I can now nasal-breath for the first time ...
One hundred and thirty-eight days ago, on July 7th, 2020, our city went into a tight COVID lockdown. We were only allowed out for one hour daily (plus essential trips) and masks were compulsory.
If exercising, masks were optional. Since we propel massive volumes of moist air from our lungs when running past people, I chose to wear a mask. Today restrictions were lifted.
I trail run 5km daily, so that meant I ran 138 days with a mask.
It wasn't what I would call enjoyable, but it did have some benefits. Today, running without a mask for the first time since lock-down, I was able to sustain my pace just breathing through my nose - that's a first.
Lockdown wasn't pleasant but it worked
Our lockdown was draconian, but it worked
Last night the government eased the mask-wearing rules, and we now only need to wear them when we cannot maintain social distancing. Outdoors generally, we need only carry a mask, not wear it.
This lockdown was in response to a second wave. It was tiring and more stressful than the first-wave lockdown, but it worked. It's accurate to say that we conquered the second wave exceptionally well.
Over the last three weeks, we have had no new community-spread COVID cases and no deaths - in a city of 5 million people. For Australia in total we have had 907 deaths since the pandemic began - because of our coordinated lockdown and mask-wearing rules.
Three things I gained from running daily with a mask
What I learnt most by running daily with a mask is that you need to focus on three things to make it bearable:
Ironically, despite these three things being, in a sense, an imposition of running with a mask, the result is an improvement in my running stamina.
1. Maintaining a breathing rhythm
Maintaining a breathing rhythm is essential. Otherwise, the disruption to your airflow becomes very distracting, and you start to feel as if you are not getting enough fresh air. Once this feeling takes hold, it becomes self-fulfilling as you start to panic mildly, and feel faint
By focusing on a breathing rhythm, you can get your brain in tune with your energy needs and your legs (and arms). You can control your ability to slow a little and to bring everything back to serving your pace.
I found that you can develop this control within 10 running-days. Then after 3 weeks, it becomes a well-developed skill.
How is this of benefit?
It is a substantial benefit because in everyday running, I now have the awareness to notice imbalances in oxygen intake quickly, or when running out of sync with my breathing.
Whether doing intervals or hill sprints or 5km or 10km, I am able to get back into tempo, or master a recovery more effectively.
2. Developing body awareness
I tend to think that if you don't have good body awareness then running with a mask may be inadvisable. Wearing a mask demands that you pay attention to how things are working - from your feet to your brain.
A mask exaggerates the daily variations in your energy levels and motivation, and it takes longer to feel your way into the run. You can become distracted by the mask and not pay attention to a new twitch in your knee. That could be disastrous further along the trail.
The benefit of the mask is that my body awareness is better than before, and I am more aware of which bits need some gentle nursing along the way, and also what type of run I should do on the day.
Although I say that I run 5km every day, that's shorthand.
Running the same way every day is a recipe for injury, at last at my age (73) it is. I vary from 4km to 10km daily. Over the first 1km my body awareness tells me the story of my run for the day. That's why high body awareness is so important.
3. Running injury-free as a goal
Since I started running daily, I have focused on running injury-free. For me, it is the only way to keep it up. When I ran only 2 days a week I had injuries, mainly from pushing too hard.
Running with a mask shone more of a light on running injury-free because the mask exacerbates weaknesses. If you push too hard, you can lose concentration. If you get distracted by messy breathing, then you can find yourself not paying attention to the next bend or tree roots or sand traps, and in an instant, you injure yourself.
The benefit of having worn a mask is that I am now very conscious of not pushing too hard and in maintaining high body awareness.
What happened when I ran without a mask for the first time?
Today I ran without a mask for the first time in 139 days.
It was great. For the first time ever, I was able to breathe in through my nose - not partially using my mouth.
I've always had trouble getting enough air through my nose when running, not helped by having my nose kicked out of shape when playing Rugby. Surgery helped, but I've always struggled to not open my mouth when running.
As I ran today, at about my normal pace, I could breathe in mostly through my nose. I'm not sure how important that is, although some experts say that it helps a lot.
What I experienced seems similar to the outcome of using training masks, as boxers use, for instance. That is a stronger diaphragm and more efficient muscular utilisation of oxygen.
Looking forward to running 10km without a mask
I hope that we don't have to revert wearing masks again, but at least I've been able to make the most of the opportunity.
Yesterday I ran a 10km trail with the mask. I'm looking forward to running it again this weekend without a mask - I expect to find it noticeably more comfortable. I don't enjoy running 10km, but perhaps now I'll find it not so punishing.
Every cloud has a silver lining!
Good luck, keep running
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