Category Archives: 2-Exercise

Life’s Too Short to Read Bad Books

Photo by: practicalowl

It took me a long time to learn this lesson. If I bought a book or picked one out from the library, I felt an obligation to read it, even if reading the book was not an enjoyable experience.  I had to train myself to believe that it was OK to put down a less than enjoyable book.

If within a few chapters the book hasn’t grabbed you, it’s not going to suddenly come alive in your hands. As long as I give the book a fair chance, then I have permission to put the book down and try another one. I don’t recall any Eureka moment, where I came to this conclusion. Rather, over time, I had to face up to the fact that Life is Too Short to Read Bad Books.

A bad workout plan or exercise regime should be treated the same way. Again, you have to give it a fair shot, like certain books some programs take a little commitment before they really get going. And, you have to pay attention and keep up with the plot. But, if you find that every time you’re going to the gym it’s a grind, it’s time to find another program. Seriously, like reading a good book before bed, going to the gym should be something that you look forward to. Life’s Too Short for Workouts to be Drudgery.

And, if you’re not mindful, drudgery can creep into the system. Here’s a personal example. Before I started reading and listening to conversations between people super serious about fitness and way smarter than me, I’d never heard of a back off week…lowering the training load for a block of time.

One such super smart person is Dan John. This fall I started experimenting with training inspired by Dan’s One Lift a Day program. Dan maps out a four week plan.  Each week the weights and reps change. What’s week four look like? Week Four: Off!

At first glance, week four was the weirdest thing about this program. I had never intentionally taken a week off. Once I decided to give the program a fair chance, a strange thing happened. Knowing that I was working toward week four, I worked harder during the other weeks.

To my surprise, during the first days of week four, resting felt natural. My mind and body welcomed the opportunity to forget about getting to the gym. Then, about five days into week four, I was really looking forward to cycling back into a new week one. So much so, that during ensuing turns through this cycle, I have had a couple of cheat days during week four, where I went to the gym to work on form or experiment with new exercises, nothing strenuous, just having fun in the gym.

Like a good book, this particular program has grabbed my attention and I am enjoying it to the fullest. Just as people have different tastes in books, they have different tastes in exercise and exercise programs. A backoff week may not be for you. Like my friend Nick Horton, you might be a Bulgarian at heart gradually pushing and adapting the body to new levels of stress every day…with No Days Off!

There is no accounting for taste, which is why I have adopted a general rule against giving books as gifts. I don’t want anyone feeling like they have an obligation to slog through a book that I thought they would love, but it turns out they hate. There is no excuse for not facing up to the reality that life is too short to waste your time on a joyless obligation to finish something that is meant to be enjoyable, but isn’t.

My advice, you can’t read them all, so don’t waste your time on books you don’t enjoy and given the wide variety of choices for exercise and strength training, don’t waste time on programs that don’t grab your interest or that have become drudgery.

My Workouts – November

Photo by: mangloard

A New Routine

Finally back in the gym with a decent level of comfort in the shoulder.  I’ve been experimenting a bit over the previous four weeks and came up with a routine that I will be playing with.

It breaks down as follows: (1) Four days of work per week for three weeks. Week four is a rest week. Tues, Th, Sat, and Sun work for me.  (2) The first three days are focused on one major weight training exercise and a secondary training exercise (read as vanity, fixing a weakness, or fun exercise).  Day 4 is all about conditioning. (3) Each week the sets and rep count for the primary exercise change as follows – Week 1: 7 Sets of 5 / Week 2: 6 sets of 3 /  Week 3: 3 sets 5, 3, 2 / Week 4: rest. (4) I keep the secondary exercise at 3 sets of 10. (5) I end each session with 7 minutes of cardio (bike, jump rope, even the elliptical machine).

Right now, my major and minor exercises are:

Tues: Bench and Bat Wings and 7m of Cardio

Th: Rows and Hip Thrust and 7m of Cardio

Sat: Squat and Neck harness and 7m of Cardio

Sun: Travis tries to kill me with his conditioning workouts (stay tuned for a future post on this).

I’ve been consciously resting between sets (3m) and not rushing through these workouts.

