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Breathing Has Three Sides (at least!)

A recent post encouraged runners to try out different breathing intervals; two step, four step, six step, etc., to see what works best for them at different levels of speed or intensity.

There’s nothing in The Book of Nike though, that says we have to always breathe in for the same duration as we breathe out, or go right from one to the other without a pause. Start messing with those variables and you enter the world of asymmetrical breathing – yet another chew-toy-for-the-brain, to drown out your inner couch potato.

The simplest asymmetry is a three count – in on one, pause on two, out on three – which lets the lungs mine that air for a bit longer before pushing it out, and also reduces the number of lung expansions over any given length of time, thereby saving some energy and stamina in your core. A useful tool when you want to push hard, but with more efficiency and for than breathing in/out on every two footfalls would allow.

Way more intense is a seven count: long, slow in on one/two/three, pause on four, then long slow out on five/six/seven. Keeping that up for an extended time can be a useful way to force a slower pace – and maybe trick the body into efficiency adaptations that will come in handy in other situations.

Sounds arcane and complex, I’ll admit, so why bother? Well, I’m convinced there are at least three potential benefits.

One, asymmetrical breathing gives us lots more options to match respiration to effort. Is a two-step interval too fatiguing on that gentle grade, but a four-step feels like oxygen starvation? Try a three- step and see how that fits.

Two, Our core muscles create different motions and stresses on inhaling than on exhaling, and if you breathe symmetrically, you’re always making inhale motions on the same foot/leg and exhaling stresses on the other.  Yup; symmetrical breathing can actually lead to asymmetrical fatigue and even injury. Asymmetrical breathing distributes stresses more equally – which is well worth a try if you ever find yourself with a pain or glitch on one side and not the other!

Three (and my personal favorite, though I have no scientific basis for it): Try filling your lungs with air and holding your breath, and note how long before you start to feel desperately in need of exhaling. Now, try emptying your lungs and holding there. If you’re like me, the horror movie sensation comes a lot quicker. My guess is, our bodies are hard-wired to suck in air, but not so much to push it out. ‘Full lungs good, empty lungs bad. Ugh.’  With that in mind, my tendency is to exhale harder or longer so I get as much of the old, stale, oxygen-depleted air out, and then let the body’s reflex take care of pulling in the fresh stuff.

 

These days, my sweet spot seems to be hard-out on one/two/three, and let the body inhale naturally on four/five. When I find my pace lagging on a long run, choosing to breathe that asymmetrical five-count works wonders to bring me back in range.

I’ve even found myself getting into a mode with a hard exhale, quick partial inhale, another hard exhale and then a big full inhale, all in a five count.   Difficult to describe, but whenever I fall into it, I find my pace has improved with little to no increase of effort.

 

So mix it up, chop it up, find out what works for you, and when. There’s more than two sides to breathing in and out!

Colder Boulder Smolder

The Bolder Boulder is a marvelous Memorial Day event, with over 40,000 citizens running a densely-spectated 10K course around the town towards a hero finish that has them all entering the University of Colorado’s 53,000 seat Folsom Stadium via the team tunnel, to cheers and big-screen finish-line stardom. Not content with doing their splendid job of managing the logistics on that one, the BB crew also offer a December run, the Colder Boulder, with an unusual format.

For those who run the BB and then enter the same year’s CB, they sort you into starting waves of folks who finished within two-minutes of each other. That means you toe the line with a whole pack (there were 92 in my wave this year) of folks pre-selected to run at very near your pace – more or less the way it always is for those pesky elites at the front of nearly every other event. Now, nothing says you have to get all competitive about running the CB, but if you do happen to feel the urge, there’s a built-in pace group all around you.

CB is also a much smaller event (it’s December, it’s 5200’ above sea level, it’s Colorado, so, yeah there is that…) but still has the same Bolder Boulder vibe. Pre-race milling-about is inside the cavernous Folsom Fieldhouse (right next to the stadium) and you get to use the same restrooms the football teams do, troughs and all (sorry ‘bout that part). It’s warm inside, with coffee and stuff, and the waves are really well organized so you can choose just how much or how little time to spend warming-up out-in-the-cold (Dog never said being a runner makes sense). Once your wave goes off, the course weaves around the picturesque CU campus and if you can raise your head from watching the footing and navigating the pack, there’re glimpses of the fabulous the Flatirons only a few blocks away. Temperature this past year was in the low 30’s, but dry and calm, so great conditions for running hard in a singlet and gloves, as long as you managed that warm-up wisely. (That’s the smolder part in the title; with good planning, this  could be your fastest 5K of the year)

Don’t get to use the stadium for this one, but you do get to run through a wide opening into the end of the field house and sprint down a chute with spectators on both sides, so still a pretty rewarding finish. Followed by refreshments, gear pick up for those winter layers and a chance to watch the next wave come in while you cool-down without having to worry about getting cold.

