Friday, December 26, 2014

On Breathing

If you're a runner, breathing is kind of important.  Of course, if you're anyone, breathing is important. In fact, it's literally vital.  Breathing and a pulse are the two basic ways a paramedic decides whether you're alive.

But most people don't think about breathing a lot.  I know I've been breathing for quite a while, and for most of that time I more or less took it for granted.  You breathe in, you breathe out.

My son had asthma as a child, and I learned some things I didn't understand well at the time.  For instance, why is difficulty breathing out the test for asthma?  If the airways are constricted, shouldn't you have trouble breathing in as well?

Then, after many years of running in all weather, I came down with exercise-induced asthma.  I wound up on Advair, albuterol, and Singulair.  They helped a lot, as did a few other things, like acupuncture, and today I'm not taking any prescription medications.  I'm also not running outdoors in cold weather.  Cold air is my main, and possibly my only, trigger.

All this got me thinking about breathing, and so I did a little reading.  Some of the things I'm about to say may sound simple, but I never did find a source that says, Here's what you need to know about breathing.  Things are scattered, and occasionally sources conflict.  What I'm putting down here is my best understanding.

Basic Measurements
There are three main measurements of breathing.

First is respiration rate.  In an adult at rest, this is normally in the teens per minute.  When you're running, the respiration rate can double or triple.

Second is something called tidal flow.  This is the amount of air you take in and send out with each breath.  Tidal flow also increases when you're running -- you may have felt your lungs open up after you've been running awhile.  That's the tidal flow kicking in.

I can't put a number on this increase, but it is limited by maximum lung volume.  Jason R. Karp, in his 2007 doctoral dissertation, Lungs and Legs:  Entrainment of Breathing to Locomotion in Highly-Trained Distance Runners, has this to say on page 50:

"When assessing pulmonary characteristics of collegiate distance runners, it has been observed that flow limitation is more prevalent in the upperclassmen compared to the lowerclassmen. ... It is possible that the upperclassmen have learned, through two or three more years of high-level training, to maximize their ventilatory capability."

Unlike these guys, most of us will always have some lung capacity we're not using.

So we have a bucket with more than adequate volume, and we have a highly flexible rate at which we may fill and empty the bucket.

So no worries, right?  Well, there's those pesky bronchial tubes.  Think of them as a funnel.  Take your beaker of air, and pour it into your bucket -- through the funnel.  If the funnel is constricted, which is what the term bronchial spasm means, you've got a problem.  Actually, you probably have asthma.

Bloody hell, if I may say so from personal experience.  The little alveoli down in the lungs, which is where the oxygen transfer from the air to the blood takes place, are waiting patiently, and they're just not getting enough air.

Which brings us to the mystery from my son's childhood -- why is peak flow (the size of the funnel) always measured on expiration, and never on inspiration?

Breathing Muscles
The answer is that expiration is the Achilles' heel of the lungs.  The main breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which sits at the bottom of the lungs and is really big and powerful.  When it contracts, you breathe in.  When it relaxes, you breathe out.

Got that?  Breathing out, your basic breathing muscle is relaxing.  It's the weak moment, and that's what doctors measure.

There are muscles that work during exhalation.  The intercostals are the muscles that sit between your ribs.  Some of them work when you're breathing in, some when you're breathing out.  Other muscles can also get involved in breathing out, but with one exception they're not a big deal.

The big deal is your abdominal muscles.  Properly trained, they can really help you expel air from your lungs.

There's a yoga breathing technique that illustrates this.  Start breathing in down at your belly, and run the inspiration progressively up through your ribs to your collar bones.  Then reverse.  When you get back down to your belly, you'll find your abdominals working really hard.

Please don't do this more than three times in a row.  A little bit cleanses the lungs.  Overdo, and you may faint.  (See Stacie Stukin, "The Anti-Drug for Anxiety," Yoga Journal, April 2003, p. 111.  This article also discusses alternate nostril breathing, which is a good way to pass the time while you're waiting at a red light.)

Syncing Legs to Lungs
Runners also need to link their legs to their lungs.  Breathing is the basic rhythm of your body, and everything you do should flow with that.

For runners, this boils down to a simple question:  How many steps per breath?  For years I was basically a 2-2 runner -- breathe in for two steps, breathe out for two steps.  Recently I've been working on a 3-2 pace.  I find it helps me fill my lungs more fully.

An added benefit goes to your knees.  Runners hit the ground hardest when they begin to exhale.  2-2 means you always exhale on the same knee.  3-2 switches between knees.   (See Bud Coates and Claire Kowalchik, "Running on Air:  Breathing Technique,"  Runner's World, April 2013.)