Inspiration from failure

Inspiration for this set up came from a failed attempt at Dan John’s one lift a day program.  I really enjoy focusing on one lift during a gym session. However, I was having to schedule gym time at odd hours to make it there 6 days out of 7. I also found that on TKD days it was too much.  That is, I felt demotivated during one or the other session. So, I took his approach to reps and sets, picked three big (major) exercises that I was interested in and scaled back to 3 days with weights.  I added focused (minor) exercises that applied to specific areas I wanted to work on: bat wings to help with my shoulder, neck work to help with sparring, and hip thrusts for some extra glute work. I split minor exercises away from similar major exercises (no hip thrusts on a squat day or bat wings on a row day). And added a little bit of cardio at the end, thinking this might help with recovery.

Customize IT

This set up leaves plenty of room for customizing.  Not a fan of bench, then do a clean and push press instead. Prefer dead lifts to squats, no problem.  Mix and match as fits your needs. The set and rep changes eliminate boredom and there is room for fun and vanity with the minor exercises. The cardio is kind of new (I figure I get plenty with TKD), but I’ve been enjoying it. Measuring progress should be pretty straight forward as you just compare your numbers from the previous month or after the rest week, check your two rep max.

what do you think?

I’m starting my second four week session. The progress and my motivation on these workouts remain positive. Nothing’s perfect and I’m sure there are plenty of holes in the above.  Let me know if you see obvious errors that need to be addressed or have thoughts or comments for improvement.

Destruction and Creation in Sport and Physical Culture


John Boyd was an American thinker. The fact that he was an Air Force Colonel beloved by Marines gives you some idea of what a paradoxical character he must have been. As 40 second Boyd, he was the fighter pilot instructor at Nellis Air Force Base who could wax the tail of any opponent in less than 40 seconds. As an engineer, he developed the Energy-Maneuverability theory, which for the first time allowed the flight characteristics and capabilities of existing aircraft to be compared and the performance of prospective designs to be predicted. When he “retired”, his cross-disciplinary studies led to three major breakthroughs: Destruction and Creation, the OODA Loop, and Patterns of Conflict a “brief” that took Boyd a minimum of five hours to deliver and changed modern American military strategy.


DESTRUCTION AND CREATION is the foundation of Boyd’s theoretical work and it is this piece that I want to draw to your attention.  Destruction and Creation deals with the creative process in a fundamental way.  For Boyd, the creative process begins with an observation of existing domains (mental patterns or concepts of meaning).  Domains are made up of constituent parts. If we shatter the correspondence between each domain and its individual parts, we can keep the parts and discard the domains. From this pile of parts, we can select and coordinate items that fit together to create a new domain (provided of course, that we don’t reassemble them in a fashion that merely recreates previous domains).  Then, we test the new domain for soundness, as not all creative ideas are sound ideas when tested against observed reality.

Boyd used the following example as an illustration of destruction and creation, forging a new domain from constituent parts of existing domains.


You are on ski slope with other skiers — retain this image.

You are in Florida riding in an outboard motor boat – maybe even pulling water skiers — retain this image.

You are riding a bicycle on a nice Spring day — retain this image.

You are a parent taking your son to a department store and you notice he is fascinated by the toy tractors or tanks with rubber caterpillar treads — retain this image.


Pull skis off ski slope; discard and forget rest of image.

Pull outboard motor out of motorboat; discard and forget rest of image.

Pull handlebars off bicycle; discard and forget rest of image.

Pull rubber treads off toy tractor or tanks; discard and forget rest of image.


Skis, outboard motor, handlebars, rubber treads.


What do we have?

Photo by: branewphoto

Examples from Physical Culture: MMA and CrossFit

The early days of MMA were a carnival freak show.  It’s primary purpose was to promote the Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu system by demonstrating that BJJ was superior to all other martial arts and hand to hand combat systems.  In creating a forum where practitioners of different combat sports repeatedly pitted their skills against one another, inadvertently, the Gracies created an event which shattered the domains of traditional martial arts and combat sports.

Over a relatively short period of time, you could watch the weaknesses and strengths of various traditional arts being exposed, broken down into their constituent parts.  The athletes added the skills, strategies, and training methods that were effective and ignored those that were ineffective. They synthesized new systems designed to make them more competitive. A new domain was born. MMA no longer refers to an event where a Judo practitioner competes against a Jiu Jitsu practitioner.  In fact, now, this idea seems ridiculous.  MMA is its own domain.

