Aikido is martial art from Japan founded by Morihei Ueshiba before World War II. Although relatively recent it stems from many traditional and modern Japanese budo like Daitō-ryū, jūjutsu and judo that Ueshiba studied in his lifetime. Aikido is practiced both empty handed and with wooden weapons (bokken and jo, respectively sword and staff).
Many people critize aikido for not being effective. I will not get into this here because this is a vast topic that would require a dedicated article. Let’s just say that aikido is valuable as a ritual to repeat over and over again until some key principles are embedded in one’s body and can shine naturally in any situation without even thinking of them.
Think of iaido, the art of drawing the sword to respond to any attack. Practitioners repeat the same kata (forms) to get as close as possible to perfection. Learning solely how to draw a sword seems unlikely to be sufficient to master sword fighting. And yet, imagine developing such a strong mental focus and superior technique that one is able to defeat any attacker with one single strike. Similarly, Aikido puts a lot of emphasis on wrist grabs because at a time in Japan when it was common for people to carry swords, reaching for one’s katana was often the starting point of any fight.
Although not all aikido techniques are immediately effective in combat, they can yield valuable body and mind principles that can be useful to athletes, especially runners.
Here are 4 aikido principles that can benefit your running:
1. Body centering and grounding
Aikido places a great emphasis on always being centered and grounded during practice. This means that any movement or technique must be performed from a position of power and stability.
Imagine jumping in the air and landing to absorb the shock. Most likely your body will naturally sink; your legs of course will bend but most importantly your centre of gravity will be perfectly aligned. Aikido trains practitioners to practice techniques with such quality in order to be as effective as possible.
I find this aspect of aikido very useful for my running in order to develop a natural and easy stride. Just like in aikido I need to keep my centre solid and aligned with my arms and legs, when running I try to keep the centre of my body on top of my legs.
Practical tip: running coaches recommend a pace of about 180 steps per minute. If you are in this zone then most likely your running form is already pretty good!
2. Ukemi (falling and receiving techniques safely)
What happens if for any reason (like tripping during a race) you cannot keep your balance and need to fall? This is something easy when we are kids but as we grow older falling becomes more and more perilous.
Aikido teaches to safely go to the ground in any situation. You may have seen videos of aikido practitioners being flipped by their opponent. This is ukemi. It’s a way to protect oneself when receiving a technique like a joint lock or a throw. These falls may sometimes seem exaggerated but the more ample and soft the fall, the safer it is.
Knowing how to fall safely is valuable to everyone in everyday life but for runners it is even more important, especially if you plan to run on arduous trails.
3. Awareness and mindfulness
Morihei Ueshiba once said that he created aikido to be aware of everything around him. Imagine crossing the street and mentally taking notes of as many details as possible like people and cars around you. This is something we commonly do while running, especially through the city. However, it’s not uncommon for our mind to skip elements or not process them fast enough.
Aikido is very useful to train awareness and make sure one has a good grasp of the surroundings. For example, while training partner forms with a bokken or jo, practitioners have to pay attention to the subtlest cues that may indicate an upcoming attack. Aikido also includes jiyu waza (free flowing) sessions where one has to defend against many attackers at the same time from all sides. This is very stressful but helps to develop a state of mind where one can be ready for anything.
4. Beginner’s mind
I remember training for my second marathon. I started about a month after completing my first one and I thought that the hardest was behind me. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the reality. Improving performance in any domain take years and this especially applies to running. For martial arts like aikido, it’s actually a matter of lifetime.
It will take a couple of years of training at least twice a week for an aikido practitioner to start embodying the principles detailed above. Gaining confidence and catching a glimpse of effectiveness is realistic after five years.
It doesn’t matter though, budo are all about the process and not the result. Everything we would like to achieve is already there and can shine at any time. There’s no permanent state to attain but rather a constant renewal of this quest for perfection. Aikido is perfect to feel this. It’s very common to feel like we mastered a technique and then realize that we actually barely scratched the surface. This is very humbling.
Whatever your running goals are, it will probably take more time than you think to reach them, whether it’s running 5k or going sub 3-hour at the marathon. That’s fine. There’s no rush. The most important part is enjoying the very act of running and let time do the rest. Complementing running with aikido is a great way to realize that.
To conclude I would like to share my two favorite aikido demo videos:
Pat Hendricks and Kayla Feder
Do you have anything to add to this article? Please share it in the comments.