Sunday, 25 October 2020

Breathing Part 1: Why?


Breathing.  You'd think it was simple.  Just breathe. As essential as it is to human life, breathing properly is not as simple as it sounds.

A few days ago I posted something on my IG feed about nasal breathing and the benefits I've seen from using it to help my stress and general health this summer.  Within minutes I started receiving private messages from people saying that what I had posted was very helpful and asking for more information.  I am by no means an expert and I barely consider myself at an intermediate skill level with breathwork.  However, I can certainly provide you some resources to find the information you need and tips on what has helped me in my journey.

Let's start at the beginning.  In my training as a physiotherapist (almost 25 years ago) we were taught all the facts of cardiopulmonary anatomy and function.  Once I started practicing, I found myself wrapping towels around a patient's lower trunk and asking them to breathe in and create pressure around the towel. I got confused stares. I tried in vain to teach people to breathe "through their bellies" and expand as they inhaled, which was a foreign concept and counterintuitive to almost everyone.  Honestly, even though I knew the diaphragm is an integral part of the "core," I got so frustrated I almost completely abandoned teaching the mechanics of breathing early on in my career.  Nobody cared, nobody got it.  If you were my patient between between 2003 and 2007 I'm sorry I failed you.

Then in 2007 I had my first child. Nicholas was as feisty as his mother. The more he cried, the more ramped up I'd get and then more he'd cry. We fed off each other.  If I was stressed, he'd cry.  If I was calm, he was calm.  I quickly found that the only way I could settle him to sleep was to first calm myself  though breathing.  I would start taking deep slow breaths with him glued to my chest.  Before long his breathing would match mine and he would fall into a deep sleep.  Through the terrible twos, the trying threes, and the f'ing fours we'd sit together and take deep breaths in and out to break out of hysterical moments.  He is now 13 and we still do this.  It's our routine.  It has only just now occurred to me that this was the start of my awareness of how powerful the breath is in changing our mental state. I had discovered it quite by accident, but now have a knowing that I can't deny.

There are many ways to look at breathing and the effects of the breath...mechanical, anatomical, biochemical, neurophysiological, metaphysical, spiritual.  Brian MacKenzie says that the breath is the remote control for the mind, but I would also say that the mind is remote control for the breath. They inform each other.  If there is one thing that both responds to and provides feedback from ALL the systems in the human body, it's the breath, and if there was ever a time when everyone should be motivated to have really efficient lungs and immune system, it should be now...in the midst of a global pandemic involving a virus that attacks the lungs.

Why should we care about how we breathe?  Other than the fact that if we don't breathe regularly WE DIE, there are other qualitative reasons to consider how we breathe.  It's all about the autonomic nervous system.  Sympathetic and parasympathetic balance.  The Chinese call it ying and yang.  We call it something more "scientific." We are always in a state of either sympathetic dominance or parasympathetic dominance.  Being perfectly balanced is rare. There are times when both are necessary and it is appropriate to be in either one state or the other.  If you are having to defend your life, run from an attacker, defend your thesis, or athletically perform at a high level, it might be beneficial for you to be in a sympathetically dominant state.  However, we were never meant to be in that state all the time.  There are times when you need to rest and digest, to recover, to not be on defense. In today's world we increasingly find ourselves stuck in flight or fight mode without a way to shut it down.  Enter insomnia, anxiety, irritability, allergies, asthma, irritable bowel...and when our systems can't sustain that anymore?  We crash. Enter depression, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, poor athletic performance, loss of concentration, chronic fatigue, and the list goes on.

Where does breathing come in?  Listen up.

1) We can discover what state we are in simply by observing our ability to breathe in that moment.

2) We can change our autonomic nervous system state through breathing (as I discovered with my infant son).

It's really quite phenomenal.  We can both gain immediate feedback as to what state our nervous system is in AND change it almost immediately, simply through the breath.  Breathing is literally at the epicenter of it all.

