I was a runner back in high school. Mostly distance. But even as a youth it was easy to delude myself on my level of physical fitness. I remember running a cross country race where I had barely trained for it. We did not have a coach that year so we had to train ourselves as a group. Despite having run cross-country ever since I was 9 years old, I “forgot” what it took to be competitive. Without the external driving force(our coach) it was very hard to max out with speed drills and progressive endurance training. I had just finished a summer of partying and eating McDonald’s regularly so the extra weight and new outlook on life didn’t help things.
I had ran the exact same race several times in the past. I recall watching other races with runners who were falling behind shortly after the initial 3/4 sprint start. I remember the winded looks and trudging bodies that looked like they may collapse at any minute. I never imagined myself in their shoes. I would say to myself, “well at least they were trying.”
Obviously, I spoke too soon. I joined my new cohorts with a vengeance. I didn’t just stop at placing poorer than I ever had. I came in last. No joke. People on the sidelines cheered me on, “Come on West Hill!”. In the moment, I wanted to tell them to go fly a kite. It was extremely difficult not to walk off the course and cry in the bushes because of the level of humiliation that I felt. If I hadn’t heard those few words of encouragement I probably would have.
The real problem was that I already knew the method to the madness. My physical capacity for running was seriously depleted and I found out the hard way. It wouldn’t be the last time, but delusional moments following that episode were not nearly as extreme. I was learning, slowly.
VO2 max and muscle endurance.
We use the word fitness as a descriptor of our physical health. It is a general term and may encompasses many different components. The one measurement of our fitness that relates to our capacity to carry out our daily activities is our VO2 max. It is a measure of our heart, lung and circulatory fitness, in others words, our cardiovascular fitness. More specifically, it is the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize during exercise. Its the critical one that if reduced to a level that is too low, we won’t be able to produce the energy required to get out of bed.
Now let’s take it up (or down) another level. You used to manage the 2 flights of stairs at your workplace but you discontinued that activity because you were working from home. Then you were forced to take the stairs one day and you are stunned by your body’s response. Your head feels dizzy because the level oxygen to your brain has been impacted. Maybe your blood pressure has shot up secondary to your heart’s attempt to supply your body with more oxygen. Your heart is racing and you are out of breath.
You may still have the basic mechanical capacity to do the stairs(i.e. enough strength and joint mobility) but you don’t have the muscle endurance and cardiovascular fitness to support the “sustained” activity.
How to improve your heart and lung fitness.
The best thing about cardiovascular fitness or VO2 max is that it can be improved through physical activity. If you have cardiovascular disease then you may need more guidance but everyone can benefit and make gains.
You need to do something that is beyond your normal level of exertion. You can usually tell if you are accomplishing that by your heart rate and respiratory rate. Of course, if you are seriously deconditioned or have any medical issues you may need to consult with a health professional. If you don’t know, get some help.
Moral of the story
Coming in last was not the worse thing in the world. But I sure felt like crap in more ways than one. It’s so much easier to maintain fitness with a sustainable daily commitment to exercise and/or intentional physical activities that challenge you. If we do that little bit more, everyday, our bodies will adapt appropriately over time.
Figuratively, we need to keep climbing hills everyday to challenge the body to keep up. It naturally wants to decline, and with age, even more so. We need to continue moving towards a higher base camp, higher than the one where we left off. Without activity, we end up progressively going downhill to the lower base camp and eventually we find ourselves below sea level and not even sure how we got there.
Keeping it better than real
Keeping it real will allow you to continue to be able to do all the things you enjoy doing. Knowing that you could do more is even better. Stay in tune with your physical abilities and don’t let them slide. Stay up on the highest base camp possible. There’s no rush to get to the top but don’t inadvertently coast downhill and let the clutch out too soon. Apply the gas gently and progressively. You will be amazed where you can take yourself!
Alright now, let’s GO!