It's not often that we think about our breath – inhaling and exhaling happens involuntarily, after all. But paying attention to your breathing could unlock better performance.
‘Running is an endurance sport that relies heavily on the intake of oxygen and the output of carbon dioxide,’ explains Michele Olson, senior clinical professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Alabama, US. ‘The more effectively you’re breathing, the more you can adequately supply your cells with oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide from your cells.’
Most of our energy comes from our breath, not our 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, exercise physiologist and programme coordinator of exercise science atNew York Institute of Technology.
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How breathing can hold you back
Many factors play a role in inefficient breathing. 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. Your deep transverse abdominis muscle, a key core muscle that supports breathing, can also become fatigued. This can affect contractibility of the diaphragm but also weaken low spine stability.
No matter what it is that’s messing with your ability to take full inhales and exhales and supply the body with oxygen, your breathing will show up as erratic, says Belisa Vranich,
a clinical psychologist and founder of The Breathing Class. To control it, regularly exercise the breathing muscles of your body, says Dr Vranich. This will delay fatigue, especially in longer distances. The catch? ‘You have to do it separately from your sport to work out your breathing muscles to exhaustion,’ she says.
Dr Vranich’s go-to strengthening exercise is called exhale pulsation. Here’s how to do it: sit up tall with your legs crossed. Pull your belly button in so that your stomach is concave – you should have a slight rounding of the spine. Then, with your hand on your belly, force fully engage your abs as you exhale through your 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. This engages your deep core muscles, says Dr Vranich, who suggests allowing 15 minutes before or after a run or strength session to work on your breathing muscles.
How to improve your breathing when running
Here’s how you should breathe on the run and throughout the day: diaphragmatically. Most people use their auxiliary neck and shoulder muscles as their primary breathing muscles, says Dr Vranich. ‘Breathing with auxiliary muscles means you’re taking a smaller, upper-body breath, which has to be faster to be efficient. Faster, shallow breathing is a stress breath, so your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol rise,’ she says.
And 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 inconsistent or abnormally fast breathing can influence sympathetic responses or your fight-or-flight reaction,’ adds Rothstein.
Though Dr Vranich suggests strengthening your breathing muscles outside of your runs, that doesn’t mean you can’t put techniques into practice as you’re ticking off miles. Here’s how to focus on your breathing when running:
Warm up with some diaphragmatic breathing
Take several deep breaths after your warm-up and before high-intensity exercise. To do it, place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your ribcage, 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; try to 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.
Check your posture
While running, ‘focus on certain form cues that make breathing and filling the lungs easier, such as relaxing the shoulders down and back, broadening the chest and swinging the arms like pendulums, front to back,’ explains Amanda Nurse, a coach, marathoner and founder of Wellness in Motion coaching. The upper back muscles, lats and core are really important to more efficient breathing, while tight chest/pec muscles are a cause of shallow breathing, because it’s harder to create more space for breathing, she adds. This is also why it’s important to integrate posture-strengthening exercises – such as the superman, glute bridge and plank – into your strength routine.
Try nasal breathing
‘The nose provides additional passageways for air to be cleaned, warmed and humidified before entering the sensitive lower respiratory system that can be damaged by air debris or cold and dry air,’ say Rothstein. ‘Breathing through the nose also helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and will keep an individual more relaxed, saving energy.’ Plus, according to James Nestor, author of Breath: TheNew Science Of A Lost Art, nasal breathing results in a 20 per cent increase in efficiency of oxygen uptake.
Unfortunately, most people breathe through their mouths. ‘When you mouth breathe, you tend to breathe too much,’ says Nestor. ‘You tend to breathe more shallowly and, when you do this, most of the air you take into your body isn’t actually used for oxygen exchange. It’s in your mouth, throat and bronchi, and it never makes it to your lungs.’
Nose breathing doesn’t come easy and can be uncomfortable, so it’s best to ease in. Rothstein recommends nasal breathing during low-intensity runs to start, then progressing the intensity as you get more comfortable with it.
Nailing nasal breathing forces you to breathe slower, which Nestor says is key. Plus, research published in the Frontiers In Psychology journal in 2021 revealed that ‘slow-paced breathing can activate anti-inflammatory pathways and increase lung capacity, which consequently increases aerobic endurance, emotional wellbeing and sleep quality’.
Try different breathing patterns while running
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 but 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 build-up,’ she explains.
Take more steps per breath on easy runs
As another way to try to improve your breathing, Nurse suggests taking more steps per breath on easy runs (for example, three steps breathing in and three steps breathing out) and fewer steps per breath as you turn up the intensity (for example, two steps breathing in and two steps breathing out on medium-intensity runs).