balanced movement profile in my life to avoid overspecialization.  Like anything in life, if you become more specialized, you also become less adaptable.   Forward walking and running are no exception.

I believe in a program that sets my body up for successful ChiRunning practice.  I want to go for a run free of restrictions that would prevent me from practicing efficient ChiRunning technique.  I also believe in a program that promotes adaptability of movement to avoid overspecialization of distance running.  This programming gives me the ability to run/ walk efficiently.  It also allows me to select an efficient movement strategy for other tasks I do in my life.  I believe that this is the best I can do to promote sustainable movement over my lifetime.

Advice for people new to Chi Running?

Relax…  Enjoy the process of change!

Short answer! Okay, GO.

Most memorable race:

My Father vs my Son.  I had the incredible blessing to witness by Father, in his 70s, race against my son, who was 1.5 years old.  My son at that time loved to line people up and race by saying, “Running”.  On one day in the Fall of 2019, my son gave the call, “Running”.  My Father and my Son lined up and underwent an epic race.  The course was over a mile of terrain.  My son took off, building an early, substantial lead.  My son routinely became distracted by the Fall leaves on the ground, squirrels running around and local flowers blooming that time of year.  This resulted in my father, through a very focused, steady pace, catching my son.  In a very close finish, my father won the race crossing the finish line with his steady focus and pace.  My son, crossed the finish line, asleep being carried by his father.  He was completely exhausted just yards from the finish.

Ideal weather for running:

I love to run in the rain!!!  When I run in the rain, it is a standard format, a FUN RUN!  I just clear my mind and run.

Focus that currently dominates your running:

DON’T PUSH!!!  Both in life and in running.

Favorite place to run:

I simply love to run.  The “place” for me provides a different stimulus.  Each environment provides different feedback and opportunities to learn.  I love the experience of running in each environment.

Go-to before race food:

Smoothie and egg sandwich.

Celebratory food after:

Chips, Salsa, Guacamole!

Upcoming race/goal:

My current goals are very focused:

Personal Goal:  Feel better after a run than before a run.  Maintain a balanced movement profile to promote sustainable running practice.

Professional Goal:  Become the best coach I can be.  Continually improve my ability to coach others toward sustainable running/ walking practice.

Fill in the blank.

If I didn’t… Believe people could change, I would not coach.

I can’t run without… Logically, I would say my legs, but from a ChiRunning Practice standpoint, I have to say, my Armswing…  I find that arm swing is the most underappreciated component of running practice.  The more efficient and precise my arm swing, the better my run is!

My current favorite shoe to run in is… I currently wear a New Balance 870 for most of my runs.  It currently is the shoe that best compliments my running goals and current internal environment.  I am currently going through the experience of transitioning to minimalist shoes.  I am enjoying the experience of wearing the HFS Xero Shoes in small doses.  The HFS Xero shoe is a zero drop shoe that provides a great fit, feel, feedback and has passed the fashion test (my wife approves!)  I am still likely about a year away from a possible full transition to a zero drop shoe.  I am loving the experience of change.

My most difficult run ever was… Personally, I love the experience of different situations/adversity while running.  I find value in struggle.  I consistently find that my most difficult runs are times when my personal expectations exceed my current capacity.  Running has a way of humbling me.  In Running and in Life, I am who I am today, and I have to be OK with that.

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