Let’s diverge off performance art for a bit.
I’m hardly a poster child for good diet and fitness. Anyone can look at me and clearly see it. Nowadays, I eat way more packaged/processed anything than I probably should. Over my life I’ve gone back and forth between keeping my diet clean and keeping the acquisition and preparation of meals simple (and truth be told, I have found meals to be insubstantial when I’ve tried to do both). The latter usually means eating a good portion of processed, fat-producing food.
I walk a lot, live a fairly busy lifestyle and have a tendency to crawl all over the place in improv scenes. But I don’t work out and I certainly don’t look like someone who body sculpts let alone gets in regular workouts.
Recently I got back into running, which I’ve done off and on for years. Growing up, like many, I had trouble running any sort of distance without getting winded. As an adult, I tried interval running on a treadmill, where you start at a walk, ramp up to running hard briefly, then slow to a walk and repeat the gradual acceleration to a sprint. But I still found myself getting winded if I had to run at all otherwise, for any extended period of time.
In recent years, I discovered Hal Higdon’s training website, one of many out there. The career running enthusiast’s running program is nowhere as popular as Couch to 5K. But one simple piece of advice, probably even a throwaway line to him, became the turning point for me and running.
It’s his description of the term ‘Run’:
Run: Put one foot in front of the other and run. It sounds pretty simple, and it is. Don’t worry about how fast you run; just cover the distance–or approximately the distance suggested.
Like many, throughout my running experience I always felt I needed to push myself at a brisk pace traditionally akin to running. Of course, I would always get winded. Whenever someone jogs, they feel they must maintain a certain intensity and pace. Higdon’s advice suggests that’s not necessary. As long as you’re moving your arms and you put one foot in front of the other, before the back foot is totally planted (the technical definition of walking), you’re technically running. No matter how slowly you do it, you’re running if you do at least that.
This couples with another discovery I had in Seattle. I trained in Alexander Technique with Carol Levin, who taught me this important series of facts:
– Your lungs do not have muscles, and you cannot substantially improve the strength of the muscles that control the movement your lungs.
– Your stamina doesn’t improve by improving the strength of your breathing. Your stamina improves when you improve the efficiency with which all of your body’s muscles work.
– Your lack of efficiency in a task forces your muscles to work harder than they do once you’re efficient at it.
– You don’t get short of breath because your lungs are tired. You get short of breath because your muscles have been pushed so hard in such little time that the amount of oxygen a normal breath gives your body is not sufficient to keep them going. Thus, you breathe harder, to take in more oxygen more quickly and better re-supply your body.
It hit me: The reason running makes people breathe hard is because most people press too hard when they run. They feel they must run at a given pace and intensity, higher than they’re comfortable with. This quickly taxes the body, you quickly run short on oxygen, and your lungs go into overdrive to re-supply your body. Thus a lot of beginning runners run hard, run out of breath, slow to a walk, run hard, get tired, slow to a walk… often practically hyper ventilating as they tire. It doesn’t feel good, yet runners get used to pushing themselves like this. The vaunted “runner’s high” is actually a renewed rush of oxygen to your brain and organs after their extended forced shortage.
Hypothesis: If I ran slowly, I could run longer distances without getting short of breath. And over time, as my body becomes more efficient at running, I’ll be able to cover longer distances more comfortably.
A few years ago in Seattle, I decided to take Hal’s advice and, no matter how slowly I had to run, focus simply on putting one foot in front of the other at a pace only fast enough to ensure my back foot came off the ground before my front foot was totally planted, while moving my arms. Even as I get tired, I just kept in mind the simple advice “put one foot in front of the other”. As long as I could do that per the above, I would not stop.
My first 1.5 mile run was a pleasant surprise. Despite running the first half mile uphill in the hilly Seattle neighborhood of Queen Anne… I never once had to stop or walk to regain my breath during the entire run. It took 30 minutes to finish the run and it was somewhat difficult, but I spent all 30 minutes of that run running, and more so I had just run 1.5 miles without stopping, without having trained prior to doing so. I ran slowly and deliberately, definitely slower than the brisk “jogging” people are used to doing, but I ran the whole way without stopping.
Two days later, I completed the same run the same way, without losing breath or stopping. And so I continued, roughly every other day.
Within four weeks, not only could I run two miles without stopping, but as my body’s running muscles got stronger my pace began to pick up. I was finishing that 2.0 mile run in *less* time than it had originally taken me to run 1.5 miles just a month before.
What happened was not that my lungs got stronger, but that the muscles my body uses to run got stronger. My entire body got stronger at running and over time could run more efficiently. Not only could I run longer distances, but I was able to run more quickly.
This tale doesn’t end with me moving on to 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon racing. At the time I discovered this, I was also practicing and training as a performing artist (which included intense dance and physical theatre training), and eventually the commitment became so rigorous that I had to stop running after a few months. I did pick it back up at a couple of points, with the same approach and the same good results, before having to shelve it again weeks later for similar reasons each time.
I started running again recently. While difficult in the early going I still managed to run 1.5 miles without stopping or getting winded on day one. I’ve been busy and haven’t been able to run three times a week like before, but I try to do it at least every Saturday, if not other days during the week. A few weeks in and counting, I’m curious to see how far I can take it this time around.
I’m sure there’s some sort of parallel we can make to performance art, to doing improv, to making theatre and being a regularly active performer. But I think the point that running doesn’t have to be a hyper ventilated stop and go pain in the ass is point enough for now. That, and sometimes all you need to do to keep getting better at what you do is to put one foot in front of the other and run… so to speak.