As I awoke one morning from a troubled dream, I found myself with winged feet.
September 18, 2009 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Runningfilter: A minor miracle of transformation. I could barely run at all, but last night I ran 2 miles. Why might this have happened, and have you ever had a similar experience?

In late April or early May, I started a run/walk couch to 5K program. As I progressed, I was repeatedly disappointed with my results and frustrated by setbacks. For some reason, I could not run for more than 6 minutes, tops, even after being on the program for several months. After 6 minutes, and more often, 4 minutes, my chest would feel like it was going to explode, and I would run out of breath. This continued happening no matter how many times I ran a week. In addition to that, I kept getting shin splints and the pain would keep me out of the program for days at a time. Finally, I said fuck it, gave up running, and joined Crunch.

That was in late July. Yesterday night, I wanted to work out but didn't want to go to the gym, so I decided to try running again. I stepped out the door and started jogging at a medium pace. Five minutes in, I realized I had been running for five minutes. "Hmm," I thought. "This is interesting. Last time I ran, I couldn't make it four minutes without a problem, but I just passed five, and I'm feeling fine." Ten minutes in, I thought the same thing. Fifteen minutes in, I was amazed. I thought "let's try and see if I can make it to 20". Twenty-five minutes later, I stopped running. Not because I felt bad, but because I didn't want to push my luck. I was not heaving and gasping for breath. In fact, I felt great. I checked when I got home, and I ran around two miles. And my shins felt fine.

I have never run a mile in my life. Not even in gym class. In high school, I weaseled my way out of the dreaded Mile. Knowing I was allergic to dandelions, I rubbed a big bouquet of them on my face and purposely suffered an asthma attack. (true story!) The last time I tried running, in July, I couldn't make it four minutes. I couldn't make it around the track at the park. And I would have gotten shin splints almost immediately.

What gives? It was like waking up and discovering I could fly. Two miles! I wasn't exhilarated til much later, after I stopped being confused. What could have possibly happened in those two months?

Here is my list of possible factors in this miraculous transformation:

1) I quit smoking (i was a light smoker, a pack every 2 weeks or so) in March of 2009. However, ten years ago when I did not smoke, I had similar shortness of breath when running, so I do not think smoking is the only issue. But, perhaps my lungs have repaired themselves more since July.

2) I suffer from allergies and I live with a cat who exacerbates them. In August, discovering that my lungs were working at a much diminished capacity, my allergist put me on Allegra and a nasal inhaler and I banished the cat from my bedroom. This has greatly improved my sleep (I used to wake up coughing every night). Perhaps this has helped my breathing.

3) I make it to the gym at least twice a week, sometimes three times, and when I'm really good, four. I have been for the last couple weeks training on an elliptical machine on a pretty grueling setting. Perhaps this was the conditioning that got me in good enough shape to run for over 20 minutes.

4) I have radically altered my diet to be pretty low cal. This started in late June if I remember correctly. For the most part, I only eat vegetables, yogurt, and low cal grains during the day, then a sensible dinner.

5) When I was running the Couch to 5K program, I obsessively checked my stopwatch and flicked from mp3 to mp3 on my iPhone. This time, I put on a nice long mixtape and didn't worry about time or changing tracks. I just settled into the rhythm of the run, and was startled when I happened to notice how long it had been. Perhaps I reduced the stress factor, and was able to relax and just run.

I can't wait to try and repeat this experiment. But I'm still baffled as to how I did it. Has anything like this ever happened to any of you before? Do you have any ideas how it might have happened to me?
posted by Lieber Frau to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You have plenty of your own ideas about how it happened, and they all seem likely contributors--improved lung function, improved strength, improved focus, less "attachment" to success. Be sure to recover well, and then enjoy your next run. Congrats.
posted by Mngo at 10:24 AM on September 18, 2009

Dean Karnazes had a similar experience.
posted by TomMelee at 10:26 AM on September 18, 2009

"my chest would feel like it was going to explode, and I would run out of breath."

This sounds like exercise induced asthma, which may now be plausibly controlled by your Allegra/nasal inhaler/ and better fitness from going to the gym.

