Huffing and Puffing: Episode 7: Failing Forward

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"Is it the shoes?" asked Spike Lee in a 1991 TV advertising campaign for Nike Air Jordan shoes. "It's gotta be the shoes!"

In my case, I've learned, it's not the shoes. I mean, the shoes are nice, but they are clearly not the solution to my problems.

A friendly and startlingly laid-back man from Aerobics First outfitted me with a new pair of Brooks Dyad shoes at the deep-discount clearance sale at the Halifax Forum's multipurpose centre. The price was right - $150 sticker, $60 marked down. They fit. They look sharp. They're very comfortable. But there's more to running the right way than choosing the right shoes.

I had high hopes for the shoes after weeks of shin and knee pain. Running in the new shoes did not fix anything, as far as I can tell. My shin muscles still hurt, and now my shin bones are sore right in the middle, like I'd done a three-quarter speed roundhouse kick to a telephone pole.

Once again, that pain got in the way of my weekly exercise homework. I wanted to push myself hard, but my tibialis anterior muscle felt like an over-inflated balloon strapped to my leg. Program leader Jayne Norrie got in touch by e-mail during the week and suggested I tone down the exercise a bit so I can finish strong.

At this point, I just want to finish.

I'm really starting to think that I'm not built for running. I imagine runners as tall, sleek, thin, stick-like. They check their watch and launch off into a machine-like pace. Their feet don't go SMACK SMACK SMACK when they run. When they're done, they go "whew" and smile and say "good job." They don't bend over at the waist, dripping with flop sweat, huffing and puffing and groaning.

Am I being a bit too hard on myself? Or, as I imagine, am I being too hard on my body? I'm still between 235 and 240 pounds, on a 5'7" frame, and what I can remember from high school physics suggests that I'm exerting intense forces on my lower body every time I take a step. I feel like I'm abusing parts of my body while I'm making other parts healthier.

But what I came to realize this week is that quitting smoking would probably be the single biggest thing I could do to make things better. Exercising more during the week didn't do it. New shoes didn't do it. Eating before going out didn't.

My goals this week were two-fold: first, skip my usual two cigarettes before the Saturday exercise meeting, and second, go an entire weekday without smoking.

The first goal was half-way completed. I skipped the get-out-of-bed smoke, but had one when I got to the meeting at Saint Mary's University. As I inhaled, I felt what energy I had that morning drain from my body. I was expecting it to be a pick-up, but instead it was a huge bring-down. So, that lesson was learned: even a stimulant can suck the energy out of you.

On the second goal, the less said the better. Fail fail fail. Fail. FAIL. I put it off and put it off, eventually picking Friday as the go-day. I skipped my morning cigarette, but gave up while I was waiting for an appraisal on what was supposed to be a minor car repair. ($1300 to fix a scratch? Are you serious?)

Add it all up, and I'm feeling like a failure this week.

Now, I've failed at plenty of things in life. In doing so, I've learned that failure is only absolute if you give up trying. I haven't given up trying. I haven't really made a concerted effort to quit smoking. I blew my first two goals the first time, but as long as I learn from these failures, I can continue moving forward.

Failing forward. I am flawed but self-correcting.

The 5km Lung Run with the rest of the Bad Ashes team is now just weeks away. Over the next week, I'll continue with the exercise and maybe even try cutting down on the smoking. Next week's episode will feature some tobacco cessation talk from the Learn To Run group's leader.

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Huffing and Puffing: Episode 6: Running & Leiping

