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Huffing and Puffing: Episode 5: Charlie Shin

As published at

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:


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