Don't believe me?  Try one of these two exercises for several days and see what you discover:

1) Box Breathing

  • Cadence: 1:1:1:1
  • Example: Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds.  Repeat x 10. Chose a time you can complete for 10 reps.
  • Whatever time you are able to complete, repeat your boxes daily.  Observe how your ability to complete your boxes is influenced by:
    • Amount of sleep you had the night before
    • Level of stress and current mental state
    • Level of fatigue from training
    • Amount of alcohol consumption
    • Amount of water consumption
    • What you eat
    • Medications you take

2) Nasal Breathing While Running

  • Keep your mouth closed while running at a slow steady state (zone 1-2).
  • Run at a pace you can sustain with your mouth CLOSED.
  • Observe how your ability to keep your mouth closed is influenced by:
    • Amount of sleep you had the night before
    • Level stress and current mental state
    • Level of fatigue from training
    • Amount of alcohol consumption
    • Amount of water consumption
    • Environmental temperature
    • What you eat
    • Medications you take

Do this daily for a week and observe how challenging or easy certain days are.  You will find some days are super easy and some days are impossible.  Why?

I plan to write at least 2 more parts to this series, exploring specific breathing techniques anyone can do to improve their awareness of and control over their autonomic nervous system, as well as provide links to many resources I've found helpful.

However, you have to experience how powerfully your breath can inform you of your physical,  physiological and mental and spiritual state before you can become convinced as to WHY you should be trying to take control over this area of your health in the first place.

So go do one of these two breathing exercises and see what you discover!



Monday, 3 August 2020

Lessons on Grotto Mountain


Grotto Mountain. It’s not a beautiful mountain, but I don’t always climb beautiful mountains. I climb them to look at other beautiful mountains or valleys. As usual I was chasing those views today but after 2 hours of quad shredding climbing I was forced to turn around only 400’ from the summit. A thunderstorm was suddenly rolling in across the valley almost 5 hours early. Really?! 🙇‍♀️ But it was like the voice of God telling me to get down off that mountain, NOW. Standing alone on a very exposed 9000’ peak in a lightening storm is not really a good idea so I did - but to say I was very disappointed is an understatement. As I started downclimbing 😣 and cursing just a little, I started to understand.
.
Grotto Mountain doesn’t carry its beauty as a crown. It’s beauty and it’s namesake are discreetly wrapped in a massive breathtaking cathedral of rock hidden from view where only those who seek will find it. I had barely glanced at it on my way up. I wasn’t meant to summit, or run ridgelines today. I was meant to see the Grotto.

#grottomountain #primalwisdom #alwaysrespectthemountain #naturetherapy #staygrounded #payattention #downclimbingsucks #ultramindset #salmingrunningnorthamerica

...

I always feel excited climbing a mountain. Always. Today I felt anxious and a foreboding looking at the ridge. Almost turned back twice. I truly think God was yelling at me to LISTEN up already and get my ass back down before I committed to something that may get me in trouble. He knew something I didn’t. 

Sometimes God whispers to us and sometimes he has to YELL. 

As I was climbing up that mountain I had summit fever. I wanted to bag that peak, run that ridge, and get down before the storm hit. I climbed with a ferocity that I haven’t in a long time, panting and puffing in the thinning air like I was wearing an N95 mask. In several places it was serious scrambling requiring all 4 limbs. Several times I looked back thinking, damn. This would be hell to go down. I hope the other side of the ridge is easier. 

All this time I was circling a huge rock cathedral. I stopped to take a panoramic picture but what I had photographed barely registered in my hypoxic brain. It was majestic. It was breathtakingly beautiful.  I was looking at the grotto, the iconic rock formation for which the mountain was named, wrapped in columns of rock that seemed to protect it from external  forces...and I didn’t even notice. See picture at top of post.

Finally I stopped. I almost turned back. I realized I was only half way up and I felt something bad deep in my stomach. But I decided to ignore it and pressed on. I was conditioned not to stop and I was selfish. I had come too far and I wanted to see what was on top. 

Finally I broke out of the alpine and started the last ascent to the top. I celebrated every 100’ of gain as it started to sprinkle. Go go go! You’re almost there. Just summit and head back down. I kept bargaining. When I was only 400’ from the summit,

The thunder rolled. 