So if you’re within tripping range of Boulder, try it out, and if you’re a race director somewhere else, consider the Colder Boulder format as a fun variation to keep your runners energized between the big events.

Thank you Bolder Boulder crew!

Compress That, Buddy!

In a recent on-line article about compression gear, the author cited a bunch of studies on elite runners and concluded– wait for it… that there was no conclusion. No scientific consensus on whether compression has benefits or not.   Well, this never-been-elite-and-never-gonna-be is ready to disagree!

Back in 2013 I had pretty much ignored the ads for compression clothing, figuring they were just another sexy way for manufacturers to part runners from their money. It seemed obvious to my innocent mind that having to stretch that heavy fabric every time my legs bent or straightened would bleed-off precious energy which was better applied between my feet and the ground.

But…I was also on the verge of quitting marathons. Not because my times weren’t progressing (they were, though only very gradually and not consistently), but because running 26.2 just felt plain wrong. Despite having followed a ramp-up training plan to build strength and endurance, every marathon left me feeling more mangled than majestic. Gutting out those final miles on legs that refused to respond, then staggering around for several days like a stiff-legged zombie, I figured I was simply not cut out for it. Until the horrific Boston bombings happened; after which my entire cardiovascular system wanted desperately to line up in Hopkinton the next year and join the hordes of other runners and spectators to show the world that those two impotent losers had not accomplished a damned thing.

Knowing I’d need all the help I could get, I scrunched up my tight little fists and sprung for a pair of CW-X ¾ length compression tights, after which – drum roll please….

What I did not experience was any sensation of resistance or wasting energy. My mental image now is that, just as much as your motion in one part of a stride stretches the fabric, the springy stuff acts to snap your leg back in the other, so fifty-fifty.

What I did experience was a big difference in how my legs felt in the later stages of long runs. Where before the heavy muscles around the thighs had been flapping and flopping like to tear themselves from the bones, now they were solidly in place, and because of that they maintained more strength longer. Day-after was the real kicker though, with noticeably-less leg fatigue and stiffness after running in compression than without.

Third conclusion? A couple of months after getting those tights, I wore them for an official marathon – and PR’d by over 15 minutes! I’m not saying that was all the compression tights (it was a downhill course, after all), but could I have kept up that pace in the last 6.2 if my legs were feeling flayed from the bones like I’d learned to expect? Not on your Lycra.

Since then I’ve worn compression tights for pretty much every event over half marathon distance. (But not for training; training is about applying stress to induce growth, so I save the stress-reducing super-gear for actual events.)

Thus sayeth the Follow-dog: get yourself a pair and see how they work for you. I’m already sold.

P. S. – Compression socks? Haven’t tried ‘em for running (I’m hooked on wool socks by Darn-Tough or Smartwool) but do use them after a big effort, for comfort and quicker recovery. Compression sleeves? Sleeves are a great layering option for warmth in marginal weather, have never tried compression up there. Compression shirts? Not with my mid-section, thank you very much!

Breathing – Un-simplified

Running is simple right?  Well, maybe not so much; fact is, magazines, books, websites and blogs are full of info on how to run better.

But if running isn’t as simple as it might seem, surely breathing is; absolutely every human does it all the time, without having to decide ‘OK, I’m gonna breathe now.’ Mostly, in fact, without thinking about it at all. In, out, in, out; repeat as needed ad infinitum (don’t we wish!); what’s to think about? Well, just like running, it turns out not to be so simple when you’re trying to get the most out of it.

Respiration (gotta give it a fancier name to go with the overthinking) can also be thought of as how we mine the atmosphere for the oxygen our muscles and organs need to metabolize nutrients and turn them into energy and motion. Not just leg muscles, but arm muscles to pump and help keep our balance, core muscles hold us straight and to transfer momentum and vectors of motion from one part of the body to the others (thereby keeping us head-on-top-and-feet-on-bottom), the heart to pump, the brain to daydream about how good it’s gonna feel when we finally stop.

It may feel natural and even necessary to fall into a rhythm of breathing in on one footfall, out on the next. Simple and clear. And good for a short sprint maybe, but the truth is, breathing itself is work (just like any other kind of mining), requiring repeated expansion and then compression of the chest cavity to pull air into the lungs and then force it out.  Respiring has other impacts, too; like drying out membranes and lungs during an activity that’s already causing the body to lose great amounts of moisture through perspiration and chemical reactions. As good as the old in-out may be, unless you’re hitting a really maximum level of effort, deeper and slower breathing is usually more efficient, getting more oxygen into the system relative to the amount of energy and drying that it costs.