Over a similar time frame, CrossFit has had an impact on physical culture. The CrossFit approach breaks down various sports and associated training methods, then synthesizes workouts of the day which include aspects of callisthenics, resistance training, gymnastics training, Olympic lifting, sprinting, high intensity interval training, etc. The popularity of CrossFit has surged.

Observation and Instability

Boyd points out that even particularly stable domains are not perfectly consistent with observable reality. In fact, as we refine our observation, the mismatch becomes more glaring.  To resolve the error (in our mental pattern), we resort to analyzing (un-structuring) various domains. Opening up these domains gives us the constituent parts needed to synthesize a new domain.  As we test this new domain, our feedback will indicate whether or not our new mental pattern correlates well with observed reality.  Low correlation patterns are discarded, as they are not useful. If there is a high correlation, then the domain is relatively stable and the mental pattern is useful.  But, with further observation, even the slightest disparity between a particular domain and reality will lead to instability and the need to develop a new domain. Thus, as Boyd sees it, the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure repeats toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.  This is an elegant idea, which I hope I haven’t damaged too badly by my description.

We can see that this process took place within MMA at a fairly rapid rate and has since slowed. At this point, slight modifications are being made, but in general, as a sport, this new domain is relatively stable. (Note: Outside of the domain of sport, MMA has some obvious weaknesses. If the goal is to visit violence on another human being, then MMA training is not the most efficient system for this. If the goal is to defend oneself against real world violence, then the MMA practitioner will face the same problem encountered by martial arts film-makers through the years: What does the hero do, when faced with a gun or multiple opponents?)

As the above process dictates, MMA as a domain will be unstructured again in the future and resynthesized in a new form. My prediction is that this will be the result of fans demanding more entertaining fights. Something similar happened in boxing in the late 19th century, with the move away from bare knuckles and the adoption of the Marquess of Queensberry rules. (Here the social impetus was a move away from the base desire simply to win toward a greater emphasis on the importance of playing by the rules.)

The unstructuring process for CrossFit is progressing more slowly.  Part of this may be attributed to the fact that, at the higher levels, the community shuns those that question the methods within the domain.  Consequently,  key innovators leave the community to explore ideas outside of the CrossFit domain. Mark Twight, Mark Rippetoe, Dan John, Greg Everett, and Robb Wolf form a Who’s Who of notables with public splits from CrossFit HQ. Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether CrossFit meets their stated goal of providing broad general fitness, as questions frequently arise about whether the program does more harm than good.  Think CrossFit induced rhabdomyolysis as the most publicized example. Remember, low correlation patterns will be discarded.

But, much as the Gracie’s inadvertently unstructured traditional martial arts, the CrossFit games may be the mechanism that kick-starts the process of unstructuring and restructuring CrossFit.  To better compete at the games athletes are tearing the CrossFit domain and other training domains down to their constituent parts and synthesizing programs that correlate to success in competition. For practitioners and fans of CrossFit expect a new domain to emerge.

Control Mechanism

Boyd concludes Destruction and Creation by noting how this process oscillates between disorder and order.  Unstructuring begins, because there is a recognized weakness in the current thought pattern as it relates to achieving a real world goal.  Left unchecked, unstructuring leads to higher and higher levels of disorder. However, because achieving a particular goal requires increased order, there is a necessary shift away from analysis toward synthesis of a new system.  This shift reverses the trend, away from disorder toward order. Paradoxically, then, an entropy increase permits both the destruction, or unstructuring, of a closed system and the creation of a new system to nullify the march toward randomness and death. For Boyd this paradox results in a harmony between destruction and creation that drives and regulates a dialectic engine. It is this engine that creates new mental patterns that allow us to shape and be shaped by our environment, whether that environment is on the mat, in the gym, or some other aspect of life.

Balancing the Stress Account: Advice From Nassim Taleb and a Navy SEAL

“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” ~ Mark Rippetoe. (Thanks Anna)

It’s 0300.  I just woke up and can’t get back to sleep. My shoulder hurts.  The dog is having trouble breathing.  The landlord called yesterday. He wants his apartment back. I have a full plate at work and new projects rolling in. But, that doesn’t keep the bureaucracy, in its stumbling rush toward austerity, from eliminating my position, which means a transfer is in the works. I’ve moved a lot in my life, enough to know that it’s hard work.