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Now I can drink chocolate milk without guilt. Of course, it all comes down to moderation and wise choices. At least that's what registered dietitian Anna Leiper told us this week in her lecture to the Lung Association of Nova Scotia's Learn To Run For Smokers program.
It's week five, and already some of the team has disappeared. The team photo from the first week shows more people than we've seen since. Those who are still coming are brave, dedicated individuals. I'm proud to be one of them.
That doesn't mean I'm eager to get out of the car when arrive at The Tower at SMU on a windy, rainy morning that has the raindrops flying sideways. I'd rather sit in my car. You can imagine my joy when I find out that Jayne Norrie has arranged for us to exercise indoors at the Tower's gym. JOY!
Instead of sloshing around outside, we find places on modern treadmills. I've done treadmill running before, and I honestly like it a lot more than running on pavement, sidewalks or the gravelly paths of Point Pleasant Park. Even on an incline, which we're told to adjust to 2 degrees, it's so much easier on my knees and shins.
Ah, my shins. My shins continued to bother me this week. My shin muscles, as described last week, have been cramping up and preventing me from comfortably lifting my feet. The pain also extends to my knees. It's definitely time to get new shoes. I got a great email this week from a former Canada Games silver medalist, recommending that I try a slant board to work on my ankles, which he says will relieve my shin problems. I really need to get on that.
Anyway, back to the treadmill. This week's goal is 30 minutes of steady exercise. No problem, I figure. Nine minutes in, I clumsily hit the 'Stop' button, forcing me to do math for the remaining 21 minutes. Nobody told me there'd be math. I manage to finish out the half-hour, but can't sustain the three minutes running/one minute walking that was recommended. I still do much better than I would've on the road. Plus, with the heat of the SMU cardio room, I'm sweating like crazy.
The sweat keeps pouring off me as registered dietitian Anna Leiper begins her engaging and interactive presentation about nutrition. Anna's been a frequent guest on News95.7 over the years. I think she's even brought muffins to the newsroom. Here I am, a living, breathing example of why you need to rehydrate and re-energize after running: my sodium and water are coming to the surface, even as I sit.
Our special guest food expert goes over a simple, memorable mnemonic: RUN. R, U, N.
R is for recovery, or refueling. Extended exercise depletes the body of carbohydrates, water and sodium. Muscles that've been microscopically torn through hard work need protein to rebuild. Anna tells us chocolate milk is an ideal recovery beverage, as it contains all those elements. For best results, she recommends consuming it within about 20-30 minutes after extended exercise.
U is for urine. Seriously. If you're dehydrated or under-hydrated, your urine will look more like apple juice than, say, Sprite. So, noting the colour of your urine can be a tip-off to the state of your hydration. Given the choice, it's better to have more water in you than less.
N is for nutrition. Canada's Food Guide lays out what we humans should be eating to get the nutrition we need to get through life in a healthy way. The portion sizes might surprise you, though. Seriously, do you know what a "portion" of meat is? Nuts? Cereal? Look at a food package some time. You may think, oh, gosh, it's only 120 calories per portion. Now look at how much a "portion" is. Learning about portion size management could totally shake up your world if you take it to heart.
Looking at my weight loss graph, I obviously haven't taken it to heart, but at least I'm aware of what I'm ignoring. The Learn To Run program is not intended to be a weight loss program, but I hoped to lose a few pounds along the way. I'll put a link to my weight tracking below.
Now, as I've been talking, blogging and vlogging about this program in recent weeks, it's mostly been about the exercise and not much about the smoking. Both my dad and my wife brought this to my attention this week, suggesting this would be a great time to address the smoking. Frankly, that had been on my mind, too. I know the Learn To Run For Smokers program is not specifically intended to get smokers to quit, but I've been open to the possibility.
So, I've set two goals for the next week: first, I want to see if I can do next Saturday's run without having a cigarette first. Usually I have two: one when I get up, and one at the meeting. Second, I want to try getting through an entire day, wake-up to bedtime, without a cigarette. I can't remember the last time I did that.
The Lung Association's 5k Lung Run is coming up soon, so if you'd like to sponsor me or any of the other Bad Ashes team members, please follow the link below.
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Huffing and Puffing: Episode 5: Charlie Shin

