Breathing for Runners
You already know that breathing is important when it comes to movement, training and simply existing. We’ve all been taught to exhale on the exertion and inhale on the return.
Okay. Great. Easy enough. But is there more to it than that?
Not surprisingly, there is. Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re breathing correctly. And who wants to move through the world oxygen-deprived?
Hopefully, not you.
Breathing is our first motor program. It’s also the most essential and foundational one we have.
In short, it’s our superpower. Yet we begin to lose optimal function of this pattern early on in life.
We’ll get into why that is later. For now, let’s just recognize that when our breathing is compromised, so is our posture. That then negatively impacts our deep core muscles which then negatively impacts our breathing even further. It’s a bad cycle that can spiral further out of control from there.
Your movement quality suffers whenever your diaphragm – that large, dome-shaped muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity – misfunctions since it’s in the center point of your body. If it’s faulty, there’s an automatic lack of stability that no amount of abdominal or gluteal bracing can compensate for.
Have you ever tried to increase a joint’s range of motion, improve flexibility or move up in weight in a “big lift”… only to find all the “normal” strategies fail? Believe it or not, that could be due to incorrect breathing. If you’re not assessing and correcting your breathing mechanics, you might find yourself getting stuck more often than you’d like to admit.
Clearly then, this is a very important aspect of existing, much less being an athlete. But here’s an even longer list of what correcting your breathing can do:
1. Improve deep core muscle function
2. Improve length in muscles being forced to assist in breathing since the deep core muscles are underactive
3. Allow joints to return to their optimal position
4. Improve bracing
5. Decrease stress and anxiety
6. Improve endurance
7. Decrease neck tension
8. Improve posture
And so we come full-circle again, this time in a very beneficial way.
Poor posture often brings with it significant limitations such as tight hamstrings and calves. Additionally, if your goal is to train the “core” but you’re ignoring the kind of deep core muscles good posture incorporates, you’re not training in an ideal manner.
The bottom line is this: if you can’t breathe correctly, you are NOT really training the core.
STRENGTH & CONDITIONING
This is an easy one.
If you want to weight train, you need to learn how to brace and maintain that brace while moving and applying force. You also need to power breathe. Yet if you lack the ability to perform basic diaphragmatic breathing, you most definitely cannot correctly perform power breathing either.
Therefore, you’ll experience poor posture in the head, shoulders, neck, mid-back and lower back.
When fatigue sets in, learning to relax and breathe as slowly and deeply as possible can be hugely beneficial. This also works during uncomfortable aspects of the running life like hills, wind, snow and certain kinds of periodic pain.
If you’ve ever experienced a stitch in your side, then you know what it feels like when your diaphragm spasms. And every runner knows what it’s like to get leg cramps, oftentimes in the calves and hamstrings. These kinds of pain typically indicate that muscles aren’t activating in the proper sequence. Some muscles are working too hard; some not hard enough.
This may be the obvious part. But if you are an excellent breather, you will have improved gas exchange to allow for improved oxygen delivery to your cells and overall improved endurance.
When you breathe with your diaphragm, you’re increasing your vagal tone, which regulates the body’s rest and digest state as opposed to the fight or flight response triggered within the autonomic nervous system.
Before a race, do you ever experience an extremely accelerated heartbeat, faster breathing, anxiety and a bad case of “nerves”? If so, this is the best time to work on slow, deep breaths. And focus on a longer exhale as well. This helps to calm you down quickly. As little as three can get you hyper-focused and ready to go!
The better you breathe, the more work you can perform in a session and the more weight you’re bound to lose.
So… Why do we lose our breathing patterns?
There are a number of reasons why our breathing habits might not be as good as they should be.
1. Sitting too much (especially in bad posture)
2. Too much screen time
3. Poor posture/postural awareness
4. Movement dysfunction (increased compensatory strategies)
5. Specializing in a specific sport at an early age
6. Improper training methods (training muscles, not movements)
Notice the trend above? Spending too much time in flexion (sitting in some form), stress and poor movement are the primary culprits.
Yet there are some simple breathing strategies you can adopt to not only improve your running and fitness, but also your overall well-being.
A great breathing exercise to start with that uses the floor as a feedback mechanism so you can feel the breath.
Lie on a flat surface face down. Place hand over hand and rest your forehead on your hands. Breathe in through your nose and feel the pressure of the abdominal cavity pressing into the floor ad your low back rises. Exhale through your nose and let your back flatten to the floor. Repeat for at least 10 breaths and each time try to lengthen your tempo of inhale and exhale. Start with at least four seconds in and four seconds out.
A great and relaxing exercises that can be incorporated into your daily routine
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Make sure your face is parallel to the ceiling. If not, place a towel roll or pillow under your head to ensure it is in a neutral position. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose and allow your abdominal cavity with expand 360 degrees, while your chest remains relatively stable. Exhale through your nose (or mouth) and allow your belly button to move towards your spine. Repeat for at least 10 breaths and each time try to lengthen your tempo of inhale and exhale. Start with at least four seconds in and four seconds out.
Practice a total of 10 minutes per day (before bed, when you wake up, and at your desk) in addition to when you warm-up for a run.