When I was a marathon runner twitching for a start-line I was once asked during a radio interview, “How important is breathing to running?” I was stumped for a moment by the question’s simplicity, before I flippantly answered, “Very important. If you don’t breathe, you die, and if you’re dead you can’t run.” Taking my athletic ability to process more than my share of the tiny room’s air for granted, I thought the question oxymoronic.
We are Oxygen Factories
When it comes to breathing, exercise and oxygen, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the information-stream and overlook one fundamental precept: human beings are oxygen factories. Our bodies have this amazing ability to synthesize the basic elements in various combinations to provide us with energy using oxygen as a main ingredient: carbohydrates (oxygen, hydrogen and carbon), protein (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen), water (oxygen and hydrogen), and energy (oxygen and carbohydrates). In fact, eighty percent of all our metabolic energy production is created by utilizing oxygen in one form or another.
Even though our bodies are largely composed of oxygen we have no real storage system for it so is has to be continually replenished moment by moment, breath by breath. Not just our athletic performances but our ability to think clearly, our good mood, even our capacity to stay alive depends on this ability. We can survive without food for months, without water for days, but cut off the air intake and we can function on anaerobic metabolism for just a few minutes before the engine grinds to a halt. On the other hand, if our aerobic efficiency is improved not only is our ability to move optimized but our quality of life enhanced. Dr Steven Levine, a molecular biologist writes “Low oxygen in the body tissues is a sure indicator for disease. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen in the tissues, is the fundamental cause for all degenerative disease.” Concomitantly healthy cells are well oxygenated and in an aerobically fit person this high level is readily maintained.
Training to Train
Arthur Lydiard knew this when he developed his pyramid system of training with a volume of aerobic mileage as the foundation. His reasoning was simple: the greater the capacity for the body to utilize oxygen the greater the ability of the body to recover. The build-up phase at the basis of the Lydiard method is simply training for more training. Arthur likened this to land development where the infrastructure of roadways and utilities must be laid down first before the building can begin. In physical terms this means first developing and strengthening your basic structures of muscles and connective tissue with continuous aerobic running. Concomitant with this process new capillary roadways are stimulated to supply your tissues where the tiny oxygen-processing/energy-producing mitochondria throughout the muscle fibers are activated. A realistic goal for most beginning runners is to slowly build up to running for an hour continuously. Only then are you ready to do real training without becoming sick or injured. It takes a well-organized and efficient internal village to be a healthy runner.
Likewise, there is a threshold level of oxygenating capacity all human beings need for our general health. When my grandfather was in his forties he was diagnosed as having a weak heart and on doctor’s orders he ceased all exercise so as not to stress himself into a heart attack. He became obese, developed diabetes and lived his last uninspired years in front of a television. What a shame he was not one of the lucky ones to encounter Lydiard. In the early 60’s Arthur took his champion-producing theories to a group of cardiac patients. He put this guinea-pig group of paunchy middle-aged men onto the same 100 mile-a-week regimen that he gave the likes of his champions, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg. Rather than keel over and die they got oxygenated and became not too shabby marathon runners.
Inspired by Lydiard’s grassroots application of his training, this past year I helped develop a children’s program, in association with Rod Dixon’s KidsMarathon program, to address the problem of lack of fitness and increasing obesity in elementary school children. Using short teaching points combined with fun running games we aimed to fill the mandate of thirty minutes exercise three times a week that some states are now legislating. www.kidsmarathoncoach.com
It seems absurd to me that children’s innate drive to move in play has been so corrupted by our society that exercise has to be regulated back into their schedules. The education administrators that have instigated policies where recess has been whittled away, P.E has gone indoors, and play-time after school is used up by homework, are no better than the doctor of my grandfather’s day. They have successfully instilled our children with poor habits where the average 6 to 11-year-old watches more than four hours a day of TV, not counting computer time. The message many kids are growing up with is this: life is largely a virtual experience of the mind (while the body is a cumbersome appendage that needs regular feeding.) Their lifestyles give them little chance to lay down their oxygenating-foundation or an exercise ethic which would give them a running start at health and fitness. Instead our children are infected by a new pandemic that few are questioning – sitting still.
Those of my generation or older remember how our mothers used to kick us out the door and we ran around in fields until we got hungry or it got too dark to play. We never got driven to school. Today few kids enthusiastically jump on their bikes and pedal 3 miles to a pond to catch frogs like we used to, let alone walk or bike a mile to school. The world according to exercise is very different for children today and it shows. Consider these alarming statistics: Forty percent of American children aged 5-8 show a risk factor of heart disease and one in four is obese. The number of overweight children has quintupled in the last 30 years. The estimated health care costs to the country due to obesity-related diseases are $100 billion dollars per year and growing. The cost to our kids – oxygen starvation.
On top of that children today face increasing environmental challenges from the outset than I or my grandfather ever did. Industrial wastes responsible for streams of toxic gases and effluents in our water and air systems particularly in urban areas are of grave concern. Not only does pollution reduce the oxygen content of the water and air, but ingested toxins create acidity within the cells that further reduce oxygen uptake. Furthermore, the reciprocal oxygen/carbon dioxide relationship between animals is threatened with the massive deforestation of the rainforests. Top that with a low capacity to utilize reduced oxygen levels in big cities and any person becomes a breeding ground for anaerobic organisms – viruses, fungi, yeast etc. Add a poor diet with any one essential nutrient missing, emotional stress and a lack of sleep, and poor health becomes the norm and it is little wonder that our kids are the first generation that has a life expectancy less than that of their parent’s generation.
My Ingenious Plan
Perhaps the radio interviewer should have asked his question the other way around, “How important is running for breathing?” Today I could have told him that aerobic activity is fundamental to life, and that daily oxygen saturation is more essential than brushing your teeth, that as a civilization we are losing the plot and we need to back up and become oxy-genii, like Lydiard was. Here’s my brilliant suggestion: mandate every able human go outside and play tag or a ball game every morning with each other for half an hour before they sit down and turn on any device. It’s not as bold as marathon training for cardiac patients but it would be a darn good start in the right direction.