Contingency Accounts

I’m lying there awake and I’m a little bit pissed that I’m not taking better care of myself.  The borked shoulder and a joyless mechanical workout program already have me demotivated. TKD is temporarily moved to a less than ideal space, so making excuses for not going is easy. I’m not eating as much as I should. I just don’t have the appetite. Oh, and how is not getting enough sleep going to help?

As I’m gnawing away on this new problem, I remember reading a 2008 interview of Nassim Taleb.  At the beginning of the interview, the reporter explains that every year Taleb puts a few thousand dollars aside for contingencies – parking tickets, tea spills – and at the end of the year he gives what’s left to charity. The money is gone from day one, so unexpected losses cause no pain.

After reading this article, I created a contingency account (with my kids college funds as the charity of choice). Computer melt downs, emergency plumbing bills, unexpected car repairs, all became a lot less stressful, when the money was set aside in advance.

But, tonight I’m thinking of Taleb’s contingency account from a fitness standpoint. I  paid a lot into my fitness account over the last year.  I can’t get the sweat back, it’s already been spent building up reserves of strength.  One reason to build up those reserves is so they are there to pull from when you are sick, recovering from a traumatic injury, or pushing through an unusually stressful period in your life.  This thought reassures me in two ways.  First, I realize that I have the physical strength to get through this. Second, I know that missing the gym while my shoulder heals or because I’m too tired or stressed to go is OK for now.  When my shoulder is healed and my mind is clear, getting back to the gym and rebuilding that account is a priority.

With a Little Help From My Friends

There is another contingency account out there. The friendship account.  Give your friendship freely and it will pay you back when you need it most.  It sounds corny, but it’s true.  At home, in the office, on line.  From the Azores to Austin to Albuquerque to Alaska to Asia to Australia, friends and family came to the forefront. There was a telephone conversation with Mark, an email message from my Dad, chatting with Kevin, a picture posted by Matt, facebook comments from Amber and Anna, and dark chocolate from Kira.  Whether they knew what was going on behind the scenes or not, their support was and is a great source of strength.  This is a reserve account that we tend to forget about and may even neglect, but friendship really makes a difference when fate throws you a hard breaking curve ball.  Early in my career, I went to a very low profile retirement ceremony for a very highly decorated SEAL Master Chief.  He told me: At the end of the day, it’s not the adventures you’ve had or the things you’ve done, it’s the friendships you’ve made that matter most.

So, How Did It Turn Out?

The shoulder’s getting better. The dog’s on Clavamox (worked last time, so fingers crossed it works again).  We’ll ask our real estate agent to start looking for a new apartment. And, after a full court press by folks higher up the food chain than me, promises have been made to fund the position for the next 2 fiscal years (through Sep 2013).  This is long enough for Alex to graduate from high school and time enough for us to plan the next adventure. After a good night’s sleep, I finished this post, and now I’m going to the gym to do squats.

Longevity Through Exercise

Photo by: eloja

But first…Death By Exercise Revisited

A while back, I wrote an essay titled Avoiding Death By Exercise.  You can read it here.  The article was critical of the promises of long term health benefits derived from training for endurance sports like marathons.  The main points from the essay: (1) endurance sports are over-hyped from a marketing standpoint; (2) the time costs outweigh the benefits achieved from training for endurance events; (3) training for and participating in endurance events puts enormous strain and stress on your body…beyond the risk of injury, there is an increased risk of sudden cardiac death.


One issue not discussed in that essay was the impact of endurance training on longevity.  While perusing Anthony Colpo’s website, one of his posts referenced this article: Mortality and longevity of elite athletes.  This is not a definitive study and it doesn’t claim to be.  Rather, it is a meta-study and as the article points out, some of the research included for review is quite old (e.g. some of the athletes covered by the studies competed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s).  However, the article does reinforce some key practical points and it also asks good follow-on questions.

Key Points

(1) Similar to leisure time physical activity, engaging in competitive sports and vigorous exercise training is generally beneficial to improving mortality and longevity.

(2) Elite endurance athletes (e.g. distance runners and cross country skiers) tend to survive longer than people in the general population.

Overall, endurance athletes appear to maximize longevity living significantly longer than the general population.  In particular, the observed deaths among endurance athletes were less than two thirds of the expected deaths estimated from the general population.  This should hearten those that focus on endurance sports.

