By Cody Burkhart
Don’t Run with Scissors, Go Run with Lizards
Today we begin our story in the jungles of Costa Rica…
Straight out of biblical reference, the Basilisk Lizard, often referred to as the “Jesus Christ” Lizard, is capable of running on water. It’s a pretty wicked thing to watch (and yes I’ve got you covered on that front, but it’s more than a cool display of a featherweight, speed demon: it’s a survival adaptation. Its dominant food source is winged insects, which have intelligently adapted over the years to be faster and more agile. Insects like the dragon fly (which has its own awesome repertoire of evasion skills) don’t hang out long. Ever tried to catch a butterfly? You can get lucky, sure, but most of the time you look like a crazy person trying to catch handfuls of air.
To adapt to its predatory needs, the Basilisk has evolved to have long toes on its hind feet that extend when they are in the water, along with flaps of skin between those toes, effectively increasing the surface area of their feet on the water. Their fast speed mixes with the splaying of these custom foot mechanics to produce pockets of air under their feet that generate sufficient lift to overcome the light weight of their bodies.
The result is awe-inspiring, but, even more, this adaptation is crucial to their survival. Either they adapted, or they perished. The cruel reality of being an animal. Funny thing is…
- A member of the primate genus Homo, especially a member of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other apes by a large brain and the capacity for speech. (Definition from the free dictionary)
… you are, by definition, an animal as well. That large brain often comes with an even more massive ego: an ego that makes us forget that “adaptive” isn’t simply a two-dollar word for our resumés.
Adaptation is an interesting thing when you really think about it. While it is an organic process under the concepts of evolution, I don’t aim to make this about Creationism v. Darwinism (precisely why our good buddy the “Jesus Christ” lizard is the ideal candidate – insert your favorite “winky face” emoji here). Instead let’s examine the facts. Animals have a very effective tool toward the organic supply of adaptation… either they change to match the modifications of their surroundings or their genes, and skill sets, don’t get passed on. Why? Because “dead.” Humans, however, use that big noggin to think up innovative solutions instead of adaptations. There is a DISTINCT difference here folks. What do I mean? Let’s play animal v. human:
Cold Polar Bear? Extra fat and thick fur.
Cold Johnny? The winter collection at North Face.
Hot Kangaroo? Cooling of surface veins using their own spit.
Hot Sally? Industrial Big Ass Fan.
We look pretty smart. I mean, it’s not like we can go Polar Bear because “Society” doesn’t condone anything but flat stomachs and six packs. And, if my massive pools of sweat from training are already problematic to people at my gym, heaven forbid I start spitting on myself in my next meeting while living on what appears to be Magma Fields, TX. But for S&Gs… let’s keep playing:
No water for months Camel? Internal storage tanks.
No water for months Sam? Um… dead.
If you were about to answer, “Bottled water” or “Humanitarian aid” you get a gold star for out-of-the-box thinking even though you get my point. Innovation is wonderful, but it has limitations and it also has accessibility issues. The entire point is that if your actual, physiological system isn’t providing the necessary change to solve the environmental condition of concern then you are, quite literally, exposed. And as Mike Tyson says:
“Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.”
So what does this seemingly nihilist point of view on human innovation have to do with our test and the analysis of the results of our diaphragmatic breathing protocol? Let’s play the game one more time:
Extremely low oxygen environment Trout? Buoyancy-providing swim bladder that is filled with oxygen released from hemoglobin when blood pH is lowered, reducing the workload required to stay afloat.
Extremely low oxygen environment Rhonda? Unconscious during a very inopportune moment.
We are full circle. Rhonda has a big problem and, as it turns out, we have some new knowledge that might just save her life. Along the winding path of our first experiment, numerous topics were covered regarding breathing and its relationship with the heart and our metabolic pathways. Juxtaposing Rhonda with the trout was no accident. It likely forced you to imagine Rhonda under water (zero oxygen is, after all, an extremely low value). Now, Rhonda could hold her breath and likely make it a couple minutes before blacking out if she stayed still, but chances are she is in a high workload scenario: aka “Panic.” Fear, and its physiological impacts, is something we will jump more into as we discuss the parasympathetic v. sympathetic nervous system responses that we dabbled in when we discussed the Hypothalamus, but for now let’s limit our view of the problem to the core of our test. If we could change the physiological backbone of Rhonda, we won’t be able to guarantee success, but we sure can increase the odds. As I pointed out last week, even 5% can be a big deal under the right circumstances.
