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Out of Breath

Posted Oct 17 2008 9:14pm

The " Elements of Effort" is one of my favorite running books. Modeled after Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" as a brief, everyone-should-own on the author's musings on running.  EOE is a compilation of reflections--some a few paragraphs and some longer essays that seem to make a connection with me and my running.  "Shivering" "Gravity" and "Obsessions" are examples of short reflections on topics I feel like I could have written because they are so true to my experiences. 

Often, as I come across one of these gems, I'm amazed that the author, John Jerome, captured my experience, my wonder, my embarrassment, and my joy in running.  One essay hactually explained the answer to a question which puzzled me my entire running life: why is it when I, a trained athlete with a marathoner's endurance and moderate speed, climb several flights of stairs, am I also out of breath? 

It seems unfair.  As I am taking the stairs with a co-worker who is by appearance and by admission not fit, doesn't excercise, why don't I enjoy a smug moment at the top  of the steps when I am breathing effortlessly while my companion is gasping for air?  Instead, we both seem leveled by the task of the climb.  You'd think all my miles on the road, the repeat workouts on the track, and all the cardio intensity would put me at an advantage over gasping and puffing.  Alas, Jerome has an  explanation of this mystery.  He freed my understanding from the grip of doubting my fitness.  He gave me the breakthrough I'd longed for: "Why the hell am I also out of breath when I'm in better health and fitness level than my stair-stepping co-workers?"   The answer, Jerome explains, in one word: "Momentum."  When we run, we are optimizing the energy and momentum unleashed in the past several steps that carries our bodies forward.  When we climb stairs, however, there is no momentum with each upward step.  Instead, there is a pause, a braking effect upon arriving at each higher step.  The heart has to work to pump blood and oxygen to the muscles and the respiratory system accelerates its rate to accommodate each new effort to step upward, to reach, to rest (brake), to lift the trail leg up twice the distance, rest (brake) again, and repeat the effort repeatedly throughout the ascent.

I remember rejoicing in the "good news" of this explanation to my puzzle.  Of course, in the spirit of teaching others, and in a veiled instance of fitness smugness, I seize every chance I get to explain "momentum" to my unfit, stair climbing friends.

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