(3) Elite mixed sport athletes (e.g. soccer, basketball, ice hockey, and short to moderate term events in track and field) are also likely to live longer than the general population.

(4) Elite power athletes may survive longer, similar to, or shorter than the general population depending on type of sport and substance use.

Follow-on Questions

(1) What role does the high volume of rigorous exercise engaged in by elite athletes play in increased longevity?

(2) Do the genetic factors that predispose one to becoming an elite athlete also tend to increase longevity?

(3) Does the negative impact of performance enhancing substances mask positive results with regards to elite power athletes?  (It would be interesting to compare the impact of performance enhancing substances across all three groups of elite athletes…you’d want to cross-reference with various substances…chronicle interaction effects between substances…total research nightmare)

(4) Can we get similar studies for elite women athletes?

Go Out and Play

Photo by: Ross Hong Kong

What does this mean for all of us non-elite athletes?  Bottom line – Physical activity increases longevity.  The authors cite a report that 40% of adults aged 18 years and older engage in no leisure time physical activity.  That’s nuts.  Come on people – Go out and play.  If you want to live a long and healthy life, get up and move.

It’s Not About The Bike…You Don’t $ay

where is the outrage?

I’m no fan of Lance Armstrong…but, watching his chickens come home to roost this past week has been disheartening in its own way.  At the end of the day, I have to question why there is no outrage directed toward the organizations that most benefit from the duplicity in cycling and other sports regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs…the promoters and sponsors.

A tacit understanding

Once upon a time, I wrote a paper (Betrayal of Trust) on the regulation (or lack thereof)of performance enhancing drugs in horse racing.  My take then and now is that the promoters (and this includes sponsors) have the greatest interest in maintaining the façade of regulating the sport and keeping its participants clean, while allowing (read as tacitly encouraging) a culture of secret use and abuse of performance enhancing drugs.

It’s easy to focus on Lance as the beneficiary of this secret compact (sure, he has made his millions), but the organizations have much greater interests in play. The Tour was hugely promoted and public interest was kindled in the relatively untapped US market, when Lance went on his winning streak. If you look at who really benefited, Lance’s takings are a pittance compared to what the promoters received from the increased demand for their product -Le Tour- and the exposure that sponsors received for their products. Lance did what LeMonde and an outlier like Indurain (the Secretariat of cyclists) couldn’t. To an organization looking to promote the sport, how he did it is of secondary importance (if they care at all).

cracks in the façade

The reports that there was a cover up involving a positive test for Lance at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, has put a crack in the façade, showing the promoters as the co-conspirators they really are.  Such behavior is not without precedent.  Rumors have surrounded positive tests for Carl Lewis for years.  At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, nine positive drug tests were reported out by the lab, but never acted upon by the International Olympic Committee.  Prince Alexandre de Merode, chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission said the tests were never acted upon because all material related to the cases were taken from de Merode’s offices at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles and destroyed in a shredder.  Speculation is that Carl Lewis, the star whose athletic performances rekindled American interest in the Olympics, after the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow games, was among the nine.

Meanwhile in 1988, at the US Olympic trials leading to the Seoul Olympics, Lewis tested positive for the banned stimulants found in cold medications: pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine.  The US Olympic Committee cleared Lewis finding that his ingestion of the stimulants was inadvertent.  Remember 1988 was the year that Ben Johnson was disqualified and Lewis was subsequently awarded the gold medal in the 100m.  It’s Orwellian how name athletes have their reputations protected through the use of doublespeak by the promoting agencies or the athlete’s own public relations team, while others are vilified as tainting the sport.

The award for the most notorious example of allowing the use of performance enhancing substances to reinvigorate public interest goes to the baseball owners.  After the strike years, interest in America’s national pastime was waning.  So a blind eye was turned, as the number of home runs sky rocketed.

show me the money

Whether its seven consecutive Tour victories, nine gold medals, or 73 home runs, off the charts performance draws the interest of casual fans.  That interest translates into money for the promoters and the sponsors.  How many more bikes did Trek sell after Lance’s victories?  In college, I remember having to read about the Tour in the newspaper.  ESPN aired highlights at inconsistent hours of the day and night.  Live coverage sponsored by Subaru, the Discovery Channel, or Nike was unimaginable.  Then there was Lance and everything changed.