From far across the valley, on the other side of Canmore, the clouds darkened and thunder rumbled. When you are standing on a scree embankment almost 9000’ above sea level, dizzy with exhaustion, cracking thunder is hard to ignore. 

Keep in mind I was already going against all my instincts and all the messages the universe was trying to send me in continuing up that mountain. That thunder was yelling at me to wake up already and LISTEN. “Get your freaking ass off this mountain” was what popped into my head and this time I didn’t ignore it. I felt that knowing. I felt genuine fear. #alwaysrespectthemountain


I immediately turned around and headed down. Going up was slow and going down wasn’t much faster. The rocks would get very slippery and treacherous in the rain and as I watched rain drops dot the rocks, I prayed out loud that God would stop the rain until I made it below the tree line. Miraculously it stopped raining...until the EXACT moment I crossed the tree line. Tell me God isn’t real. 

As I slowly and carefully picked my way down that mountain the thunder continued to occasionally roll which would spur my feet into further downward action. When I passed the half way mark the sun came out and I fumed. Really?! Am I in the Hunger Games arena?

But sometimes God knows things we don’t. Like maybe I would have gotten lost on that ridge. Maybe I wouldn’t have made it down before the real thunderstorm developed at 3:30pm this afternoon. As an ultra runner I’ve conditioned myself to ignore pain and fatigue and the urge to stop. “Don’t stop” is a mantra that has gotten me to a lot of places I am proud of, including 100 mile finishes. But through it all I’ve always felt pulled towards my goal, not pushed, not repulsed.

Maybe I need to learn to listen when my instincts feel more like a magnetic repulsion rather than attraction. Today what seemed like a good idea required an addendum. So be it. 

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Reasons vs Excuses

Nothing pisses me off more than excuses.  I intensely despise excuses and have absolutely no tolerance for them.

I have tagged numerous IG posts with #noexcuses and #nononsense and I gravitate towards books like Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink & Leaf Babin and What Doesn't Kill Us by Scott Carney.  My level of intolerance for unjustified excuses reached a whole new level this week and I found myself pounding the road this morning raging against the excuse machine.  I found myself silently shouting expletives and mentally telling everyone off.

And then later this afternoon as I reclined on my patio with a cold drink, I opened up The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene (happens to be free on Audible right now so grab it!!!).  I've been reading his textbook on what drives humanity for over a year.  Every chapter gives me a lot to process.  There is one overriding theme to every single chapter: whenever you feel strong resistance to a trait in another person, examine yourself.  You are likely repressing or resisting something within yourself that leads you to resist and criticize others.

I am in a leadership role at work and needless to say it has been anything but easy during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Decisions have to be made in minutes and hours that would usually take days and weeks.  Tasks need to be executed immediately when usually they could take weeks. A day has become a week and a week a month.  If you can't keep up you could cost your company or your coworkers  desperately needed income and threaten the viability of...everything.  The stakes have never been higher. With great power comes great responsibility and with that great expectations.

So amidst this high pressure environment, when I find someone on my team who hasn't done what is expected of them and called them on it, I have been hearing a lot of excuses.  This has invariably made me rather impatient and distressed.   But when is an excuse a reason? I have determined that a reason is valid and an excuse is not.  There are always reasons behind excuses, but rarely do we recognize or share them.  This is my analysis of the difference between reasons and excuses.

Reasons
A reason for not doing something is usually delivered proactively and offensively.   As humans we tend to think about reasons for not doing something in advance of the action, not after.  It is usually identified before the deadline and offered without being asked.  It will be given from a position of control or in an attempt to demonstrate that control is being regained.  A reason is delivered with very few clear and concise words, with a request for permission rather than an apology.  The person who isn't going to meet the target offers a reason, takes ownership of the task and speaks honestly.

