Breathless

Ian Jackson is an interesting guy. Back when dinosaurs roamed the San Francisco Peninsula, we shared a run-down apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, a short walk from Runner’s World, where we also shared an office.

Ian was a talented athlete. He won the Pacific Division AAU (now USATF) 50K championship. And in college, he trained with the UC Berkeley swim team.

He had an adventuresome spirit – he’d surfed big waves at Waimea, stowed away on a liner bound for Australia (he was caught and returned), and dived off 70-foot cliffs in Southern California.

Ian once ran 140 miles in the Berkeley hills while he fasted for a week on fruit juice. During the last run, he had an expansion of consciousness in which he felt the eucalyptus trees swaying and creaking as part of his own body.

Ian tended to use a phrase that bugged me. He would say, “Oh, [a person, book, idea, etc.] gives me energy.” At first I thought it sounded elitist, but in time I realized that Ian was absolutely right – upbeat people lift our spirits and give us energy. Life is too short to waste it on the Eeyores of this world.

I got a phone call from Ian recently, and we caught up for the first time in 32 years. It was a delight. Ian is still as full of energy as he was back in 1975. He lives in Texas, where he coaches runners and racing cyclists.

Ian told me about a breathing technique that he discovered, years ago, that helps athletes crank up their energy. He said that in the 1980s he worked with the US Olympic cyclists at the national development center, where he shared his methods with Lance Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael. After the Olympics Ian tried to stay in touch, but Carmichael didn’t return his calls.

Fast-forward 20 years. Ian gets a call from a former Tour de France professional rider who’s now a journalist for a French cycling magazine. He’s familiar with Ian’s Breathplay methods and wants to tell him about an experience he had during the previous season’s Tour.

“I was in a press car and we were following the leaders on a long climb. I told the driver to pull up close to Lance, because I wanted to study his form. As we drew near, I could hear his breathing and I noticed that the rhythm was very unusual. Then it struck me: ‘Oh, my God, it’s the same pattern as on the Breathplay CDs!'”

Ian sent me the CDs, and this morning I got a hint of their power. I ran two hours by the Bay, very slowly for the first hour and 20 minutes, and then I did eight very hard 2-minute repeats.

At the start of the speedwork, I noticed that I was breathing with the rhythm that Tim Noakes, MD says most runners adopt when they run fast:

Within a short period of starting to run, breathing becomes synchronized with footfall. Thus, we automatically breathe in on one leg and out when landing either on the same leg or on the opposite leg. This phenomenon was first reported by Bramble and Carrier (1983). Of particular interest was their finding that most runners begin and end a respiratory cycle on the same foot, usually in a stride-to-breathing ratio of either 4:1 while jogging or 2:1 while running faster. (Lore of Running, pp. 326-27)

I was breathing in the 2:1 ratio – one breath for every two steps – but on the fourth or fifth repeat my breath fell naturally into the rhythm that Ian told me about on the phone: a quick inhalation followed by a much longer out-breath, in my case about four times as long.

What it did for my energy was quite amazing. The hard pace suddenly became much easier, and I was able to turn up the throttle, even though I was already blasting along at 93% to 94% MHR.

Ian seems to be onto something.

After the run, my thoughts turned to other unusual experiences I’ve had with the breath. You’ve probably experienced this: you’re cruising along near the end of a long run, finding your groove and feeling efficient, and you notice that you’re barely breathing at all.

How can that happen? It contradicts a basic axiom of physiology, that the harder you run, the more oxygen you need, so the harder you must breathe.

I wonder if subtle energies are at play, which western sports science knows little about.

I once hitched a ride with a young man who had long hair, wore large wooden beads, and sat very straight behind the wheel. I asked him about the big drum in the back of the car. He said, “That’s part of my spiritual practice. I’ve studied tai ch’i for years and I’ve gotten past the physical part, to where I’m working with energy and sound – music and the voice.”

He told me about a drum gig he’d played in Reno, where an all-hands fight broke out. “I projected my voice and the room instantly calmed down,” he said. He told me he was returning to Reno to visit his teacher, because he needed to gain better control over the energy that he’d awakened through the sound methods. “I was attacked by a guy in the street. I didn’t respond physically but sent energy out toward him,” he said. “He ended up in the hospital with a serious heart rhythm disturbance. That’s why I need to see my teacher.”

At a Japanese cultural festival in the 1980s, I watched a demonstration by a Mexican-American Aikido instructor. He held a simple wooden rod pointed before him, and one by one his students ran full-tilt toward him. He said, “I am projecting the power of love through the stick.” Before a student reached the rod, he/she slammed back as if hitting an invisible wall. None of them were hurt – in fact, they were smiling happily.