Everyone’s different, so it’s worth experimenting. Get up to whatever pace you’re interested in, and try a mental count of one-two on the inhale, three-four on the ex, one-two in, three-four out… That leave you feeling starved? Maybe in on one and out on two-three, then in again on one… Or if you’re young with a really high VO2Max, go the other route, four and four for an eight beat cycle…(if that works, I hate you. Not.).

So be conscious of how you’re breathing. Try different frequencies and patterns, and learn to use the one that works best for you at whatever pace and intention you run. When you want to dial up the pace, dial up the frequency too, going from six beats to four, to three, and even down to two when you hit that last 100 yards to the now-I-can-stop line.

It’s that simple! (?)

Next time: asymmetrical breathing, or why this slow-and-steady runner loves to count to five.

 

Keeping Busy

When lay-persons hear about long runs – the kind that are clocked in hours rather than minutes – their first comment is often “Don’t you get bored?”  It’s a question that applies far more to us mid-pack runners than the elites because every one of our miles takes a lot longer than it would for, say Shalane Flanagan or Jim Walmsley; or even the local hot-shots. Still, whenever that question comes up, this half-their-pace-on-a-good-day slogger feels very fortunate to shoot right back and say, “Never!”

Maybe it helps that I live in a notably scenic region, but as much as looking at your surroundings can help maintain a positive vibe, it’s near-impossible to pay much attention to scenery if you want to stay on your feet!

It’s safer to fill the seconds with people watching, if they’re available. Checking out other runners or walkers to evaluate their pace, the grace of their stride, the much-nicer-than-mine clothes they’re wearing. Cyclists always rate a runner’s attention – and sometimes demand it (come on, guys; because yes, it’s always the guys who pass within arm’s reach without any warning…). Plus, the free ride they get on downhills where runners still have to ‘lift ‘em up and set ‘em down’ is enough to occupy this runner’s mind with a mix of envy or contempt for several minutes after a sighting.

Which brings up all the other technical aspects of executing a long run: keeping track of pace so you know when to push a bit more, when to pull back; noting if your pace is lagging on this slight uphill – and trying to recall if there is a downhill coming up to pay that effort back? Chalking off the miles to know how much is left, or strategizing how best to navigate that intersection coming up, the one with the overgrown rhododendron bushes making it impossible to see if there’s a car coming around the corner?

Fuel and hydration are another place to distract oneself; should I take some water soon, or suck down a gel first? Can I afford to squirt some water down the back of my neck to cool off, or will I need it all for drinking?

Then there’s listening to the body – is it worth a stop to remove that grain of sand that somehow climbed up and into my left shoe? And what is that hot spot under my right big toe – is my sock curled up and it’s gonna cause a blister? How can I adjust my stride to ease that complaining tendon in the back of my left thigh, and would it be more efficient to short stride for a while and take more steps, or to slow the rhythm and stretch out for longer strides? Maybe change to some complex asymmetrical breathing pattern that takes conscious effort to maintain?

Speaking of listening, for some there’s music and for others, there are podcasts. Personally I find the former helpful in the later stages of a big effort, and the latter too distracting (anytime I get absorbed in verbal media, I eventually wake to find my effort and pace have slacked off considerably).

And we still haven’t really gotten outside the moment; to things like going over your schedule for the rest of the day (week), fuming about some news story you read before heading out, or suddenly realizing the solution to that lingering problem in your outside life has suddenly become obvious in the middle of your run – and then hoping to heck you’ll still remember that brilliant idea once the sweating stops.

 

Who would have guessed that something as simple as running would offer so much to keep the mind busy? A Mid-Pack Runner, that’s who!

(In an upcoming post I’ll admit to another coping tool that’s less objective than the ones above, but maybe even more effective.)

No More ‘Run of the Mill’ Workouts!

It’s winter again (at least in this northern hemisphere). That wonderful time of the year when many a runner’s enthusiasm has to be dragged out of the hibernation cave by its blackened toenails. Right on schedule, magazines and websites are suggesting we learn to live with boring treadmill workouts. Well, boring is boring, and life is short, so here’s the Follow-dog’s recipe for a treadmill workout that will hold your attention.

Ingredients – one treadmill, one runner, said runner’s preferred music, one heart rate monitor (that doesn’t require your hands on the treadmill grips), one water bottle and one sweatband – of the functional type, ‘cause you’re gonna need it.

