You’ve heard me whinge about my cramps.  A string of barbed wire attaches itself up under my right ribs and connects under the  right crest of my pelvis…then a little leprechaun cinches down the wire in an attempt to connect the two parts, shredding all connecting tissues with the wire’s rusty barbs.

It makes me hunch over, and my already-low knee lift becomes a granny shuffle.  I do all the tricks:  try to puff out air violently to blow off CO2, pinch the cramp with my hand while running, relax, etc.  4 out of 5 times, all attempts to cure it end it failure, and I have to stop and stretch things out, altering the session.  I’ve learned not to push through the cramp in workouts, as it leaves me with an abdominal strain lasting 2-5 days.

So without a way to cure it, I developed a huge fear of it in high school (when this whole things first started).  If I didn’t get a cramp, I’d race amazingly…it was a breakout year for me.  But if I got the cramp, I hunched, pinched, shuffled, and eventually had to drop out.  Before each race, anxiety over what the cramp would do left me quiet and miserable.  But once cross country was over and the races got shorter in track, the cramp didn’t have time to show up, so I was safe.

Fear of the cramp also led me to seek preventative methods.  I drank highly oxygenated water.  I took a special multi-vitamin that my doctor said would help (placebo, I later learned).  I meditated.  But what seemed to help more than anything was breathing practice.  Placing my biology text book on my stomach while lying flat on my back, I’d breathe in air so the book would lift up as high as it could go, and then I’d breathe it out so the book would drop down.  But even wasn’t a perfect solution.

Thirteen years later, I’m still getting the cramp during sessions.  Today, for example.  3 x 1200 meters at 3:45, 3:43, 3:39 with 4′ recovery was followed by a 20 minute tempo run.  The 1200’s were great, but half a mile into the tempo, cramp.  I tried my usual tricks, and none worked.  So at the end of the mile loop, I stopped to stretch it out, planning to try again.

Rowland was there and he told me to take 2 minutes rest to straighten it out.  Then he challenged me to synchronize my breathing to my footsteps; breathe in with the same foot every time, and out with the same foot every time.  Three steps to an in breath, three steps to an out-breath, letting the force of impact push the air out of the lungs powerfully, and the in-breath glide smoothly like a reflex.

People have told me that since I was in high school, but I never got it.  But today, I tried it again and on my first mile loop of my tempo, my breathing was flawless and I ran 5:30!  For those of you not following this blog, that’s a 15 second improvement on pace with the same perceived effort!  Second lap was 5:28, and the 3rd was 5:30.  It was even and controlled, and most importantly, no barbed wire in my stomach.

I think I was finally able to grasp the concept because of the swimming I’ve had to do for cross training the past two years.  Synchronized breathing was the very thing I hated most about swimming.  I’d always say, “In running you can just breathe whenever you want!  This blows!”  Turns out those torture sessions prepped me for today’s breakthrough.  I hate to give swimming credit for anything, but credit is due.  Thanks, pool (did I really just say that?  oh my.)