Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Learning to Breathe Underwater 

Like Courtney Barnett, I was having trouble breathing in

I used to think it odd that no matter how much I swam, it didn’t make me a better runner or cyclist. Likewise, biking didn’t seem to improve my running or my swimming. Admittedly, if you run, it does help everything. Running seems to be, pound-for-pound, the quickest way to lose weight or to stem the tide of being out of breath while climbing stairs. Lately though, I’m starting to think that’s not quite true. Swimming is really the linch pin in everything else. It took me ten days to realize it.

Last spring I had an access pass with a set number of swims pre-paid that I was determined to complete, so over a ten day period in June, I swam almost everyday. Then I went for my first run in over a year, and surprisingly everything went, well… swimmingly. The reason seems so obvious. I knew how to breathe. I had expected to die on my feet and within the first kilometer my heart rate was soaring, I was short of breath, and I was finding it hard to keep going. Then I took a moment and adjusted my pace and cadence and then my breathing corrected itself. That was something I learned in the pool. If you’re killing yourself and going nowhere, settle down, focus on technique, focus on your breathing et voilà, you will find your tempo. Breathe in. Breathe out. Sounds so simple.

This summer I went for some early morning swims. Those have not been so good. I’m simply not awake for another hour or two after getting up. In the first hours after getting up my breathing is shallow, my heart rate is crazy low, and I often experience a lot of vertigo or lightheadedness. Throw that body into a pool of cold water and it’s rough. Of the four or five times I’ve gone between 7am and 8am, only once did I really feel okay probably because I took my time and settled in for a slightly longer swim.

For years, I’d never exercise in the morning because I’m not a morning person but also because if I did, I’d get the worst over-exertion headaches. This was especially true when I first began to swim even if the actual exercise did not seem difficult enough to be designated “over exertion”. I realized I was holding my breath. For me, holding my breath while exerting myself equalled headache. That’s when I knew I was breathing wrong. I went back to the pool and spent the better part of an hour doing my strokes and breathing in and exhaling, forcing a very regular pattern. If it meant going slow, I went slow. By now, I don’t even think about it anymore. When taking a hill on my bike or pushing myself on a run, again I found I was holding my breath or breathing faster (a quick way to a cramp). Nowadays, I'll take deeper, fuller breaths, not more of them. Knowing to exhale on a big push or exertion while keeping my chest and diaphragm open to allow for intake and output of air made a huge difference in the pool, on the bike or on a run. I was able to exercise more comfortably and efficiently and not wind up red-faced with a headache. It’s ironic that I had to learn to breath in water before I could do it on dry land.

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