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Breath in the mirror

Last week I wrote about the importance of breathing and my inability to draw breath as I run. This was one of the five challenges I felt I needed to tackle when faced with hardship on a run. For reference, I said:

If I am struggling during a run, I think it comes down to a split of:

  • 50% overcoming the challenge mentally 
  • 20% oxygen (or lack thereof)
  • 20% correct fuelling 
  • 10% the actual muscles doing the running

Having been out on a long run this weekend and felt comfortable with my fitness and consistency – and most of all the amount of air filling my lungs – I reflected on some other things that were missed off last weeks’ list. 

Firstly, there’s hydration. I’d sort of lumped this into fuelling, and while I could argue this point if I wanted I know I was really thinking about how hard it is to run when last nights dinner was a doner kebab and chips with plenty of chilli sauce. Not that I’ve had a kebab in a long time, but a healthy meal before training makes running a whole lot easier. 

Water needs adding on the list in its own right then. Dehydration is a killer, and while I’m lucky enough to be able to run reasonably far without taking on additional water – I’m like a brightly coloured, heavily sweating camel when I’m out – I pay a lot of attention to how much I’m drinking throughout the day and especially first thing when I wake up before a run.

Which links me to the next point – a good night’s sleep should also be on the list. A night of tossing and turning is a great way to knock the mental stability off kilter just enough to either give up on running for the day before even getting out of bed; or going off half-arsed, lacking any drive on a run that could barely be called exercise, less so a training session. 

Why would I suffer a restless night? The last post I wrote, I said I found it hard to concentrate on my breathing because my mind wanders to other things while running. This weekend, I found a new ability to concentrate on my breathing as I ran, pretty much throughout the entire duration. And while this was clearly something I’m currently forcing myself to work on, I think there’s another factor at play.

Stress. I’ve been on annual leave for a few days, and am off work all this week too. This means I’ve been able to switch off from all the things that bother me when I normally go out running – first thing in the morning before work. On this run I wasn’t trying to boost my mental health; I wasn’t mulling over a particular problem; I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to go through with my team that day. I was running for the sake of my running. And it felt good.

My list has got a bit longer (and in need of some remodelling of the percentages), but thinking this through has really started to highlight to me the importance of the things that lie under the surface. We all know that muscles need stretching and developing to run fast, but also we need sleep, correct oxygen intake, and a way to reduce or manage stress to achieve effective results. 

None of this is easy, in fact it’s probably harder than the running itself, but getting these things right is such an important part of a holistic approach to improving fitness and athletic ability.

Breath on the mile

It’s well documented there are many health benefits running brings, and among those there’s the all important mental health positives. There’s the space to clear your thoughts, think objectively about problems; there’s the buzz you get at the end of completing a run, and the sense of achievement you get when you drive a bit harder, breaking last week’s best. Even seeing other people running past and sharing a knowing nod or half wave is rewarded with a boost to your stride.

Overall, running is like no other activity I do. It’s certainly the most time I get to spend completely alone and in my own thoughts.

If mental benefits are included in running, then why do I find a mental barrier to getting going, going a bit further, or running a bit harder?

If I am struggling during a run, for me it generally comes down to a split of:

  • 50% overcoming the challenge mentally 
  • 20% oxygen (or lack thereof)
  • 20% correct fuelling 
  • 10% the actual muscles doing the running

(This is completely unscientific, an oversimplification and guess based on my recent runs.) And yet it’s the muscles I focus on in my training and preparation.

Fuelling is generally ok, I’m fully onboard with carb loading before a race. It’s the Saturday night beer and pizza the night before a long run that usually does me in!

So now I’m focussed on my breathing. My Garmin watch reckons my V02 Max gives me a fitness age of someone twenty years younger than I am. But it’s getting a good lungful in that I struggle with.

Left unchecked, my breathing through exercise is shallow, lung-driven gulps of air. I’m trying to change this by focussing on diaphragmatic breathing, and filling my lungs completely with every breath. However, with the space to clear my head and think objectively about my problems, I always unconsciously default to my former breathing style.

So now I need to break the habit. I’m doing more breathing exercises outside of running, which in itself is relaxing too. But I can’t seem to transfer this consistently to my runs. It may seem drastic, but I’m now considering tattooing my hands and arms with the word “Breathe” over and over again to help remind me when I’m out!

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