It’s probably not often you think about your breath. But paying attention to and practicing intentional breathing is a key that can unlock better performance—just like logging regular miles, maintaining form, and staying hydrated.
“The more effectively you are breathing, the more you can adequately supply your cells with oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide from your cells,” explains Michele Olson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., senior clinical professor of sport science and physical education at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Most of your energy comes from your breath—not food or drink. So when breathing is inefficient, it places extra stress on the cardiovascular system, resulting in fatigue setting in faster, explains Alex Rothstein, C.S.C.S., an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and program coordinator of exercise science at New York Institute of Technology.
Step one in making the most of every inhale and exhale, especially in support of your stride, is recognizing the role it plays in propelling you through the miles. After that, it’s all about fine-tuning your breathing efficiency and learning to make it work to your advantage.
How breathing can hold you back
Many factors play a role in inefficient breathing. You could be running low on energy reserves, such as glycogen. Your posture could be poor, which can constrict the ability of the lungs to fully inflate and prevent the respiratory muscles from shortening and lengthening optimally. Running in a hunched-over position can also constrict the deep transverse abdominis muscle, a key core muscle of the trunk that supports the action of breathing—this can not only affect contractibility of the diaphragm, but also weaken low spine stability. Plus, toward the end of your long run, all your muscles can fatigue, including those involved in breathing.
No matter what it is that’s messing with your ability to breathe optimally, your inhales and exhales will feel erratic, says Belisa Vranich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of The Breathing Class in New York City. Not only can this leave you at a higher risk for injury, but if you aren’t using the correct breathing muscles, or yours are weak, your endurance and performance suffer.
Ways to improve your breathing
To better control your breathing, you have to regularly exercise the breathing muscles of the body, says Vranich. This will delay fatigue, especially in longer distances. The catch: “You have to do it separately from your sport in order to work out your breathing muscles to exhaustion,” she says.
Vranich’s go-to strengthening exercise for better breathing is called exhale pulsation. This can feel similar to Kapalabhati or Breath of Fire (which you might do a in a yoga session), except instead of dispersing irritability or anger, it’s used to work your exhale muscles so that you can breathe efficiently.
To do exhale pulsations, sit up tall, on the floor with legs crossed. Pull your belly button in so your stomach is concave. Put your hand on your belly, and forcefully engage the abs as you exhale through the mouth. Each time you exhale, it should be short and sharp, like you’re blowing out a candle. Your back should not move. Between each exhale, relax your belly—the inhale is passive. This engages the deep core muscles, says Vranich, who recommends setting aside 15 minutes before or after a run or strength session to work on your breathing muscles—just as you would any other muscle.
One word for how you should aim to breathe on a regular basis: diaphragmatically. Most people use their auxiliary neck and shoulder muscles as primary breathing muscles, says Vranich, which affects performance, along with physical and mental health. “Breathing with auxiliary muscles means you are taking a smaller, upper-body breath, which has to be faster to be efficient,” she explains. “Faster, shallow breathing is a stress breath, so your heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol automatically rise.”
Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to take in more oxygenated air and requires less energy than shallow upper-chest breathing, Olson explains.
That’s not the only reason you should breathe from your belly: “Good deep-breathing mechanics usually result in parasympathetic activity, which is more of a relaxing response, while in consistent or abnormally fast breathing can influence sympathetic responses, or your fight or flight reaction,” adds Rothstein.
Though Vranich suggests strengthening your breathing muscles outside of your runs, that doesn’t mean you can’t put techniques into practice as you check off miles. Here’s how to focus on the breath while moving your feet:
1. Start with intentional deep breaths
Take several very deep breaths after your warmup and before high-intensity exercise. To do it, place one hand on the upper chest and the other just below your rib cage, breathing in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your lower hand while keeping the hand on your chest as still as possible; tighten your stomach muscles so that your stomach moves back in, as you exhale through pursed lips. This ensures that you maximally stretch the elastic muscles and lung tissue of the respiratory system before stressing them during exercise, says Rothstein.
2. Check your posture
While running,“focus on certain form cues that make breathing and filling the lungs easier, like relaxing the shoulders down and back, broadening the chest, and swinging the arms like pendulums, front to back,” explains Amanda Nurse, an RRCA-certified run coach, founder of Wellness in Motion Run Coaching, and a marathoner. The upper back muscles, lats, and core are really important for better, more efficient breathing while tight chest/pec muscles are a cause of shallow breathing. This is also why it’s important to integrate posture-correcting exercises into your strength routine, like superman, glute bridge, and plank.
3. Try nasal breathing
The nose provides additional pathways for the air to be cleaned, warmed, and humidified before going into the sensitive part of the respiratory system, Rothstein explains. It also stimulates that parasympathetic nervous system and saves you energy. Plus, according to James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, nasal breathing results in a 20% increase in efficiency of oxygen uptake. This allows you to operate at a higher level with your heart rate lower and helps significantly decrease recovery time.
Unfortunately, most people breathe through their mouth. “When you mouth-breathe, you tend to breathe too much,” says Nestor. “When you’re breathing too much, you tend to breathe more shallowly, and when you breathe more shallowly, most of the air you take into your body you actually don’t use for oxygen exchange.”
Nose breathing doesn’t come easily and can be uncomfortable, so ease into it. Rothstein recommends nasal breathing during low-intensity runs to start, then progressing the intensity of exercise as you get more comfortable with it. “If a runner is able to dedicate the time to mastering nose breathing at their normal running speed, they will find that they fatigue less and actually feel better during their runs,” Rothstein says.
Nailing nasal breathing forces you to breathe slower, which Nestor says is one of the key benefits. Plus, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2021 revealed that “slow-paced breathing can activate anti-inflammatory pathways and increase lung capacity, which consequently increases aerobic endurance, emotional well-being, and sleep quality.”
4. Attempt other techniques
Rothstein recommends trying different breathing patterns while running to find what works for you. For example, breathe in through your nose for four seconds, then out through your mouth for four seconds. After one minute, add a two-second hold after the inhale, and before the exhale.
Then challenge yourself with an eight-second inhale, followed by a two-second hold, and a four-second exhale. “Adding these types of breathing challenges to your exercise session will enhance your breathing skill and efficiency while also increasing the mindfulness and feeling of enjoyment of your exercise session, once you become comfortable with the techniques,” he says.
When it comes to your inhales and exhales, finding the practice that feels more natural is really what’s going to allow you to progress in running, says Nurse. “You’ll be able to push your pace and distance with quality breathing that will allow for maximum oxygen consumption and quickly remove carbon dioxide buildup,” she explains. As another way to try to better your breathing, she suggests taking more steps per breath on easy runs (three steps breathing in and three steps breathing out), and fewer steps per breath as you turn up the intensity (two steps breathing in and two steps breathing out on medium-intensity runs).
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