Enjoy! I run 4 times a week, but that was totally impossible before I had good control over exercise induced asthma.
posted by u2604ab at 10:27 AM on September 18, 2009

Sounds like you've lost some weight via the diet, increased your capacity for cardio with the elliptical training, improved your lung capacity with the inhaler and the cat, and took care of the psychological aspect of hearing yourself breathe with the music. You may have been overtraining before, which reduces performance. Plus, at least for me, athletic improvement doesn't come incrementally but usually spikes and plateaus.

So, it sounds like you've answered your own question?
posted by downing street memo at 10:28 AM on September 18, 2009

Seconding the possibility of asthma. What you describe in the chest sounds exactly like what I experience when I don't take my albuterol inhaler beforehand.
posted by jclovebrew at 10:46 AM on September 18, 2009

what everyone else said, plus your shins splints probably healed. it does not sound like you gave them time to before. this time, if you continue, try to ease into it again or it will come back.
good luck!
posted by annoyance at 10:49 AM on September 18, 2009

Seems like asthma / allergies / smoking and poor cardiovascular fitness were limiting you before and you've removed some of those barriers.
posted by ghharr at 10:50 AM on September 18, 2009

I make it to the gym at least twice a week, sometimes three times, and when I'm really good, four. I have been for the last couple weeks training on an elliptical machine on a pretty grueling setting. Perhaps this was the conditioning that got me in good enough shape to run for over 20 minutes.

This is probably a good answer to your question, congratulations
posted by Think_Long at 10:54 AM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the answers so far. I had suspected exercise induced asthma when I was having such trouble with the Couch to 5K program, but convinced myself I was just being a wuss and that poor cardiovascular health was more likely the culprit. I am definitely interested in hearing more opinions and more of the community's stories.
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:59 AM on September 18, 2009

Agreed that all the things you mention probably contributed to your breakthrough - congratulations.

That said... if you do feel like you want to jump back in to the C25K program, there is a free podcast that gives you verbal cues (set to music) for all the pace changes, so there's no obsessive stopwatch checking. From the way you describe your progress, you'd be capable of picking up somewhere in the middle now... probably week 5, if I remember correctly? Following the rest of the C25K regimen now might also keep you from pushing too hard in your newfound (and justified) excitement.
posted by somanyamys at 11:00 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing exercise induced asthma, maybe with a touch of chronic bronchitis. Managing allergens and cutting out smoking is definitely helping, and even your new diet might have helped--- lots of people have a wheat allergy without knowing it.

Your exhilaration is exactly the same as mine was after the first time I tried albuterol and discovered now I can actually run until my legs are tired. Man, what a great feeling.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:13 AM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Somanyamys, I appreciate the link and the advice, and I think I will take it. Now that I can run, I want to do it right so I don't sideline myself again.

Qxntpqbbbqxl, I did not mention this above, but I have gotten sick with bronchitis 1-3 times a year since I was a kid, so I think you are likely correct.

And I welcome the wonderful news that others in the MeFi community have experienced this exhilaration firsthand.
posted by Lieber Frau at 11:37 AM on September 18, 2009

My epiphany was "shorter steps = more distance". May seem kind of silly/obvious but it was the same kind of "why haven't I stopped yet" breakthrough feeling.
posted by samsm at 12:13 PM on September 18, 2009

Seconding "spikes and plateaus" as a contributor. I've found that when I have several bad runs in a row, feeling blah, unable to increase my distance, etc., that that's not the time to quit. Because soon, I'll get to that one perfect day where everything feels right and I have the most awesome, enjoyable run.

I tell myself that the bad running days are the days when I'm really gaining ground physically, that prepare me to have the good running days. I'm sure that's not technically true, but it makes me feel better. :)
posted by greenmagnet at 12:55 PM on September 18, 2009

All of your reasons sound plausible. Another psychological factor that could have come in to play was that now that you are'nt on any official running regimine such as Couch to 5k, you felt no pressure to be at any defined level - you were free!
posted by WeekendJen at 1:46 PM on September 18, 2009

Exercised induced asthma (EIA) is a beast. I never enjoyed running the mile in school, precisely because it felt like my lungs were on fire after a lap. Judging by my treatment in public schools, coaches are trained to encourage you to work through the pain, as if the lungs were muscles that need to be broken down and repaired... stronger.

