Teachers often told me to shut my mouth, but this time it was for a different reason.
‘Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose only!’ came the instructions from my P.E. (Physical Education) teacher, as the whole of year four at my Secondary School in Cheltenham were warming up ready for a six-mile cross-country run. I decided to take the advice. After less than a mile of squelching through the muddy and uneven ground of our school’s playing field however, I realised this method of breathing had become very difficult. I started to panic inside as it seemed I was not able to get enough air into my lungs and soon I felt like I was suffocating. I quickly reverted back to my old method of gasping through my mouth - a breathing ‘technique’ which everyone else seemed to be using anyhow. It was after about another five minutes or so, of using this ‘gasping’ breathing method, I became aware that although I didn’t feel the panic of potential suffocation as much, I certainly had lost my running composure and I was starting to lose ground too. Three or so miles into the cross-country run, and positioned perhaps somewhere in the middle of the 150-strong pack - which was stringing out fast - I decided to give the “nose only” method another try. This time the panic sensation was not as intense and I decided to stay with it, but also to slow my speed down just a bit to compensate for the discomfort. (Here I should mention that, although I do have a competitive streak, I generally wasn’t considered to be a good cross-country runner, and probably would not have been chosen to run for the school team!)
Back to the race, and with about two miles to go my ‘nose only’ breathing seemed to be under control. My whole body however, especially my chest area, was still demanding more air than I could easily suck in through my nostrils. Although at the same time, I seemed to have a new-found sense of calm and awareness, plus an inner resolve to increase my speed.
As I could see that many of the other runners around me were starting to flag somewhat, with my new sense of physical power and resolve I felt encouraged to run faster and faster. Excited by my success, I then decided to really start to fight for a higher position. Then, to my own surprise and amazement I started to rapidly overtake some of my classmates whom I thought that I had no chance of beating. As I kept up a seemingly very strong pace, I amazed myself at just how many other runners I was managing to rapidly overtake.
With about a quarter of a mile to go, I noticed my P.E. instructor standing on the side-lines of the grassy lane that we were all running along. He was cheering on and encouraging his pupils. The surprised, but seemingly pleased expression on his face when he saw me virtually sprinting towards the finishing line, told me that I was doing much better than he had expected me to as well.
Out of around 150 runners in the race, I learned that my final position was seventh! This was a real achievement for me and I earned a new level of respect from my classmates and my P.E. teacher.
While everybody around me was doubled up and seeming to be glad it was over, I remember wishing that the race was longer. This was because I knew that I could have done much better. I could feel that I was actually starting to gain strength and speed, especially towards the end.
It was much later on that I came to realise that during this race, my heart began to work much more regularly and efficiently as the external pressure around it was reduced. This, I can now understand, was due to creating a slight vacuum around my heart with the way that I was breathing. This negative pressure (vacuum) environment literally took the pressure off of my heart and allowed it to pump blood much faster.
In summary, these are the reasons I consider that I did so well (for me) on this run;
My heart was able to beat more optimally due to being in a negative pressure environment.
The beating and breathing mechanisms of my heart and my lungs become more in synch with each other.
My lung efficiency improved dramatically as the breath became much more regulated and controlled.
These bodily systems seemed to become almost machine-like. It felt to me like I was a biological locomotive steam engine, with the breathing and pumping of my heart and lungs operating in perfect time with each other. The power generated was then being transferred to my legs and arms, which also began to operate in unison. All of this happening at once gave me an exhilarating whole body experience of optimised performance.
This was my first rememberable experience of how breath and heartbeat can be controlled and aligned to reach optimal physical performance states. It has only been by looking back on this event that I now appreciate the value and significance of it. Many years later on I was to be inspired by my breathing mechanism once again.