Sunday, November 4, 2012

Nurturing the first wind to get to the second

There are many good reasons not to run.  But if you decide to run anyway, there are still issues that can get in your way.  I'll write this to address some of the ways that I've found to optimize my run and make it quite enjoyable.  As a rower friend of mine, Ken Clemmer, commented that rowing is the art of knowing what not to do as you strive for efficient motion.  Running is simple enough.  But there are some habits than can make running difficult or tedious.  I hope some of this is valuable.

I took up running when I was a agile teen thanks to the inspiration of my high school track team and friends.  Over the years, thanks to genetics, exercise and nutrition, I have bulked up to an ungainly 6 foot tall stature.  But as the nimbler sports seemed to recede from me, running stayed a constant.  (I love rock climbing, but find it very challenging due to my weight to muscle ratio.)  My biggest hurdle in running has been managing asthma.  Asthma is caused by highly allergic bronchioles that swell in reaction to pollutants and pollen, often complicated by secondary factors as the lungs try to flush out the irritants with fluid.  Exercise can exacerbate asthma symptoms for various reasons including cortisol release and abnormal breathing patterns.  But exercise can also improve asthma management if done in a low stress and controlled fashion.  It's my personal belief that running reduces dependence on medications and can lead to expanded lung capacity.  Before running, it's important, if you're asthmatic, to get your allergies under control.  Don't run if it's going to result in needing the use of bronchodilators.  Excessive use of epinephrine (Primatene Mist) albuterol (Ventolin etc.) can lead to your lungs permanently altering their shape due to the manner of shallow breathing that asthmatics can fall into.   

I like to run with minimal visual or social distraction.  Forests are great if you are near to one.  But cities are filled with distractions and dangers which make excessive momentum a bad thing.  Indoor running can minimize the impact of pollen, as well as the risk of being injured by moving vehicles or territorial animals.  When on treadmills, I avoid mirrors and TV screens.  You want to sink into the moment in a run, rather than be casting about for visual stimulus or being overly self-conscious about getting sweaty and exhausted in front of others.

Music can be an excellent tool for focus in a run.  I also find running to be a great mental state for appreciating subtleties of my favorite music.  So if you live in a country where you can gain access to a musical device and a library of good music, I recommend experimenting with different songs that have BPM (beats per minute) that you can pace your run to.  Slower music may compel you to pace your stride longer, faster BPM may compel you to run in a manic or fast manner.  So it's good to experiment with music that suits your desired pace and body size. 

I think of three forces of forward propulsion in my run.
1) Desire to run.  It's easier for me to have a good run in the mornings.  If you're not in a good mental state, your run can be sloppy and unrewarding.  It's better not to run at all than to force it and have bad associations with your run that are actually due to something else.  A good mood is enhanced by a run.  A bad mood seldom is.

2) The amount of sugars in your bloodstream.  Make sure that you're well nourished, but not bloated by a meal.  The previous day's meal is probably going to give you the energy you need for today's exercise.  I think it's great to have juice before a run.  Your body isn't going to be doing any meaningful digestion during a run, so complex carbohydrates aren't going to improve your energy much if consumed immediately prior to the run.

3) The amount of oxygen you can keep in the bloodstream to rapidly metabolize those sugars.  This is the biggest factor for me.  So I'll go into extensive detail about it.  This is the core of my running experience.  The first two factors are important.  But breath is the most critical. 

To optimize breath, there are a few things you can consider.  I always start a run slowly, pacing my breath evenly with my stride.  Typically two paces for every in-breath, and two for every out-breath.  Starting a run fast can deplete the oxygen in your blood rapidly and set up a pattern of breathing to compensate that will quickly exhaust you as you hyperventilate to compensate for the rapid surge of speed.  Long ago I learned the trick of pursing your lips to blow air at pressure like a silent whistle.  This increases the pressure in your lungs.  At higher pressures, hemoglobin in your blood will take in Oxygen at a higher rate.  (This also can help with hypoxia when you are mountain climbing.)  If you feel momentarily short of breath, in addition to altering your stride or pace, try pursed-lipped out-breaths until you feel your blood oxygen level is balanced.

If you've ever wondered why breathing too much or too fast could trigger bronchiole constriction, I recommend some reading on Ukrainian doctor Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko's theories.  His concepts in general are based on the idea that hyperventilating causes imbalance of gas intake to the bloodstream, other than oxygen.  Constriction of the bronchioles by his theory is an adaptive reaction to limit the imbalance in the bloodstream.  While I'm not a practitioner of formal methods of Buteyko, this concept has helped me understand a bit better why the higher-lung panting, that chronic asthmatics typically do, actually exacerbates symptoms in an "asthma attack". 

To avoid breathing too rapidly when running, focus on the out-breath.  Asthmatics tend to focus on breathing in, rather than on breathing out.  While these would seem equivalent.  Altering the focus can result in deeper breathing patterns and using your full lung capacity, which in turn leads to slow deep breath rather than manic panting.  When running, if you suddenly feel the "itch" feeling of bronchiole constriction, slow/lengthen your pace, slow your breathing to longer out-breaths and then determine if you should continue.  Sudden stops can exacerbate symptoms too.  So it's good to view everything about exercise as gradual.

When your breathing is optimal in a run, you can unlock a tremendous amount of energy and endurance.  It typically takes a quarter or half a mile of running before my pace is optimized.  This is when the run gets really fun.  It's a feeling of being zoned-in.  Time seems to slow.  You'll be aware of the flow of your body in ways that you can make subtle adjustments.  After a mile or so, you may get a feeling of "second wind", as your run becomes very calm.  Your breathing may slow even more.  If you want to keep going, you can pay attention to a few other things that will make your running endurance better.

There are many good instructions on running stride.  I'm not much of an expert here.  What I focus on is having my head balanced like a golf ball on a tee, with little neck muscle involvement, and no throat constriction.  I tend to land slightly on the ball of the foot in my stride instead of the heel and avoid excessive upward motion or shock to the heel/knees.  I tend to relax my arms.  Holding them up can make me speed my stride.  Letting them hang lower lets me have a longer slower stride which I enjoy.  I give little thought to speed.  If I'm tread-milling, speed is only weighed against the blood sugar I feel.  High energy times I'll run faster with longer strides.  Low energy times I'll run slower with shorter strides.

A Buddhist abbess once commented in a Zen Center dharma talk that as your practice improves the inefficient things you do will fall away until there's nothing but the practice.  As I get deep into second wind, my run feels like this.  I'm able to breathe very calmly and my thoughts can sink into the music I am enjoying and the splendor of what it feels like to be a human.   (I regret I don't recall the name of the abbess who gave the talk. was the venue.)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Robert Volberg.  Restauranteur extraordinaire.  Founder of Angeline's, Berkeley.  Robert died of an asthma attack June 23rd, 2010.