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When I signed up a month ago to take part in the eight-week Learn To Run For Smokers program offered by the Lung Association of Nova Scotia, I knew it wouldn't be easy. But I didn't know it would be this hard.
I don't know why. The prospect of getting off the couch, putting on running shoes and exercising so hard that I actually improved my health didn't scare me. It was getting up for a 9am meeting every Saturday that was the intimidating park.
But on the fourth week of the program, I find myself struck by my own physical limitations.
This week's exercise task is to do a series of four 800-metre loops in Point Pleasant Park. My division of the Bad Ashes team is assigned to run for three minutes and walk for one minute. After the first three-minute run, I'm winded and my legs are cramping up. It's not my entire leg, though. It's just the muscle that runs along the front of the shin. I quickly decline to running almost a minute and walking the rest. I complete the whole distance -- a respectable 3.2km -- but the rest of the team has lapped me several times over. I feel like a failure.
I conclude that I must not be working hard enough on the exercise homework between meetings. With that in mind, I tackle Tuesday's homework with a positive attitude. We're supposed to do the out-and-back exercise from a few weeks ago. It'd designed to teach pacing -- run, jog or walk out for a minute, but be sure you have enough left in the tank to return to the starting point in the same amount of time. The time goes from one minute to two, to three, three, two and back to one minute.
After running for the first minute and making it back in time, again, I'm beat. My shins have cramped up and I'm out of breath. I entertain the idea of rationalizing away the rest of the laddered segments by walking them, but as I attempt the two-minute out-and-back, even that seems futile. I want to cry. I came out with good intentions, but something's not working.
I go for a walk around the block with aching legs and come home defeated. This is really hard.
So, what's going wrong? I know I need new shoes -- the ones I'm wearing are at least a few years old. I know I'm overweight, so gravity is putting an unreasonable strain on my joints and muscles with every step. I know my technique is poor -- every step is pounding, and my stride is not the "light and athletic" movement that Lung Association CEO Louis Brill tried to teach us a few weeks ago.
It also occurs to me that the smoking may be getting in the way. After all, in Week One, I learned that carbon monoxide is flowing through my blood, blocking oxygen from getting to my muscles. Maybe my poor shins are just starved for fuel.
I decide to give it one more solid effort on Thursday. I take my iPod with me, loaded with a series of podcasts inspired by the "Couch to 5k" program. Perhaps I'll talk about that program in a later episode. Anyway, I play the Week 3 program from the series, which offers a sequence of hip-hop tunes interrupted every so often by a small voice that tells me when to run and when to walk. That lets me return my focus to the task at hand, trusting that someone else will tell me when it's time for a break.
For the most part, it works. I get through the workout. I'm still winded, still sweating, still sore in the legs, but for all but the last segment, I was able to obey the orders of the small voices and the angry rappers. Now I'm seriously considering a playlist featuring Eminem's "Lose Yourself" to play when I do the final 5k.
A bit of research on the Internet teaches me more about the muscle that's fighting me. It's the Tibialis Anterior. It's responsible for flexing the foot up and down. Perhaps I'm pulling my foot up too hard with each stride? Am I pushing off too hard? Should my ankle be stiff like an L, or loosey-goosey as I run? I'll need to tighten up my technique.
What continues to worry me is the force with which my feet are hitting the ground with each step. My knees are sore afterward. The left is worse than the right. Morning anchor Doug Reynolds, who's an athletic fellow with knee problems of his own, tells me that I should just keep at it, and that my body will continue to adjust and get stronger. It sounds like good advice.
This week's after-class education segment was about stretching and yoga. Check out the video to see team member Norma Houston demonstrating some helpful stretching techniques for runners. She even climbs up on the table to give us a close-up view. 
I have a couple of housekeeping notes for folks who've been following along this far!
The Lung Association of Nova Scotia is proud of the success of the Learn To Run For Smokers program. It's the first of its kind in Canada, and branches from other provinces are interested in starting it up in their home locations. The Association is also going to be putting on the Learn To Run program again here, and it's looking for new facilitators.
If you're a runner who loves to coach, an ex-smokers who'd like to share, or are otherwise interested in taking part in the free one-day training session happening this Saturday, March 19, please contact Jayne Norrie, Manager of Health Initiatives. Her phone number is 902-443-8141 x26, and her email address is
Also, I've signed up for the Lung Run, the Lung Association's fundraising 5k in April. I'll be running with the Learn To Run For Smokers team. We call ourselves the Bad Ashes. If you'd like to sponsor me in the run, please visit
As always, I appreciate your feedback, questions, comments and ideas. I've been surprised at how many people I've met around town and on the phones who've been hearing this series. Please visit our YouTube page and subscribe, rate and comment on the videos. The more, the merrier!
Next week: Nutrition for runners, with food expert Anna Leiper.
Links mentioned in this week's episode:
- Lung Association of Nova Scotia contacts:
- Sponsor Scott Simpson in the Lung Run:
- News95.7 YouTube page:

