Hello Runners,

Let’s face it…you have to love summer in Kentucky!  One day its 70 degrees and then three days later it’s 90 degrees.   Hopefully the heat acclimation note from last week is helping you adapt.  This week, I want to spend some time talking about proper breathing techniques. 

Every season I get questions about how to properly breathe. Even though we all breathe, trying to do so while running can be a challenge.  In this week’s note I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about the proper techniques for breathing, how to use your breathing to help monitor effort and how to improve your breathing during your runs. 

At the end I am including a video about running and how that can transform the lives of the people around us and an organization called Back on My Feet. 

Now, let’s get into this week’s topic – breathing!

The Basics

Many people struggle with how to breathe properly particularly when running conditions and paces change.  That feeling like you are out of breath can dramatically slow even the most seasoned runner.  Sometimes you will slow because your muscles are not getting the proper oxygen and sometimes you will slow because of the mental drain from having to breathe so hard.  To overcome this challenge, runners need to be more deliberate about their breathing. 

Breathing is an involuntary action, meaning, that the body will breathe even if we don’t dedicate any conscious effort toward the act.  However, breathing is also unique in that it can also function, at least temporarily, as a voluntary action…and that is a very important distinction.  If we can treat breathing as a voluntary action, then we can exert control over how we breathe.  This control can be exerted in three ways, 1) the method we use to breathe 2) how deeply we inhale and exhale and 3) the rhythm we use to breathe.  Each of these will help ensure that we are ingesting the needed oxygen to fuel our bodies. 

Breathing Techniques

To fully take control of your breathing there are two techniques that I recommend practicing; diaphragmatic breathing and deep breathing. 

To get the most efficient results we need to breathe diaphragmatically.  That is to say, that we need to breathe using our diaphragm which is a muscle located below the lungs and above the abdomen.  This technique is also known as belly breathing.  On inhalation, the diaphragm contracts and creates a cavity which helps to pull oxygen into your lungs.  Upon exhale the diaphragm relaxes and helps to push the air back out of the lungs.  By training the diaphragm muscle you can exert a great deal of control not only on your breathing rhythm, but also your breathing intensity (how deeply you inhale or exhale). 

But to breathe diaphragmatically you first need to isolate your diaphragm muscle and learn how to use it.  There are several exercises to do this but one simple exercise involves lying on your back and placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.  Practice breathing so that each time you inhale or exhale your chest stays in place but your stomach raises or lowers.  The stomach is moving because the diaphragm muscle is contracting and displacing the abdomen.  You need to practice this technique because the diaphragm plays a very important part in everything else in this note.  So don’t skip this step. 

The second technique I recommend is done while standing and will help you isolate your diaphragm muscle and also breathe deeply.  As you are standing straight (think reset), imagine that you are trying to fill the lower 1/3 of your lungs.  Then fill the next 1/3 then the final 1/3.  You can only do this if you are using your diaphragm but if you can do it then you are well on your way to better breathing.  Practice pulling in a lot of air and completely filling your lungs and then exhaling and completely emptying your lungs. 

Also, if you are standing you will usually not notice your stomach move while you are breathing.  That is because the diaphragm will encounter resistance from the abdomen when standing.  As a result, the expansion will be witnessed on the sides of the ribcage. 

Nose versus Mouth Breathing

Much of the literature on diaphragmatic breathing suggests that it is best to inhale through the nostrils and exhale through the mouth. This seems to be a good technique for meditation and relaxation however, it is not the best technique for runners.  The mouth is larger than the nose and during exercise it is better to both inhale and exhale through the mouth.  Some literature suggests that it is good to use both the nose and the mouth for inhalation and exhalation.  If this is something you can do, then by all means, do it.  Extra oxygen is a benefit regardless of the source. 

A practical note about mouth breathing relates to eating and drinking during a race.  Since you are breathing all of the time then it stands to reason that anytime you take in water or fuel (GU, oranges, chomps, beans) then you will be asking your mouth to do double duty.  Basically you will be simultaneously trying to consume oxygen (requiring your mouth to be open) while also chewing and swallowing (requiring the mouth to be closed at least part of the time).  This is why your breathing gets messed up as you take water at a water stop. 

If you are eating something like an orange then one tip is chew with your mouth open.  I know it’s gross but the people in front of you are looking forward and the people behind you are looking at the back of your head so it is fine.  Just don’t do this by any photographers.  If you are chewing beans or chomps then one tip is to put them into your cheek and let them dissolve. 

Breathing Patterns

Finally, it is important to learn to control our breathing patterns by timing our breathing to coincide with our footfalls (steps).  Even though breathing may not be a great indicator of pace, over time, you will find that breathing patterns can be a good indication of effort.    After you learn how to breathe with your diaphragm this process is a lot easier. 

In order to become proficient at changing your breathing patterns, you are going to have to listen to your breathing while you are running. If you are running at a comfortable pace then your breathing should also be comfortable but you should still be breathing in connection with your footfalls.    

One common breathing pattern is to inhale for 2 footfalls and to exhale for 2 footfalls.  So you breathe in when your left foot hits the ground and continue inhaling through the right footfall.  Then breathe out when the left foot hits the ground and continue through until your right foot hits. Then repeat.  A lot of people run with this pattern.  Other patterns include 3 and 3, 3 and 2 and so on. 

Personally, I have three different breathing patterns.  Most of my runs use a 2-2 pattern.  When I am racing I typically use a 2-1 pattern (where I really push out on the exhale) and then for an all out sprint I use a 1-1 pattern. 

The key is that you can’t be afraid to use your diaphragm to really pull in and push out the air.  If you are in a race and you feel short on oxygen then really PULL THE AIR IN when you inhale and really PUSH THE AIR OUT when you exhale.  Your breathing may be louder but that is okay as long as it helps you run. 

The key with breathing is to take control of it so that it serves your purposes as a runner.  Even though you will continue to breathe without these techniques, you will run a lot faster, and feel better if you have these techniques mastered.

YouTube Video

This week’s video is a bit longer, but I promise you it is worth the time.  This is a presentation that is given by Anne Mahlum who is the founder of Back on My Feet.  BoMF is an organization that works with homeless people helping them complete marathons and half marathons.  A lot of people euphemistically reference running and its ability to change lives.  Anne provides proof that this is real. 
Here is the link: http://youtu.be/LVWCqCe1D8Y

Run well…


Shawn Herbig is an RRCA Certified Running Coach.  In his day job he owns a market research and data analytics firm called IQS Research. 

© 2013 Shawn Herbig