warning: don’t feed the delusion

After the 1998 Festina affair spiralled out of control and exposed Richard Virenque and the swirl of controversy surrounding Jan Ullrich, you had to be delusional to ignore the facts and reach the conclusion that Lance was riding clean and still beating these guys.  Yet, American fans willingly deluded themselves, all the while demanding to be entertained with super-human performances.  That’s the axe I have to grind with Lance Armstrong…he fed the delusion.  Now, the only way for him to maintain the lie is to attack the credibility of the team mates that helped him succeed.  Meanwhile, the promoters, sponsors (yes, Festina is a sponsor for the 2011 Tour), and even the riders will cluck about cleaning up the sport.  There really is no honor among thieves.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In 1924 the journalist Albert Londres followed the Tour de France for the French newspaper, Le Petit Parisien. At Coutances he heard that the previous year’s winner, Henri Pélissier, his brother Francis and a third rider, Maurice Ville, had pulled out after a row with the organiser, Henri Desgrange. Henri Pélissier explained the problem – whether or not he had the right to take off a jersey – and went on to talk of drugs, reported in Londres’ race diary, in which he coined the phrase Les Forçats de la Route (The Convicts of the Road):

“You have no idea what the Tour de France is,” Henri said. “It’s a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here…” He pulled a phial from his bag. “That’s cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums.”
“This,” Ville said, emptying his shoulder bag “is liniment to put warmth back into our knees.”
“And pills. Do you want to see pills? Have a look, here are the pills.” Each pulled out three boxes.
“The truth is,” Francis said, “that we keep going on dynamite.”

Henri spoke of being as white as shrouds once the dirt of the day had been washed off, then of their bodies being drained by diarrhoea, before continuing:

“At night, in our rooms, we can’t sleep. We twitch and dance and jig about as though we were doing St Vitus’s Dance…”
“There’s less flesh on our bodies than on a skeleton,” Francis said.

From Wikipedia: Doping at the Tour De France.

Finishing IS The Final Triumph

But, I’ll continue to follow the Tour.  No matter how they get there, completing the Tour is a crazy feat.  There is something mesmerizing about watching men risk their necks, endure excruciating pain, face physical and emotional exhaustion and still manage to ride onto the Champs-Élysées and past the Arc de Triomphe.

Lamaze for Snipers: How Tactical Breathing Can Improve Performance During A High Stress Event

Photo by: Zetson

Spring comes early in Austin.  The warmth is welcome, as the young couple says good-bye to their son and his grandmother.  Nana has agreed to watch the boy while Mom and Dad head to the hospital for the birth of little sister.

This is a scheduled induction. Mom’s first birth went very quickly and everyone wants to be ready for this one.

It’s a quick drive from the couple’s home to the hospital.  The administrative procedures go smoothly and Mom is set up in no time.  The doctor breaks her water and, as expected, contractions start.  But, the unexpected happens too.  As the labor progresses, the readings from the fetal heart rate monitor raise some concern with the staff.

Dad is standing by ready to provide moral support, encouragement, and do whatever he is told to.  Watching and listening, he is alert to every word.  He recognizes that there is an issue with the baby…something about the cord being around the neck.  He knows that’s bad. The doctor instructs the nurses to attach an internal monitor directly to the baby to get better readings. As the monitor is attached, baby’s heart beat stops.  It just stops.

The doctor is professional to the core.  He is calm and collected.  But, his concern is evident.  He is alert to the situation.

Dad senses danger. Without anything to do or say, his body takes over.  He can feel his heart pounding and he can hear the rush of blood in his ears.  His peripheral vision narrows. He focuses on the doctor. His eyes dart to his wife, then back to the doctor.  By now he has tunnel vision and feels light headed.  Where is the heartbeat?

His breathing is shallow and rapid.  The doctor politely indicates the chair next to the bed.  He uses the arms of the chair to steady himself and sits down.

Baby’s heart beat comes back up and everyone breathes. As the birth continues, Dad gets back on his feet, helping Mom with her breathing exercises and providing moral support.  The doctor’s suspicion about the cord was correct.  He unloops it and baby is born safe and sound. Mom and baby are fine. Dad is fine too.

I wish I had known two things the day my daughter was born: (1) Expect an initial drop in heart rate as a potential reaction to placing the internal monitor; (2) the breathing exercises designed to help my wife handle the stress of child birth were there to help me too.