In Fitness Intuition, I mention Ray Krolewicz, a talented ultramarathoner who trains up to 200+ miles per week. Ray has run many 2:37 marathons – on the way to running 100K (62.2 miles) in under 7 hours. “RayK” once remarked that he only began to make real progress in running when he “learned to breathe” – a statement that he unfortunately refused to elaborate on.

Former pro triathlete John Douillard is the author of an interesting book, Body, Mind, and Sport. Douillard advises athletes to breathe through their noses:

In one of our case studies on breath rate during a bicycle stress test, we found that as the exercise load increased, the breath rate went up, peaking for the subject…at 47 breaths per minute using conventional mouth breathing. At the maximum breath rate, all of our subjects were anaerobic, gasping for air and pushing right to the edge of their capacity.

The same subject was tested two days later on the same stress test, except that he used nasal breathing. This time the breathing was comfortable the entire time, even at the highest level of stress, and the average breath rate was 14 breaths per minute. This result is even more impressive when you consider that the average breath rate for people at rest is around 18 breaths per minute.

All of our subjects had been using the nasal breathing techniques for at least 12 weeks prior to the testing. This particular case study was a demonstration of a state of maximum respiratory efficiency developed from using this program. If, with training and patience, you can perform the same exercise workload with only 14 breaths per minute instead of 47 using conventional techniques, what reason could there be not to do it? “I will never breathe through my mouth again” was the sentiment of all the subjects after completing both tests. Why burn 8 miles to the gallon when you can get 30?….

When our subjects completed this comparison, they were amazed at how different the two tests felt. During and after the mouth-breathing sessions, they were physically strained. During and upon completion of the nose-breathing workouts, they felt surprisingly invigorated. (Body, Mind, and Sport, pp. 151-52)

I first read Douillard’s book when I was running ultramarathons. It took 2-3 weeks to get comfortable with nose-breathing, to where I could do it for seven hours during a 30-mile training outing. I did those runs slowly, so I can’t compare the results at speed, but I did feel noticeably more relaxed, focused, and fresh breathing through my nose.

Yoga advocates nose-breathing as a way to calm the mind. The reason given is that oxygen energizes the area of the brain close to the nasal passage, where calm concentration is localized, in the prefrontal cortex.

Douillard gives many examples of athletes who struggled for several weeks to breathe through their noses, then found that they could run fast with a significantly lower heart rate and slower breath rate.

In all of Lore of Running’s 900-plus pages, there are just two pages on breathing, but they’re useful ones. Noakes states that breathing with the diaphragm (“belly breathing”) is more efficient than breathing with the chest muscles.

What Lore doesn’t mention is that a straight posture makes abdominal breathing easier.

I can’t quote research on this, but I’m convinced that a bent spine prevents the lungs from filling fully. I find that straightening my upper spine enables me to breathe easier at any speed. Most world-class marathoners run with a straight back, as if to make room for maximum expansion of the lungs.

A remarkable feature of Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic marathon was his form – Shorter and his teammates at the Florida Track Club practiced running with their spines very erect, with no forward lean and their center of gravity balanced directly over the pelvis. Shorter made sub-5:00 pace look easy – he appeared to be floating over the ground.

Yoga also says there’s a link between posture and energy. Language in all cultures reflects this. When we feel negative, our spines bend and we say “I feel down,” “I’m lower than a dachshund’s belly,” etc.

When our mood is positive, we say “I’m high.” “I’m up.” “I’m on top of the world.”

Yoga lore says that negativity creates an actual movement of energy downward in the spine, leaving the spine feeling weak and pliable. When we feel positive, there’s an upward current of energy that makes the spine feel strong and straight.

A useful practice borrowed from yoga is to deliberately breathe deeply during the warmup, in order to create a vortex of energy in the area of the lungs, heart, and upper spine. I do this on most runs, because it helps me feel centered in the heart and upper spine, a pleasant, positive feeling. I generally breathe in to a count of 8 or 12, then hold and exhale to the same count. The longer I practice, the more I feel centered in the upper body.

It can also help to straighten the upper spine and neck by bending backward, or clasping hands behind the back and stretching to “open the chest and make room for the heart.”

These practices can make a big difference. Posture is intimately linked to world-view. Positive people tend to stand straight. Whiners slump. After doing the backbend and chest-stretch, you’ll feel more like Frank Shorter, less like Joe Sixpack.

The heart is an important center of energy and consciousness. Running “from the chest and heart” is a wonderful feeling – it feels subtly “right” and liberating. It generates feelings of confidence and power.

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