I still slide into 2-2 when I'm going faster, and on sprints and hills I slip into 1-2.  I try to avoid 1-1.  Rapid, shallow breathing -- panting, if you will -- reminds me too much of my asthma.

There.  That's what I've learned.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Parking in San Francisco

There seems to be a lot of confusion here in Philadelphia about the San Francisco parking program known as SFpark.  The program has a website,, and I've done some reading.  Here's a synopsis.

The essence of the plan is variable pricing.  This seems to make a lot of people nervous, but the San Francisco program clearly shows that it works well in practice.

Why bother to shift from fixed meter prices to variable meter prices?  Well, San Francisco was choking on its cars.  The magic number here is 85 percent occupancy at the curb.  More than that, people can't find spots conveniently.  Less than that, you're wasting valuable real estate.

The supply of curb-side parking is essentially fixed, so if we want to manage the situation, we need to manage demand.  If a lot of people want to park, the price should be higher.  If few people want to park, the price should be lower. 

SFpark got its official start on November 18, 2008, when the board of directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency adopted a resolution enabling the SFpark program.  It was explicitly based on the ideas of Professor Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, and it benefited from a $19.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Urban Partnership Program.

In July 2010 smart meter installation began, followed shortly by the hockey-puck sensors that everyone loved so much.  These were magnetometers installed in the pavement of each parking space in the project, and they were chatty.  Not only would they tell mission control whether the space was full or empty, they would tell any driver who had downloaded the app onto a smart phone.

In April 2010, the SFpark pilot project was formally launched.  It covered 6,000 metered spaces in seven parts of the city -- a quarter of the city's metered spaces, along with 12,250 spaces in garages run by the SFMTA. 

The pilot project ended on June 30, 2013, and in June 2014 a number of reports were issued evaluating the project.  All of this material is available on  I freely confess that there are documents on this site that I have not opened, let alone read.  It's a very rich site.

Today the SFpark program continues in eight neighborhoods.  The hockey-puck sensors were turned off, as nearly as I can tell, at the end of 2013, thereby infuriating drivers who had been using the app to locate empty spots in real time.

It's also my understanding that, while prices in the variable price areas go up and down during the day, the schedule of prices doesn't change very often, and when it does there is extensive public notice.  (And the app is still able to give you the prices -- just not the vacancies.)

The evaluation found that SFpark improved parking availability, reduced parking citations, cut greenhouse emissions, decreased peak period congestion, decreased traffic volume overall, lowered traffic speed, decreased vehicle miles traveled, decreased double parking, increased transit speed (that would be buses), and increased the safety of the streets (fewer crashes).

Seems like something that Philadelphia should be looking into.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Extend the Diagonal

Just after dark today I walked over to the Free Library for a meeting about the redesign of Love Park.  It was a cool, windy night, but clear, and as I was passing through Logan Circle I stopped for a moment to admire the view.

First I admired the statues in the fountain, beautifully lit and quite romantic.  Then I turned and looked up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or Museum Mile as some people call it.  In the distance, clear as a bell and sitting up on its hill, ablaze with light, was the Art Museum.  Then I turned the other way and looked at City Hall, also quite spiffy in its bath of light.

This has to be one of the best urban vistas in the United States.  And I know if you walk up the Art Museum steps, you can get another version of the same thing, looking back to City Hall.  And if you go to Love Park and stand in front of the Love Statue, you can see to the Art Museum.

But the vista business stops there, at the Love Statue.  If you turn around and face City Hall, the great diagonal vanishes and is replaced by William Penn's street grid.  City Hall is physically isolated from Love Park by way too many lanes of traffic.   But it is also visually isolated. 

The park's gate actually diverts you to 15th Street, and offers up the Municipal Services Building as a sight of interest.  And there's a cacophony of street furniture that fritters away any thought of the diagonal axis, so vibrant for so long, and stopping at our shoulder blades.

I hope the redesign of Love Park will do what it can to continue the great diagonal, at least visually, all the way to City Hall.

And I hope City Hall will reciprocate.  You can actually see the Art Museum from the ground in front of City Hall.  Go to the Jose Garces sandwich shop and walk east, past the bollards.  Stop before you get to the statue of General McClellan.  Turn around.  Look carefully.  There's a lot of clutter, but there is a sight line.

Dilworth Park already has several slightly elevated seating areas.  Perhaps another one should go in at this viewing point.  What a great place to sit out in fine weather and drink a cup of coffee, or perhaps a Pernod.