Warning: As with any exercise, you gotta do what is appropriate for your body, your fitness, your health. Don’t take my work for what you can do; make your own choices; work up to high exertion levels gradually and only when you know you can handle them. In doubt? Talk to a doctor, trainer or other professional, which I am not.

The recipe – set the mill to at least 1% incline and start slow, with the belt moving just fast enough for a running stride. (Or start at a walk and work up to a run, whatever works for you).

After one to two minutes, speed up a notch and run at that steady pace. After two minutes, speed up another notch and hold that pace. Repeat as many times as it takes to arrive at your own 5K pace and hold that for two minutes. Choose your starting pace and notches so you arrive at that 5K pace about fifteen minutes in, or however long it takes your body to be truly warmed-up and muscles fully-loose, because this is where it gets real.

After two minute at 5K pace, speed the mill up another notch (I progress mostly in 30 second/mile notches, but there’s no magic to that). Do two minutes at that pace, then throttle up another notch. Rinse and repeat…

When (not if) you reach the point where you cannot keep raising the pace without a break, hop on the rails for fifteen to thirty seconds while you throttle the mill down to a comfortable long-run pace, then hop back on for the remainder of two minutes. Watch how quickly your heart rate drops! After that rest, ramp the mill up to one notch higher than your last interval and hold that pace for two minutes, then rest and increase again. Check in with your heart rate at the end of each interval and rest to watch how it rises and falls with intensity.

When (not if) you reach a pace you can’t hold for two minutes, challenge yourself to hold it for one and a half. Then for one.

When (not if) you get to a pace you can only hold for 30 seconds, even with two minute rests between intervals, start working your way back, slowing the pace a notch for each interval, and increasing the duration back to one minute and eventually two. When you get back down paces you can easily hold for two minutes with rests between, it’s time for a cool-down as you meditate upon how much easier a given pace felt when you laddered-back to it than it felt when were first laddering-up to it.

Variation A, if your warm-weather running includes hills: once you get the pace back down to where you can hold two minute intervals, start laddering the incline up, dropping the pace when you must, till you get to such steep incline/slow pace that running is less efficient than walking.

Variation B, if your summer ambitions include trail runs with lots of vertical: do a similar ladder of intervals, but set the mill at maximum incline (15% for most) for the slow start, then as you ladder up the pace, notch the incline down so your 5K segment is as at maybe 2 or 2 1/2%.

The goal – to use the treadmill’s most maddening attribute – the ability to maintain a constant and known pace – to give yourself a continually changing challenge, while using the clock to break the time into segments too short for boredom to set in, and the heart monitor to learn about your body’s performance and give the complaining-brain something else to focus on.

“Oh the weather outside is frightful, but this treadmill’s so delightful!”

(OK, maybe that’s going too far…)

Simple is Good

A few of the reasons that otherwise-normal human beings start to run:

“Mirror, mirror on the wall…” – wait a minute; who is that person in my mirror?!

Reminiscing about that college (or high school) (or junior-high-school-J-V) sports experience

Oh, *@##**! – I just spent how much on new skis? Time to get in shape for next ski season

Oh, *@##**! – I just spent how much on airfare and hotel? Time to get in shape for this vacation

A friend asks you to keep them company while they train (my personal gateway drug)

Seeing someone you love finish an event, and seeing the expression on their face

Hearing:

…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’ after you spent last evening binge-watching old TV shows while eating trash-food.

…The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ while watching a friend toe the starting line for a local 5K

…Melissa Etheridge’s ‘I Run For You’ – anytime

Seeing the video of Meb Keflezighi winning Boston 2014, then wrapped in the flag while smiling like a puppy in a pile of tennis balls

 

And once you do run that first event, thinking:

That was easier than I thought – I’m gonna do it again

That was tougher than I thought – I’m gonna do it again, but better

That totally kicked my butt – now it’s my turn to kick back!

 

But why, years and miles later, are we still running?

Because any day now, we might be forced to stop. And when that time comes, we will miss it. So as long as we can, we do (which seems like a pretty good summation of LIFE, by the way).

Not as often as someone else does. Not as far (no hundred milers for these legs!). And definitely not as fast – hence the Mid-Pack Runner label on this blog.

But we do run and we will run because mobility is a gift, breathing in fresh air is a gift, freeing our brains for a short time of all the complications and frustrations of the rest of the world is a gift, and finding we have something in common with all those younger/faster/more-graceful beings out there, is a gift.

If you run, you are A Runner. If you are A Runner, you run.

Running is simple.

Simple is Good.