Huffing and Puffing: Episode 4: Endorsement

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'm a skipper, but I'm not a quitter.
I woke up tired on the third Saturday of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia's Learn To Run For Smokers program, stumbled outside for a cigarette and found the streets covered in snow. It rained and rained and rained, then snowed and snowed and snowed. The tire tracks on the road were swooping back and forth across the street. It looked bad. A phone call to my wife at work confirmed that the driving was terrible. I gave up, shoveled the driveway and went back to bed after emailing program coordinator Jayne Norrie to apologize for my non-attendance.
That could've been it. I could've given up for the week. But, a commitment's a commitment, and when it's my health at stake and I'm doing it all in public, I might as well follow through.
Monday morning, I joined Jordi Morgan for a half-hour interview on Maritime Morning. It was strange for me to be the subject of an interview rather than the one asking the questions, but it was a lot of fun getting to talk about the program and how I'm doing.
Tuesday was supposed to be the first of two days of homework outside of the regular group training sessions. Jayne sent the team an email: "The third week tends to be the hardest, so please persist with the program, and you will start to reap the benefits soon! It will be worth all the hard work and battling with the weather, especially when we finish with the Lung Run in April and you see how far you have come."
I'm definitely not a morning person, but this Tuesday meant I'd be covering Halifax Regional council from 1pm to 9pm, so exercising after work wouldn't be happening. So, I got suited up right out of bed and went for a 25-minute brisk walk through the neighbourhood. It was cold, but I got it done.
Wednesday morning found me downtown at the doctor's office to get the now-overdue medical clearance.
Dr. Maria Sampson is a wonderful woman who's been pushing me to cut my smoking and lose weight for some time. I went to her a while back with questions about some pain in my chest. She didn't say it was anything dangerous with my heart, though I have had flutters from time to time. But she was concerned about my blood pressure.
I've had high blood pressure readings for a number of years. In mid-2002, I have it recorded as 140/90. In May, 2005 it was 130/90. It's been as high as 146/100 in March, 2009.
The doctor put me on a beta blocker called Atenolol to reduce my BP, and it's worked rather well. Between that and my recent exercise, my BP read 120/84 this week. That's pretty well normal!
So, I explained the Learn To Run program to Dr. Sampson, gave her the forms, and asked whether this would be a good program for me.
"Yes! It will help your heart," said the doctor. "And there's often a close link between what you're doing for yourself to keep yourself healthy, so if you start exercising more regularly, often you feel like eating better, and when those things start happening, then you might also be interested in quitting smoking more whole-heartedly."

"You will probably notice an improvement in your endurance in day-to-day activities," she said. "Sometimes you're not as breathless as you would normally be. I'm hoping that you'll enjoy some of the psychological benefits of exercise. So, feeling more energized and maybe a little happier, and there would be a little bonus if you'd lose a little bit of weight with that."

Dr. Sampson says if the progress continues and I lose about 10 pounds, she might be able to get me off the beta blockers! 
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Huffing and Puffing: Episode 3: Be Athletic

"Be athletic."

That's one piece of advice from Louis Brill, President and CEO of the Lung Association of Nova Scotia as he teaches running technique to the group gathered on this Saturday morning at the Halifax Curling Club as part of the Learn To Run For Smokers program.

Even though I've run the Bluenose 5k in the past, I've never believed I knew anything about running. That's why I'm eager to see what this runner-loving coach can teach me. His enthusiasm is contagious, but I'm not entirely sure what he means by "be athletic."

"Right now, you might say 'what the heck's athletic?'" says Brill. "Think athletic. And you want to be light on your feet. Think that and say 'am I?'"

Me? No, I'm not. Not yet anyway. I'm two weeks in and still far from athletic. But the advice to "be" athletic in form and posture is actually helpful, as Brill illustrates a slight lean forward, square shoulders, arms that pivot instead of swinging like a gorilla, and a pelvis that pushes forward instead of sitting back.

Lesson learned, the team leaves the Curling Club for a 1.5km walk to Point Pleasant Park. With the majority of the group well ahead and out of sight, I end up taking the wrong approach to the meeting location, scaling a hill covered with a sheet of ice made doubly slippery from overnight rainfall. Stupid move, but I arrive uninjured somehow.

We gather in a large circle and go through the increasingly familiar warm-up exercises: "Happy Feet", "High Knees", "The Maytag" and others movements to limber up the muscles in preparation for the training.

Today's training involves running out and back in equal intervals. We're supposed to learn pacing: head out for one minute at whatever speed seems right, then turn around and come back to the starting point in one minute. Repeat for two minutes. Then three. Then two and again one.

I find the one-minute out-and-back education. Two minutes is challenging. Three is exhausting. The next two wipes me out. The final one takes me as close to empty as I've been in this process so far.

Cool-down follows, with a 1.5km return to base that seems to take forever. Plus I'm distracted by a strange smell all over my recording gear that I worry comes from putting it down on the ground in the park. Goodness knows how many dogs were there before my stuff. Yuck.

This week's homework involves more brisk walking on Tuesday and Thursday. Of course, Tuesday and Thursday end up being cold and windy, but I head out the door and get my exercise. I must confess that I feel ridiculous doing warm-up and cool-down exercises by myself. I should really be doing ten minutes of brisk walking, then stop wherever I am and do some "Happy Feet" and "High Knees", but I'm so self-conscious that I just head out the door and give 'er.

Maybe that's why my left knee seems to hurt after my workouts. It could be that, or it could be that my technique is still awful. Either way, I'm looking forward to my body catching up to my spirit.

On next week's agenda is a visit to the doctor to get my now-overdue medical clearance, and hopefully a visit to the shoe expert to see if my footwear is my actual Achilles' heel.

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