The instant that heart beat dropped off of the monitor, an adrenaline pulse went through my body and strong physical responses followed.

No one can control how their body reacts to a high stress incident, but we can learn to manage our physical response.  Controlled breathing, is an effective way to consciously bridge the mind body connection. Slow deep breaths helped me recover, but I didn’t have a plan or a breathing pattern to follow. At the end of this post, you will be much better prepared than I was to manage a high stress incident.  Learning about and practicing tactical breathing will give you a tool that keeps you in the game during a high stress event…so that you can help yourself and your loved ones.

Breathing & Blinking

Heart rate, digestion, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, sexual arousal, and many other physical reactions occur involuntarily, without conscious thought or control.  These actions are managed by the autonomic nervous system, a control system that runs automatically. The subdivision of the autonomic nervous system that takes primary control when you are exposed to a high stress incident is called the sympathetic nervous system. During fight or flight reactions, the sympathetic nervous system is in full effect.

Breathing and blinking are two functions managed by the autonomic nervous system that can also be consciously controlled. The ability to control our breathing offers us a pathway that may be used to consciously influence the autonomic nervous system.  During a high stress event, as the sympathetic nervous system starts to pull you into why think – when I can react mode, the ability to access this pathway can be particularly helpful.

Tactical Breathing

Photo by: vramak

In the book On Combat and in his lectures, LTC Dave Grossman describes a four count method of breathing.  This is a self-regulation method taught to police officers, military members, and others who must perform with a high level of skill in the face of deadly threats.  There are four phases to this breathing pattern.

Phase 1: Breathe in through the nose for a slow four count (1, 2, 3, 4).  Notice your belly expanding.

Phase 2: Hold the breath for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

Phase 3: Slowly exhale through pursed lips for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

Phase 4: Hold empty for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

It is recommended that you cycle through the pattern at least 3 times.

Try it now. After three full cycles – How do you feel?

When this breathing pattern is employed during a stressful event, you will feel yourself coming back into control…a relaxed breathing pattern returns, your racing heart slows, peripheral vision expands and hearing improves.

Experiment with this breathing pattern.  Try it, when you are tense or anxious.  Try it, when you are calm and relaxed.  Do you need a longer count? Then tweak the pattern and count to 5 or 6. Do you need more cycles? Add them.  Experiment to determine what combination is most effective for you and dial in your own personal tactical breathing pattern.

LTC Grossman explains tactical breathing:

Deploying this tool

Photo: Yamam

You don’t have to be on a hostage rescue mission to use this tool. Self-control is a key element for successful performance no matter what the endeavor.  For most of us navigating through the stress of a normal day will present plenty of opportunities to practice this technique.

However, if there is a particular stress inducing situation that you encounter on a regular and recurring basis, then you may be able to condition yourself to automatically deploy your tactical breathing pattern. In the section titled Tactical Breathing in Warrior Operations, LTC Grossman discusses police officers and ambulance drivers using behavior modification techniques to make tactical breathing a conditioned response to hearing the sound of their sirens.  There is no reason that you can’t do something similar to condition yourself to engage your tactical breathing pattern before a test, a work presentation, an athletic competition, a musical performance, etc.

Special Circumstances

Also, be alert to special circumstances where this technique can be a life saver.  On Combat includes personal anecdotes from several individuals who used tactical breathing to: (1) lower their heart rate after experiencing a heart attack; (2) remain calm after a car accident and patiently wait the arrival of rescue workers; and (3) help prevent debilitating migraines.  Tactical breathing is not a substitute for proper medical treatment, but it is a way that you can help yourself and help your care providers by remaining calm and keeping your head in the game during a medical emergency.

Share the Knowledge

Teach tactical breathing to your children, so they have a way to calm themselves.  When rendering first aid or as a first responder, consider sharing this technique with the person you are treating.  Use it as a way to help comfort someone who has survived or witnessed a traumatic event. Be creative in your use of tactical breathing and when confronted with a high stress event remember the answer is right under your nose.

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley.
The Adrenaline Dump: It’s More Than Just Breathing by Dr. Michael J. Asken
Breathing Ladders – Gym Jones
The Centrality of Breath (Part II) – Squat Rx
Breathing Pattern Development – Boddicker Performance
iPhone App for Tactical Breathing.