By providing Rhonda, or yourself, with a more efficient metabolic system, more effective management of gas exchange, and a larger starting reservoir of oxygen – all made possible by training our diaphragm and applying its use to our training – we are creating an adaptation.
If I use innovation, I could use the miracles of modern society and provide her with pure oxygen for 30 minutes prior to her low oxygen spell and, plausibly, double her breath hold time. If we examine the world record times for static apnea (limp-noodle breath hold under water) we find an insane 11:54 record by Branko Petrovic squaring off against the mind-melting, pure-oxygen record from Aleix Segura of 24:03 (mind you, this came only 12 days after he previously set it at 23:09 in February of this year – looks like someone has some adaptation response all right). If we use this as our solution we simply just need to bring an oxygen tank around with us and breathe it for 30 minutes before every time we hold our breath. Easy peasy (he says, dripping wet with its over concentration of sarcasm).
If I instead work on adapting my body to be more efficient, I won’t suddenly halve my exposure risk with some 30-second training mask intervals or focused diaphragm breathing skill work in variant positions. However, just in teaching people how to breathe with the diaphragm properly in camps that I have run, I have watched people go from barely holding their breath for a minute to almost 3 minutes over the course of one exercise. With practice and application of the techniques I have, myself, even broken the 4-minute mark. This is where that large brain comes in handy. It has a significant processing power that allows it to assess the system surrounding it and start making physiological changes real-time. Otherwise, my whole college career in Colorado would have been an unrelenting episode of altitude sickness.
You may be scratching your head right now because I just, in many more words, said your body naturally adapts, which counters my whole original argument. It should, but moreso, it would if it wasn’t for the bare necessities.
The human body isn’t wasteful like we are. It has a discrete methodology to its madness. If it doesn’t make small physiological adaptations it will risk being damaged, but the guy wheezing next to you on your mountain tram tour, as he finishes his third Starbucks pastry, washing it down with a double shot venti, extra caramel sauce, pumpkin pie melted milk shake, is handling the altitude just well enough to survive. Toss in an emergency need to run, though, and my point manifests itself. Adapting can be a bare minimum scenario: the bare necessities. In fact, prior to the sustainable, physiological changes of long-term altitude acclimation, our body shortcuts the living hell out of the problem. It increases its breath rate (the return of our good friend hyperventilation), experiences vasoconstriction (turning off blood supply to non-essential functions), increases heart rate (managing the flow of gas exchange to make up for the quick breath and high pressure requirements of the constricted veins), and even starts to slow down digestion (good ole parasympathetic). Sounds awfully eerie considering what we found out in our test, doesn’t it? Almost like our test was designed to attack these same issues, teaching us how to overcome their natural occurrence as we begin to suck wind during our row intervals? Light bulb moment. Light bulb moment, indeed.
If we are simulating this exposure in our training, our body is going to have the same choices you have when dropped directly onto the top of powder on your winter ski trip to Steamboat: stay entirely in a negative-response, reactive state or start to improve its overall mechanics. That means if altitude acclimation can garnish me increased production of aerobic enzymes, increased numbers of mitochondria, and more dense concentrations of capillaries in my ever-so-crucial skeletal muscle tissue, just to name a few, and my test showed signs of my body reacting equivalently to our interval methodology… well, you don’t need to live at the top of the Rockies with the goats to promote adaptation, and you don’t need to train with a bag over your head. You can activate the intelligent design of your diaphragm and begin unlocking hidden powers that change the literal expression of your genes.
Train smarter. Meld the worlds of human ingenuity and biological adaptation. Don’t run with scissors, go run with the lizards.
Before we disband for the week, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t leave you with something to do: right now, unannounced (unless you are driving, operating heavy machinery, etc.), lay on the floor with a running timer and PERFORM A MAX TIME BREATH HOLD. Record your results. Then, throughout the week, continue to apply your interval training (2-3x) just like the testing environment. As an addition, focus on your diaphragm and breathing mechanics as often as you can. If you catch yourself in the car chest breathing, fix it. If you start rib cage heaving during your workout, diaphragm that shit. EACH DAY record how long you hold your breath in the same, laying-still configuration. Don’t forget. EVERY DAY. You will need this information when we jump off yet another cliff next week.