Excuses
An excuse for not doing something is usually delivered reactively and defensively.  As humans we often think about excuses for not doing something after the deadline has passed or at the last possible minute. We tend to only share excuses when asked and they are many times delivered with a downwardly shifted gaze and a defensive apology that is very verbose in an effusive attempt to explain and avoid any silence which will allow further questions.  Excuses deflect all responsibility and are lies we tell ourselves and others to cover up the truth.  We think of excuses after we have ignored all the reasons and done nothing or been unable to mitigate them.

Excuses

Example:
I picked up fast food for dinner tonight because I didn't have time to cook (excuse).  If I had been honest with myself, I knew I was going to have to work late tonight for the last week and I knew my son had a baseball game.  I could have planned better and made something in advance or set the crock pot on a timer.  I just didn't plan well enough (reason) because it was just too much work.

Example:
I didn't meet that deadline because my coworker was not carrying her load and I didn't have time (excuse). If I had been honest with myself, I really didn't know how to do the task delegated to me (reason) and I didn't want to ask for help because I thought I would be judged. I feared that my boss would get angry with me and I would disappoint her, so I blamed it on someone else.

Reasons

Example:
I did not get enough sleep before my long run because my kids asked me to watch a movie with them late last night.  This is resulted in poor performance during my run.  If I  am honest with myself, my kids are the most important thing in my life (reason), and I am ok with this.  If my runs suffer right now, I'm ok with that.  My reason is important and not an excuse.  I recognized this BEFORE I stayed up late and I made a decision to accept the consequences.

Example:
I will not meet that deadline because I have had to do many things that are higher priority (reason).  I know you are counting on me but I need more time to complete the task. (asking permission rather than forgiveness)

In examining myself, I can't help but wonder....when I criticize myself, am I falling short because of good reasons or excuses? What stories do I tell myself and the people who are counting on me?  Why is it so hard to state our reasons rather than our excuses?  To ourselves?  To others?

Fear.

Fear of failure.  Fear of judgment.  Fear of disappointing ourselves and others. Fear of appearing weak and incompetent.

It takes courage to avoid making excuses and taking ownership of our shortcomings.  We need to feel safe in order to do so.  How can we feel safe enough to be honest?

Grace.

This is my personal revelation of the day.  I need to give myself and others more grace and permission to have reasons rather than excuses.  I need to give those I work with more grace...to admit their reasons in order to avoid excuses.

Grace helps us see the reasons behind the excuses.

God, grant me the wisdom to dig deep enough to find my reasons behind my excuses, and give others permission to do the same.

#becourageous

Saturday, 11 April 2020

An Ultrarunner's Thoughts on the Irony of Physical Distancing and Human Behaviour



As an ultra runner, I have a lot of practice at social and physical distancing.  While I often enjoy the company of other runners on the trails and at post-run gatherings, I crave a whole lot of alone time.  Most ultra runners do as well, and if they don't, they quickly become ok with it.  The very nature of our sport conditions us to become very comfortable spending long hours alone on the trails far away from civilization and other humans. Heck, many people find ultra precisely so that they have an excuse to be alone. I am one of those people.

I get up at ungodly hours, am often the first to arrive at the trail head for a run, and jump out of my skin when another human surprises me on the trail and unknowingly interrupts my deep state of flow. Relax mom I've taken self defense.  Even when given the opportunity to run with someone, I will often chose to run alone, content with the company of me, myself and I.  I have spent years seeking out solitary places to run.  Years learning to become self-sufficient for hours on a trail. Years developing the strength to carry food, water, medication, and emergency supplies on my back for all my runs, and years training my legs to carry me far away from other people...before I must come back again.

Ultrarunning has kept my body strong.  It has kept my mind strong, and it has kept my lungs strong.  I have been seeking out solitary places to run in nature several times per week long before COVID-19 caused a world-wide pandemic and public orders requiring physical distancing were issued.

As a health care worker and a single mom during a global pandemic involving a respiratory virus, I take it all very seriously. My top priority is to reduce exposure to others while staying strong enough to fight the virus when I inevitably am exposed to it myself.  I wash my hands for the full 20 seconds, I stay 6 feet away from EVERYONE, and I suspect I've gotten mildly intoxicated from hand sanitizer absorbing through my skin.  I don't have time to be sick.  I need a strong body, I need strong lungs. And right now I need a strong mind more than anything else.  This doesn't happen passively or by accident. It happens intentionally and actively.

