Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I thought I’d write about something a bit different, still about science, but of another kind. When I was sixty-three, I had the curious experience of getting my heart and lungs and all tested to the max by the doctors. They shot my veins full of drugs and made way cool movies of how the blood was pumping around my heart, and other fun pursuits.
They also gave me a full-stress treadmill test. It started out moving slowly, and on the flat. No problem, I kept up. Then they jacked both the angle and the speed up a bit. I kept up. And after a short time, they did the same again, increased both the angle and the speed. Still, I kept up. After a few more rounds of ever-increasing intensity, I was almost running up what seemed like the side of Mount Everest.
But I kept up.
I mimed flexing my bicep, bending my elbow, and lifting a glass to my lips …
“No, seriously”, she said, “do you work out at the gym?”. I admitted that no, I didn’t go to the gym … and I also didn’t run or exercise at all. Why was she asking?
“Your metabolic score on the treadmill”, she said, “we only ever see that high a score on twenty-year-old guys who are firefighters or cops or bodybuilders.”
I could have told her why I was able to get that high a score, but it wasn’t the time, so I just laughed and went on. Anyhow, there’s a curious story behind my ability, and this seems like a good time to tell it.
When I was about twenty-seven, I spent about a year in Hawaii in training as a psychotherapist. Yeah, I know, who would have guessed? And I spent many, many hundreds of hours working with and assisting lots of clients during that time. Anyhow, about a year later I was swimming in the pool at Laney College, in Oakland, California. I was working on my Red Cross Lifesaving Certificate, but I was having trouble with the distance swimming. I could swim fine, but I always ended up panting and out of breath after only a few high-speed laps of the pool.
One day, it all changed. Who should I run into at the pool but an ex-client from Hawaii. Talk about a surprise, we weren’t even in the same state as when we’d known each other, and he wasn’t a student at Laney. I have no idea why he was there. He was never all that coherent, and that day was no exception. He tried to tell me what was going on, but it was hard to follow.
Somehow I got to talking about my difficulty with swimming distances. He watched me swimming for a while, and then he waved me over to the side of the pool. “I know what you’re doing wrong”, he said, and he told me how to fix it.
So I tried what he said, and to my astonishment I found that I could just swim and swim and swim! I was totally blown away, I’d never done anything like that. I thanked him profusely, he walked out the door … and I’ve never seen him again in my life.
I showered and dressed … and then on a whim, I decided to run the two miles back to my home.
To understand what that meant, you need to know that I hated, hated, hated track in high school. They wanted me to run a mile, and after the first of four laps my tongue was hanging out, I was panting to the max, and totally out of breath. I despised running, and I never, ever ran unless I had to. So for me to suddenly decide to run the two miles from Laney back to my place in Oakland, that was a shock to me.
I started out, not knowing what to expect … and I ran the two miles home, and when I got there, I wasn’t even breathing hard.
So … what was it that the half-crazy guy told me about my swimming that made such an instant difference in my stamina.
He said “You’re not breathing out enough.”
He explained that particularly when we’re swimming, but also with any exercise, people usually end up panting, taking very rapid, shallow breaths. We focus on breathing in, on forcing more air into our lungs. He said that the way to break that habit was simple—when you start running short of air, don’t mess with the in-breath, just breathe out for one count longer.
He pointed out that when we swim or run, we usually fall into a pattern. With me, when I swam I breathed out and then took an in-breath with every alternate stroke of my arms. He said when I ran short of air, there was no need to mess with the in-breath—what I had to do was just add one more beat to the out-breath. So for example, if I was running, I was in the habit of breathing in for two steps and out for two steps. When I started running out of breath, I needed to lengthen my out-breath to three steps … and then if that wasn’t enough, lengthen the out-breath to four steps, and so on.
And that was it. There’s no need to make any alteration to the in-breath, we’re all really good at that part. Filling up the lungs isn’t the problem, it’s emptying the lungs.
And from that day to this, I don’t run out of breath. I just breathe out one beat longer, and I keep going. That’s the reason why at the age of sixty-three, I finished my treadmill test breathing deeply, very deeply … but just like some young guy who does pushups and runs laps all day, I wasn’t out of breath at all. I could have kept it up for a while longer.
Will this have the same effect on you? Heck, I don’t know. It was a gift that was bestowed on me by a slightly mad man I’d once cared for and had tried to help, who reappeared in my life for a single afternoon, apparently for that one purpose … all I can do is pass it on in the same spirit of joyous abandon. I only wish someone had been around to tell me about this back when I was in high school … so if you’re interested in catching your own breath, think of it as science, do the experiment, and report back.
My best to everyone,