Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE RACE: Improving Your Breath For The Run And Beyond...

* This is for Sarah & Tammy...keep breathin...

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” –Hilary Cooper

I've always loved this quote; but, as wonderful as it is for a life mantra, it actually doesn't work that well for a running mantra.  A great run really shouldn't take your breath away, right?  Ideally, you want as much air as you can get!  Yet breathing is an oft overlooked part of running.  We work so hard to train our legs, our core, and our heart, but very few of us train our lungs and diaphragm to help with our breathing.   

Breathing 101:    

It's simple:  our bodies need oxygen.  When you're exercising or performing any strenuous activity, your muscles need more oxygen than when you're sedentary. Run up a hill, you start to breath harder because your muscles start working harder.  Run faster, same thing.  The more oxygen you're able to efficiently deliver to your muscles, the better and longer those muscles will be able to perform. 

Chest vs. Belly:  

While you're sitting there reading this, or next time you're out for a run, pay attention to your breathing.  Do you breath from your chest, or from your belly? Most of us are "chest-breathers," meaning that if you put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly, you would see the hand on your chest moving more than the hand on your belly.  Go out for a run, work up to a fast pace, then stop and do this.  Pay attention to which hand moves.  If you're a "belly breather," (or a "diaphragmatic breather") the hand on your belly should move while the hand on your chest stays still.  

Belly breathing is better.  Why?  You can move more oxygen through your body with belly breathing rather than chest breathing.  According to, "[t]he upper 10 percent of your lungs transport around 6 mL of oxygen per minute while the lower 10 percent can transport around 40 mL per minute . . . ." When you're chest breathing, you're using only this upper 10 percent and taking short, shallow breaths.  With belly breathing, however, you're using that lower portion of your lungs that can transport more oxygen, while taking  longer deeper breaths to pull in more oxygen.    

Chest breathing is often associated with stress.  If you're chest breathing while running, your shoulders go up every time you breathe in, which causes tension and wasted energy.  When you're working on endurance, every little bit of energy you can conserve helps.   In addition, Livestrong explains that "[c]hronic stress eventually restricts the connective and muscular tissue in the chest, subsequently decreasing your chest's range-of-motion.  If your chest does not expand adequately, the amount of oxygen delivered to your tissues drops, negatively impacting your health."  Belly breathing, on the other hand, increases the amount of oxygen going to your heart and body, relaxes your body, and lowers your heart rate.   

Learning to Belly Breathe:  

Breathing usually is a very unconscious process.  But to improve your running endurance, you might want to start consciously thinking about your breathing. To do that, you'll want to practice standing still first. 

Stand with your feel shoulder-width apart.  Place your hand just below your ribs and inhale through your nose for three seconds, expanding your abdomen.  Hold for three seconds without exhaling any air.  Then take a second breath in for three seconds and feel your abdomen expand further.  Then exhale through your mouth and pull your your abdomen toward your back.  Practice this a few times to get the hang of it.  

Now for the run...The important thing to remember here is that it's better to breathe through your mouth when you're running.  Normally, we breathe through our nose, but for running it's better to breathe through your mouth to get more oxygen and release more carbon dioxide.  Plus, with your mouth slightly open (kind of like a dead fish) your face will be more relaxed.  

Start with a very slow jog.  Inhale for three seconds through your mouth, pushing your abdominal muscles out.  Hold it for three seconds (this is where it's important to be doing a very slow jog).  This gives the air a chance to move through the lungs.  Then push the breath out for five seconds by pushing your abdominal muscles in.  Obviously, this isn't a breathing pattern you can maintain once you start increasing the pace. So practice at this slow pace until the breathing becomes second-nature.  

Get in a Rhythm:  

Once the belly breathing becomes more natural, you can work on increasing your pace and coordinating the breath with your natural running rhythm.  Every runner has (or should have) a certain breathing rhythm when he or she runs. Check what your normal breathing pattern is (without worrying about belly breathing for a minute) by counting the number of steps it takes you to breathe in and the number it takes to breathe out when you're running.  Also pay attention to whether you strike with your left or right foot when you breathe in or out. Now try to develop a footfall/belly breathing pattern.  Start with a 2-2 pattern, where you breathe in on left-right, breathe out left-right (or vice-versa), making sure you're using your good belly breathing technique.  Then, as your belly breathing technique becomes more natural, try to increase to a 3-3 or 4-4 pattern.    

Additional Tips:  

The best rule of thumb to know if your breathing is under control is the "talk test."  Can you have a conversation when you're running?  If not, slow it down to a conversational pace.  

Also, Runners World has three great Pilates recommendations to help you improve your breathing, strengthen your diaphragm, and stretch your chest muscle.  Give them a try! 

This his how Addie practices belly breathing...

Breathing Beyond the Run

Don't leave your belly breathing behind when you take off your running shoes! The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing go well beyond the run and into the rest of your life.  Did you know that babies are natural belly breathers?  (Babies do so many things right!).  What makes us stop doing that natural form of breathing? One answer:  stress!  When you're stressed, you tend to chest breathe with very short, shallow breaths, which creates - you guessed it - more stress on your system. reports that nearly 50% of all adults have predominantly chest breathing when at rest.  According to NormalBreathing, chest breathing causes fundamental health issues that promote chronic disease, result in low oxygen levels, and cause lymphatic stagnation.  Belly breathing, however, creates superior oxygenation, massages the lymphatic system, and moves wastes from the vital organs that are just under the diaphragm (kidneys, liver, pancreas, etc.). 

So don't leave your belly breathing behind when you finish your run.  You have to keep training your diaphragm even when you're not running.  Lie or sit in a nice, quiet, comfortable place and practice your belly breathing (through your nose this time.  You can breathe through your nose when you're at rest).  Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest and focus on expanding your abdomen to make your bottom hand move while your top hand stays still.  You can also lie on your back with 2-3 medium-sized books on your stomach and focus on raising the books about one inch when you inhale.  Practice this morning and night. Keep your breath smooth and don't strain.  To relax even further, make your exhale twice as long as your inhale.  Then, who knows...maybe your next step will be meditation!!  

If you can train yourself to belly breathe, both on and off the run, you'll be in for having a lot more moments in life that can take your breath away....

Are you a chest or belly breather?  Do you work on your breathing techniques?  


Jen said...

I try really hard to bring consciousness to belly breathing, but I must admit it isn't a strong capacity I possess. Yoga helps a bit because of the focus on breath, but in my daily life, I have to remind myself. I try every day to remind myself, but it hasn't developed well. A work in progress!

Life Through Endurance said...

Hey Jen...I'm right there with ya! I really, really want to get into yoga and meditation more to work on that!