I awoke this morning and prepped exactly as usual, turning my car into a self contained aid station (aka no need to interact with anyone).  I packed enough food and water for myself, and stuffed my running vest with TP and extra "leave no trace" baggies (even the outhouses are closed now, but any experienced ultra runner knows what to do).  I told one person where I was going and left the house thinking, "it's a good thing I have a sport that I love that requires no gym, that allows me to be alone, and far away from anyone else.  I don't have to change a thing!"  I usually have to tell someone where I am going because if I disappear or get injured, no one would come upon me for hours if not days or years. On any other weekend morning of any other month in any other year this would be the case. Sadly, not this morning.

Runners rant coming...but this is my personal blog so there is no disclaimer

I know we are all supposed to stay at home.  I know we need to balance that with the mental and physical health of not only ourselves but others.  I know I left my house which in many ways makes me a hypocrite. That said was it wrong of me to get more than mildly irritated when I found my usual utterly vacant trailheads ironically crammed with more people than I've ever seen?  I haven't changed my routine, but everyone else seems to have done so.  They have decided it's time to get active and back to nature.  That's great.  So now I can't?  My rational mind told me that was clearly an irrational thought, but this had nothing to do with COVID and I was angry!  I actually really needed to be alone, only to find that one of the places I could always count on for that was...filled with people!!!

Ok.  Deep diaphragmatic breath.  Change the plan but never the goal...

It's a good thing I have more secret spots where no one else ever goes.  Those spots where there is no cell service and I can run for hours comfortably knowing no one will ever find me, more less come within 2 metres of me.  I managed to find one of those spots today and ran in blissful solitary peace contemplating how physical distancing requirements have created a human osmosis of sorts, drawing people out of the cities and towns and back into nature.  On one hand I think it's awesome that parents are getting their families outside and finding safe places for them to do so.  Fresh air and exercise are powerful medicine that will keep us strong while awaiting a cure or a vaccine for COVID-19.  However, there is still a piece of me that resents the sudden intrusion of the masses into the sanctuary of quiet stillness that I've treasured for decades.  In this time of exponential change, I was hoping I'd
at least still have that.

And so ironically those of us who have a sport that physically distances us are finding it harder to do even that.
"It's the good advice that you just can't take." Alanis Morissette
None of us are immune to the changes in our society and it is what it is.  I guess I'm just going through the grieving process like everyone else.  You can criticize me for leaving my house, but for now I will keep running. I will try my very best to be alone, not because I'm told to but because I need to (or I will go bat shit crazy.)  I may have to get up even earlier and run a little longer into the bush to take the trail less travelled, but I will run for my health, and I will run with gratitude.  Gratitude that I can still run on the trails because I am well aware that what I describe here is the rationale used for closing our parks.  Gratitude that I have strong lungs and that it's spring.  Gratitude that I am a trail runner and don't need a gym, treadmill or paved path for my workout.   Gratitude I live in a province with a very low incidence of COVID-19, a population density of 2 people/square km and a whole lot of open space. Yes, I'm finally grateful to live in Manitoba.

Ultra running has trained me in many ways to cope with this pandemic.  It has given me mental as well as physical endurance.  Ultra has trained me to be ok with being alone, and it has given me serious perspective. Mantras pop in my head every day now with new double meanings, no longer reserved for the running context.

Nothing lasts forever.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.
Pay now or pay later.
Trust the process.
Deal with the little things now before they become big things.
Don't catastrophize the unexpected.
Change the plan but never the goal.
Just keep going.  (but)
Sometimes it takes more strength to stop than to keep going.
It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  Pace yourself.

I could write many more blog posts on the duality of meaning hidden in those mantras and the parallelism between managing global pandemics and running ultras, but the ultra runners who make up the vast majority of my audience already know.  Don't you?

Good luck finding places to run alone.  Be well my friends.