Breathing While Running
We have all been there–at some point during a high-performance sprint or run, you find yourself getting short of breath. This, as most people would have you believe, is not the result of running too fast. Instead, it is from not breathing properly. Mindy Solkin, owner and head coach of New York’s The Running Center says that it is a common slip made by runners around the world. “Runners think about training their heart and legs, but they rarely think about training their lungs,” she says. “A strong respiratory system can improve your running. It’s a simple equation: better breathing equals more oxygen for your muscles, and that equals more endurance.”
The Breathing Machinery
Let’s look at what happens while we breathe.
- With every breath we take, air is drawn into the trachea or windpipe via your nose or mouth and the throat.
- The air then passes down the bronchi, which divides it among thousands of smaller airways called bronchioles, until the air reaches almost 600 million small sacs in the lung called alveoli.
- Each alveolus is surrounded by a net of tiny capillaries, through which the red blood cells exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.
- During inhalation, the diaphragm (the dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs) flattens and presses against the abdominal organs allowing the lungs to expand as much as possible and pull in more oxygen.
While running, the levels of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream increase, leading to a drop in blood pH levels, triggering an increase in the breathing rate. During vigorous exercise like running, an average person’s lungs can pull in about 3 litres of air as opposed to the 0.5 litre it pulls in with every relaxed breath.
Advantages of Correct Breathing While Running
The reason for breathing right during running is clear–to supply the body with enough oxygen. The amount of oxygen we can push into our bloodstream is determined by two factors: The ability of our body to absorb oxygen and distribute it to where it is needed. The first one is genetic and cannot be altered, but the second factor is dependent on our breathing pattern.
Irregular or bad breathing patterns lead to an imbalance in the amount of oxygen our body demands and the amount it is able to pull in with every breath. This ends in fatigue, dizziness and sometimes side stitch, a stabbing pain felt on the right side of the body or the tip of the shoulder blade during a vigorous activity.
The researchers at the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at England’s Brunel University measured the correlation between breathing and the fatigue levels of marathoners. The study found that the runner whose breathing was most strained showed the most leg weakness and concluded that the harder the respiratory muscles had to work, the more the legs would struggle. Furthermore, studies conducted at Seattle Pacific University’s Biology Department have found that improper breathing techniques can slow you down and impair your overall performance while running.
Breathe the Right Way
While one may want to believe that breathing is a natural activity that doesn’t need training, breathing is as much a physical activity as running or swimming is. There are right and wrong ways to go about it.
So what is the right way to breathe? The nose versus mouth debate is an ongoing one and till date, there has been no conclusive evidence which states that one is better than the other.
Mouth Breathing vs Nose Breathing While Running
While most advocates of nasal breathing like Roy Sugarman (director of applied neuroscience for Athletes’ Performance and the US Men’s National Soccer Team) say that it increases carbon dioxide saturation in the blood and it helps warm the air that enters the blood, others like Allison McConnell (respiratory physiologist at Brunel University and author of Breathe Strong, Perform Better) claim that breathing through the nose just makes the process needlessly hard.
Forcing air through the nostrils can tighten your jaw and other facial muscles. Such tension is not good for running. Breathing through the mouth helps maintain a relaxed composure while running.
The ‘dead fish’ position where the runners keep their mouths open slightly, making it easier for them to take comfortable, shallow breaths, is found to be beneficial.
A study conducted at the University of Arizona, however, found that in reality, the more demanding the activity, the more we switch to oro-nasal breathing or simply put, a combination of both nasal and oral breathing.
From The Belly
Today, there seems to be a consensus on the importance of diaphragmatic breathing. Solkin says that breathing from the belly allows you to not just breathe in more oxygen and expel more carbon dioxide, but you are also indulging in a belly workout unknowingly.
The downside of chest breathing, says Budd Coates author of Running On Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter, is that the intercostal muscles you use in the process are weaker than the diaphragm and hence will fatigue faster, leaving you exhausted sooner.
Here’s how you can practice belly breathing:
- Lie down on your back
- Breathe deeply so your stomach rises while you inhale and lowers while you exhale
In the beginning, you will find that your chest also rises and falls. With practice, you will get to a point where your chest stops moving.
Maintain The Rhythm
After the right breathing, the next step is to achieve a breathing pattern or rhythm and maintain it while running. Rhythmic breathing, says Coates, coordinates footstrike with inhalation and exhalation in an odd/even pattern so that you will land alternately on your right and left foot at the beginning of every exhalation. This way, the impact of running will be shared equally across both sides of the body. Having a breathing rhythm, thus, reduces injuries and makes breathing a mindful activity helping you to be more centered and calm.
Here’s how you can arrive at a breathing rhythm:
- Start counting your footsteps in time with your breathing. Starting out with a 2-2 breathing pattern, meaning you breathe in while stepping left foot and right foot and breathe out similarly for two footsteps.
- Practice different patterns like 3-3, 2-3, 3-4 and so on to see what works best for you. You may have to work with different breathing patterns while running in different speeds and different terrains.
Exercises to Improve Breathing
The process of breathing right while running does not stop at arriving at a suitable breathing rhythm. It requires regular practice and sustained exercise to make it last and turn it into a natural part of your running action. The basic idea is to train your diaphragm and strengthen it to perform better just as you would with any other muscle in your body. Some exercises that will help you achieve this include:
- Swimming increases diaphragm control, oxygen absorption and lung capacity as it involves regulating breathing under water.
- Yogic breathing exercises like Anulom Vilom, Ujjayi Pranayama and Kapalabhati, too, are known for increasing lung capacity, soothing the nerves and helping to establish a natural breathing rhythm.
- Similar results can be achieved with Pilates poses like mermaid, hundred, swan and standing chest expansions.
Understanding that breathing right is the first step towards running right is in itself a huge stride. Discover the breathing pattern that suits you and use it to your best advantage.