Chances are if you're reading this, you're breathing. Maybe you've been holding your breath with the anticipation of this article.....but I doubt it! One thing I can safely assume however, is that right now as you're breathing, 2 things are happening:
1) You're not thinking about it (at least you weren't) and
2) You're likely taking very shallow breaths.
For most people "thinking about breathing" is not something you ever consider. It's an automatic physiological action, and at best if you're someone that meditates you may spend some time paying attention to it. When it comes to running, breath is something that you might start to dial into, especially when you're out of it.... keeled over, holding your knees after a hard effort.
As a running coach I find that "How do I breathe"? is not usually the first thing on a list of questions my athletes bring, but its one that inevitably comes up. The question is usually seeking to solve the problem of how they can better control their breathing, in hopes to perform in a run.
While developing Aerobic fitness is a huge factor in how hard someone needs to breath, just like your stride, there are techniques that enable greater efficiency and control. As I mentioned above in point 2, most of us breath very shallow breaths as we go about our day to day.
Sitting at your desk or kicking back with Netflix requires much less oxygen, so naturally we've conditioned ourselves through this automatic process to take in the minimal amount of air required to support the physical demand being placed on the body at any given time. The challenge that this creates as a result, is that when our body really needs more oxygen (like in a run), we're not that effective at breathing with intention.
The good news is that it's something that you can improve, which will translate into a better run and potential for reduced injury. Below are tips to consider and methods you can start to implement right away.
Belly Up Baby
When you breathe, your diaphragm contracts moving downward while your chest contracts in order to expand your rib cage and opens up space for air to be drawn into your lungs. The more air you are able to inhale, the more precious oxygen you have available to be transferred to your working muscles while running.
The problem for many people however, is that they do not engage the diaphragm to its full potential most of the time, relying primarily on the chest to do most of the work when it comes to breathing. The issue with this is that the amount of air that can be moved into the body is reduced, plus the chest muscles are smaller than the diaphragm and will fatigue faster.
Like any muscle, the diaphragm is one you can train to be stronger. A great way to become a belly breather is to start by laying down on your back and focus on raising your belly as you breathe. This sounds easy, but you will find that it takes focus and is something you really need to work at. Try doing this also while lying on your side and sitting up every day, and then bring this technique with you out on your next run.
Rhythm Is Gonna Get You
A great way to connect your breathing and your run is to use a method called "Rhythmic Breathing". In simple terms it's using a specific breathing pattern to align the number of steps you take while inhaling and exhaling. In doing this you can improve your ability to relax and tune into your breathing. Many elite runners will often use this method with either a 4 or a 6 count. For example in a 4 count you breath in for 2 steps, and out for 2 steps. For a 6 count you breath in for 3 steps and out for 3 steps.
One potential flaw with this pattern when you are using an even count, is that you always exhale while landing on the same foot. The problem with this is that your body experiences the greatest amount of force at the point when your foot hits the ground during the exhalation. If you're always landing on the same foot for each exhale, you're not evenly distributing the force being taken by your legs.
In his book "Running on Air", Bud Coates goes into great deal on this topic and suggests that an odd numbered breathing pattern is a much more effective and reduces the chance of injury by balancing out which foot is landing when you exhale. By using a 5 count pattern where you breath in for 3 steps and out for 2, or a 7 count, breathing in for 4 steps and out for 3 steps, you achieve this result.
Try this on your next run and see what feels most comfortable for you. You will find that it will take a fair amount of focus at the start, but once you get the rhythm down it gets easier. A good check in after this becomes second nature is to pay attention to which foot is landing when exhaling. If it's always one side, you might need to count out the pattern in your head for awhile until both your left and right feet land evenly during an exhale.
Listen to Your Lungs
As you become more in tune with the breathing/running connection, it becomes a great tool to monitor your effort during a run. If you use the patterns as described above, you will find that you will move between them depending on how fast you're running. For an easy run, you might find that a 7 count pattern feels super comfortable, but for a tempo effort you need to adjust to a 5 count to better match the intensity. Hard intervals might take you into a 3 count (2 in 1 out).
This becomes an effective way for you to monitor your pace without having to rely on your GPS, allowing you to run by feel. For example, if you're running a long run with the focus on building aerobic capacity, you should be at a relaxed, controlled pace. If you find your breathing pattern is being pulled into a faster rhythm, it's a sign that you should slow down.
In a previous post, I shared this video on Anaerobic threshold which is a good overview of how oxygen is used in the body while running and how this translates to the training benefits you gain from various intensities. Check it out.
Give these tips a try and comment below. What type of breathing works best for you!?
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