With so many athletes wanting to get back to exercise after having COVID-19, I wanted to share my own journey in case anything I try might just help someone else.

You can see all chapters here.

Chapter 3

Earning a Christmas Pudding

Well, the Christchurch Christmas Pudding 10k (https://christmas10k.org.uk/) came and went. It’s a well organised and fun race I love doing when I’m fit and fast, but this year it was mostly a terrible experience for me. Even slower (41:54) than the Boscombe 10k, and there wasn’t even a hill. All I could do for the first 7km was maintain a pace between 04:10 and 4:15min/km (06:40 to 06:50 min/mile), and for that I had to work pretty hard. I decided to pull all the stops out in the final 3km and did pass a few other runners. I ran alongside someone else for two of those kms, which was good for both of us. Mind you, I was making so much noise talking to myself outloud and grunting that I’m surprised I didn’t put him off.

Coming into the final km I noticed someone else coming up behind us and there was no way I was going to let him overtake. I surged again, and it hurt like hell. Every part of my body was screaming at me to stop but I wasn’t letting up. I left my running partner of the previous two kms behind and in my head started to race the other runner that had started to catch me up. I didn’t really know how far behind he was as I dare not look round. I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing. As we rounded the final turn onto the finish straight, which was perhaps 20mm or so, I went into full sprint mode. Now, full sprint mode still wasn’t very fast, but the effort was through the roof. I still don’t know how I kept it up, but I did – and I finished ahead of the runner by 3 seconds. Again, I had to step over and lay down on the grass to catch my breath and recover. Even though the final effort may have earned me a Christmas pudding in the goody bag, I’d had enough of this now.

I lost some of my motivation for running and it started to fall away leading up to and over the Christmas break. I also put on about 3kg (5lbs) in body weight, which then added to my downward spiral of motivation. I did a few easy 5ks in early January and at that point I decided to defer the Manchester Marathon to 2023 and focus on getting better. It was time to start taking action. 

Running Long

Another endurance event I’ve done as a pair, and as part of a team, is Endure 24 Reading. This is a 24 hour race held in Reading in June each year, and starts at midday on the Saturday and ends at midday on the Sunday. The idea is simple: how many laps of the 8k (5 mile) multi-terrain course can you complete in 24 hours?

If you run as a pair or in a team, it’s essentially a relay where you hand over the baton (a wristband) to the next runner when you complete your lap or laps.

In previous years, my running partner Emma and I had done well. We placed 3rd in both 2018 and 2019 in the mixed pairs category, covering 70 miles each. For me, that meant 70 miles in under 11 hours of running, but of course there was also 13 hours of non-running in there as well.

For this year (2022), Emma persuaded me to join her as she aimed to run the event solo. Solo! That’s crazy, I thought. Some of our group of friends had run it solo in earlier years, one of  them even took first place in 2019, and I had seen what it had done to them. But at the time that Emma had asked me, summer of 2021, I was getting my running back on track and I was up for the challenge. Now, 2nd February 2022, post COVID (probably classed as Long Covid for me now) I wasn’t so sure.

Running Based Action

Once I had deferred the Manchester marathon, I put my focus on Endure 24 and what I would need to do to get at least 100 miles in the 24 hours. I bought an excellent book by Jason Koops called Training Essentials For Ultrarunning, second edition and started to plan. As I hadn’t done much other than a 13km run on the 10th Jan and a few 5kms, I knew that getting my distance up was going to be a priority. At the end of that week, I got out and ran a 25km (15.5 mile) run as my start of returning to something.

Now, I’m not recommending you just go out and pile on the distance. I had planned this increase out, and was coming from a place of several years of endurance training and racing, so I knew that if I approached it sensibly I would be fine. I ran a route I know very well, and I pitched the effort to be one I could easily handle, even in my post COVID state. Over the next two weeks I became consistent with running two 16.1km (10 mile) runs per week, at least one shorter run, and a longer run of 29km (18 miles) and another 25km (15 miles) run. The distance was fine, but the pace was slow and the ffort was high. Hills trashed me and I even had to walk a few steps on some of them, particularly on my 16.1km routes on Mondays and Wednesdays.

I planned out each phase between January and June, incorporating endurance and some speed work. I consider speed work crucial to developing all of your energy systems, and expanding the range of your aerobic zone: essentially more pace for the same effort. This was one of my main targets with the Long COVID, as I reasoned that if I could get a wider aerobic capacity, I could increase my pace and still keep under the threshold of of the aerobic/anaerobic transition zone – or atleast only be dipping in and out of it. If you are not familiar with this, I’m writing a post on this shortly so will link to it here as well. My Monday and Wednesday runs were erving as tempo-like runs, so I was ticking that box and was holding out for a couple of weeks before diving into more specific speed sessions.

Non-Running Based Action

After I had refined my plan, I started to look at what I need to do outside of running to help my Long COVID symptoms. How could I use all the applied neurology training that I’d spent two years learning and practicing? How could I apply my wealth of knowledge to my own situation and then to helping others in the same situation?

Before Christmas I had been reading a lot about breathing techniques. I had always been asked by clients about nasal breathing and running, and I had taught some groups on different breathing techniques for running, so I had some insight but was far from knowledgeable on the subject. Nasal breathing and running seemed to be almost impossible to do, other than at very, very easy efforts. Now that I know more about it, it is almost impossible to do at anything other than very, very easy efforts! However, that’s not a reason not to train to nose breath both at rest and while active, as I was about to discover.

Sometime in November or December I signed up for the Advanced Trainer course in the Oxygen Advantage breathing system. Run by Patrick McKeown, the system puts a lot of emphasis on building up a tolerance to carbon dioxide to help with breathing issues for active people and non-active people alike. In particular, endurance athletes or those athletes who work at high intensities, benefit greatly from desensitising their CO2 reaction so they can continue to perform at a high level. This is in tune with what I had learned about breathing from all my Z-Health Practitioner training, but introduced some slightly different explanations and corrective exercises.

Controlled Breathing

As part of my training, I introduced nose breathing and breath holds as taught in Oxygen Advantage. I also started teaching this to some of my coaching clients and definitely found a benefit in terms of quieting my breathing and taking more control. My recovery after taking on some of the hills was certainly quicker, although running the hills themselves still hurts and forces me to walk on occasion.

Combining what I’m learning through Oxygen Advantage with what I already know about breathing and the effects it has on the brain, I’m working on the basis that I’ll find a set of exercises that will help hurry this Long COVID away.

I’ll share some of the exercises as I learn them, starting with the benchmark BOLT score that you can use to measure your progress:

So my current BOLT score is over 10 seconds longer than it was before I did any deliberate breathing practice – so that’s fantastic. But the simple fact that my running pace is not better, clearly points to this type of breathing exercise to be only part of the solution that I need to be putting in place. It is though, a great starting point – and with some targeted practice that I’ll share next time, I’m aiming to create even better control.

Running Form Blueprint

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