Wikipedia says the root causes of EIA are unknown. I've seen news reports on studies saying that weight might be a factor, but I'm no medical researcher and we all know how science in the news goes. It could be a related dietary factor, or it just could be plain wrong.

Certainly, if your lungs are the problem, improving everything related to breathing will help. Allergies, and smoking will likely harm your ability to breathe. Allergens vary over time of year, perhaps this part of allergy season is not as personally taxing. Even taking a slower pace can reduce demand for oxygen; if your training regimen calls for some sprinting, that can be the straw on the camel's back that is your lungs.
posted by pwnguin at 1:51 PM on September 18, 2009

Funny, I've never heard of exercise-induced asthma, but it sure explains a lot. I've never been good at running long distances—one of the reasons I did cross-country in HS was because I thought with repeated exposure I could somehow break through the crushing-chest feeling I used to get when we ran in gym. For me it happened in much the same way: not as a gradual progression, but all-of-a-sudden one day I was doing our practice run and I simply didn't get tired… like a switch had been turned off.

I unfortunately don't recall what the allergy levels were like that day (it was sometime in the Fall, so probably fairly low). What I do remember was that it was one of the first times I was able to forget about the fact that I was running. I remember I was going slower than I usually ran, and practically the whole time I was staring at my feet in a kind-of quasi-meditative trance. When I competed I had a self-destructive urge to try and run hard straight off the line, which (even if I later slowed down) would invariably do me in. It wasn't until I forced myself to stay slow that I was able to even complete races.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:21 PM on September 18, 2009

That was in late July. Yesterday night, I wanted to work out but didn't want to go to the gym, so I decided to try running again.

The temperature difference between July and mid-September in Chicago is possibly part of the explanation. I'm in Florida, and a ten-degree difference in temperature can make the difference between setting a personal record on a particular distance as opposed to not finishing it at all.

(Plus, all the other good stuff you're doing. Keep it up!)
posted by mikewas at 5:21 PM on September 18, 2009

That happened to me years ago.

I was never able to run more than the distance between 2 or 3 light posts because my lungs burned and my legs got tired. After years of this, I was out walking one nice fall day. I had been taking a twice-weekly step class for about 4 or 5 weeks and keeping up with the class at a novice level, but I still didn't feel very fit.

But on this walk, I tried a little running again. I passed one light post, then another, and another ... and found I had run for a good 15 minutes. I turned around and ran home, sprinting for the last block just because it felt so good. I checked my distance on the map when I got in and found that I had run 5 K.

What worked for me was the additional bit of aerobic fitness from about 8-10 step classes, plus -- the big thing -- running more slowly. I was barely shuffling when I first started passing lamp posts. Running was not effortless, but it was completely doable. And I kept running through deep winter, in minus 30 weather, because I was now A Runner. (And then my knees blew out in the spring, and I stopped running, but yeah, for one brief, shining moment, I was A Runner ...)

I think stopping smoking and dealing with what sounds like asthma was a big additional factor for you, though. Keep it up!
posted by maudlin at 8:14 PM on September 18, 2009

Yeah, a similar thing happened to me.

Tried running and sucked at it. Couldn't go a mile without feeling like I was going to die. So I gave up trying for a few years.

One night, I was away from home, alone and thinking about where my life was going. Deciding at that moment that I needed to get in shape, I went for a run. It must have been midnight. I just put on my shoes and started going.

I got about 30 minutes into it and realized that I wasn't breathing heavy. I wasn't in pain. I wasn't even thinking about what I was doing. I was just running. I felt high and completely aware of myself at the same time. I kept going for another 30 minutes or so and decided to stop. Not because I needed to, but because I was actually a little nervous that something was wrong.

That was about 5 years ago. It's only happened once since then, and nowhere near as intensely.
posted by csimpkins at 8:53 PM on September 18, 2009

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