Scrutinizing my chest x-ray, the radiologist asked, “Are you a swimmer?” I replied in the negative (I can and do swim, but I prefer not to), then declared, “but I’m a runner.” He seemed impressed as he pointed to the radiograph. “You have very large lungs,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief. Returning to wellness after a bout of bronchitis, I’d worried what the image might reveal. Research has shown that swimmers’ lungs have higher total lung capacity than non-swimmers and endurance athletes’ (like runners) lungs’ capacities are about ten percent higher than those of the untrained. A Business Insider article lists additional ways running benefits our bodies, it helps with depression, sleep and focusing ability; improves mood, your mind, age-related cognitive decline, the brain’s stress resistance, and cardiovascular health; and reduces your chance of death.
Although I’ve enjoyed running for over 35 years, mostly as an efficient way to keep fit and sustain a sense of positive emotional well-being, I’ve loved it even more since I switched from roads to trails in 2012. That is, until the Coronavirus, when I got stuck in a rut of about-to-end winter maintenance running that dragged on for an entire year. In the ten months since things shut down in Washington state, my life on the trails has consisted of twenty mostly easy trail miles per week. Group runs devolved into once a week 8-milers with the same friend, which was fine, but after a particularly hilly, difficult run together on New Year’s Day, I became verklempt. Having led, navigated, and struggled to sustain a respectable pace, the thought of continuing to do same during future runs with Nina, my ten year’s younger, terrific on the trails local running partner…made me anxious. She assured me that I was doing fine, but it made me realize that even though there are no events to train for, it was time to return to taking things a little more seriously.
The first thing I did was read The Science of Running by Steve Magness, followed by Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, MD. Both books aim to explain everything there is to know about training for elite road and track runners. I’m not part of the target audience. I’ve never run a five minute mile, nor won a race, and the one time I won my division when relatively young, the results didn’t show it. I felt like I was flying during the 1996 Super Run 10K in San Diego, but the mailed race results listed me as a male, while the same-division woman behind me finished first. It didn’t bother me; The mistake couldn’t take away how amazing I’d felt. Now as I approach my upper fifties, nobody would say that I am fast, except maybe with the caveat “for my age.” And I attribute that to the last one standing syndrome: most women my age have given it up by now, often due to an injury. An important reason why I still run is simply because I can. Occasionally, I finish first in my division, but I don’t kid myself. Trail races tend to be small, and older age group wins tend to go to the slightly faster person who happens to show up that day.
As we age and our maximum heart rate decreases, so does our maximum oxygen consumption, which “is the main reason for the decline in exercise performance with age.” Most noticeable to me is the increasing level of discomfort I feel when running hills compared to when I was younger. In Lore of Running, Noakes explains that the brain acts as a “central governor” that tries to keep the body in homeostasis for safety reasons. When something threatens this state, like running too fast in hot weather (which can lead to the body’s core temperature climbing too high), it attempts to counteract the threat by signaling a feeling of fatigue that forces the runner to slow down (Noakes 33, 34). That’s what’s happening to me when I try to run steeper hills at my current fitness level, my brain signals fatigue, which feels uncomfortable, and I slow down. I know that to run faster, I must train faster, which means choosing to endure a higher level of discomfort, which isn’t very fun.
To improve, my goal must be to achieve supercompensation, which Magness describes as “when some sort of training stimulus is applied, there is an initial alarm phase where fatigue occurs and the performance level is decreased. Following this alarm stage, with recovery, there is an adaptation phase where fatigue subsides and adaptation takes place so that there is a supercompensation where performance increases to a level above that which it was before the training stimulus was applied” (Magness 122). His full list of manipulators includes speed, recovery, rep length, terrain, volume, density, stuff, surges and feedback manipulations (Magness 188). Many factors affect a runner’s efficiency at converting oxygen consumption into forward motion, which is known as running economy.
I decided to manipulate climb (by increasing the number of hills I run and their steepness), speed, and add “stuff” (like speedup/intervals). In addition, I found some new trails (at Galbraith Mountain) and added accountability by joining an exercise tracking app. One month in, I can already feel the difference and I know that as long as I choose to endure discomfort, I’ll continue to improve. Some day, the quarantine will end and we will return to a new normal that’s better than the current one. In the meantime, I plan to just show up (on the trails), train with purpose, run–simply because I can, and agree wholeheartedly with the Lore of Running author’s assertion, “While I will never run like the elite athletes…I can still devote the same effort to my more mundane talents as they do theirs, and so attempt to derive as much pleasure and reward from running as they do” (Noakes x).