On Breathing

So, I’m at altitude right now. As you may know, the partial pressure of oxygen at altitude is about half that at sea level. To compensate for that issue, the human body takes on short term and long term adaptions. The long term adaptions (decreased lactic acid production, increased hematocrit, mitochondria and aerobic enzyme production) are super gucci for athletes. That’s why we’re here, after all. Altitude is basically legal doping. The short term effects, however are less desirable. They’re also the leading source of emergency room visits in Park City, Utah and most clearly defined by hyperventilation. That is, breathing really hard.

This is what we call pain face.
This is what we call pain face.

When I was about ten, I started having trouble breathing in and around exercise. After soccer games, light jogs, the Super Bowl, I had a nasty, raspy cough and needed a sec to catch my breath. At first, my parents assumed I had a classic case of the waddles. You know, when chubby little kids first begin to exercise, they kind of have to waddle, catch their breath, waddle and catch their breath. That was me, with my glorified baby fat, waddling. But I never quite caught my breath.

After a year involved in sport, when we could no longer blame the condition on my athleticism (or lack thereof), we (by we I mean my parents and other certified physicians) diagnosed my asthma. Not normal asthma, just exercised induced. Exercise induced, and cold induced and allergy induced. And pollution induced. But, not regular asthma. Exercised induced asthma.

At first, I felt proud of my condition. It was the first time something innate within me was recognized as connected to athletics. “I don’t have regular asthma,” I’d tell the poor slobs huddled around their inhalers on the playground. “Mine’s exercised induced.” As if it had been induced by the sheer volume of activity I had taken on, not my bodies inability to process it.

Then I started Nordic skiing and my perspective on breathing changed. First of all, everyone in Nordic skiing seemed to have E.I. asthma (this was in 2005, before the folks at USDA proved that albuterol inhalers do exactly zero for people who don’t actually have the condition). Second of all, there was a weird social stigma around breathing really hard in workouts. Like, we love participating in the most challenging sport on the planet, but we want everyone to think that it’s…easy.

See that smile? That's the "I'm really tired but trying to look like I'm totally calm and halving fun" smile
See that smile? That’s the “I’m really tired but trying to look like I’m totally calm and having fun” smile

That’s how I perceived it, anyway. Maybe it was because the winter is so quiet. Perhaps the silence of the snow insulated forest juxtaposed against my heaving made its excess all the more clear. Either way, when I joined the sport I became starkly aware of my oxygen intake and began to rebel against my ailment.

This is the phase we call denial. And, for whatever reason (likely my being the spawn of two physicians and biologically coded to rebel against my parents), I have always had the tendency to deny medical treatment. Low iron? Naw, just eat more steak. Sinus infection? Probably allergies. Asthma? I’m just out of shape.

Thus began a years long battle between me and my prescriptions. Some months were good months, I remembered my supplements and inhalers every night, right along with my floss. Others weren’t. I considered the medical accouterments to be an insult to my athletic ability. Through it all, something in my training subconscious kept on reminding me not to breath too hard, not to show that weakness.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, during a [capitol, bold] HARD session, my teammate Jessie (my inspiration for all things energy and sparkle) blasted past me in a wave of puffs and exhalations audible from miles away. Those of you who know her, know that she can ski. Chick can also breathe. She exercises with full capacity the in-slow-out-hard method all asthmatics learn about in the pulmonology lab, where the athlete takes in deep, gentle breaths before forcefully whipping them back out to clear her lungs, eliciting a thunderous gust usually accompanied by a wheeze.

Jess, however, pays no mind to the sound. Her focus is on getting her body up (down, around) the hill the fastest, which she does quite well. For the first time in a long time, I stopped holding my breath and went for it. Turns out, cross country skiers build up pretty sizable cardiovascular systems, and things are easier when we use them (you know, oxygen and arteries and all that).

USSA Nordic photo

For some of you reading this, those who haven’t already clicked out of the window to take a buzz feed quiz or check your Facebook, the last 740 words may seem trivial. “You’re a cross country skier,” you say, “Of course you breath hard. What’s the big deal?” You’re right. It should be that simple…it is that simple, if there’s any physiological reaction with which Nordic skiers relate, it’s respiration.

That’s not what I’m getting at.

But why is it, when you attend a beginner’s yoga class, nine times out of ten the instructor has to coax the participants into taking part in pranayama (aka snoring breath)? Why, when athletes first try a new skill, or technical speed, do we hold our breath? Why, when we pass coaches on the side of the trail, the people who we should trust to be making us go as fast as we can, do we try to sound quiet?

Because breathing is a measure of comfort. It’s the only visceral body function that you can voluntarily regulate, so if you’re trying to over or under breathe, it means you’re trying to control your body, trying to control your environment, rather than just letting it do its thing. Mindfulness is important, but in athletics, so is letting the dog run.

The challenge is finding the balance between the two, knowing when it’s time to take a calm deep breath, and when to surrender control to the body you’ve trained. As for me, I’m back on my prescriptions and following my coaches’ sentiments that “there’s no shame in breathing hard.”

So, if you’re out on the trail and you hear a shameless puffing, rest assured that while all visual physical signs may say otherwise, on some level, I’m comfortable.




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