Although we, the TR Crew, are continuously talking about proper running form, we have yet to address another important piece of the sport: breathing. Breathing is defined as “the process of taking air into and expelling it from the lungs”, and although we seem to believe this process is something we should all have under control, a great percentage of runners suffer from energy loss due to incorrect breathing form. In order to understand why proper breathing habits are important we must first take into account how oxygen affects our muscles.
As you begin a workout, your body does some pretty miraculous things. First, your blood vessels dilate in order to increase blood flow to the muscles at work. This process is quickly followed by your body diverting the blood that is flowing to your organs to the muscles in need (some people, normally around the age of 50, suffer from a condition called ischemic colitis because of this event). The increased blood flow allows for your muscles to receive an increased amount of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein with the ability to bind itself to either oxygen or carbon dioxide. As the hemoglobin reaches your muscles it releases the bound oxygen and then binds itself with carbon dioxide on its way back to your lungs. The oxygen released in your muscles is used to breakdown glucose, which is used for energy. This leads us to the reason why proper breathing is important: with limited oxygen, your body will fail to break down glucose, causing you to become fatigued and suffer a quick drop in energy levels. *thanks to HowStuffWorks.com for the science lesson
Before I begin to explain the proper way to breathe while running, I want to share that this is something that I, too, need to work on, because although I do practice deep breaths and breathing in patterns, I have always been a chest and nose breather (defined below). Runner’s World offers some great tips on proper breathing form, which are summarized below:
- Deeper breaths help to utilize more air sacs in your lungs allowing you to get more oxygen for less effort.
- Become a “belly-breather”. Chest breathers are actually burning energy due to tenseness in their shoulders. Also, belly-breathing allows for even larger breaths and stored oxygen for your run.
- Open your mouth. Keeping your mouth open not only eases breathing, but it takes your mind off of the action of breathing and limits wasted energy. The only argument against this rule is in regard to colder weather, where your nose can provide a warming action for incoming air.
- Breathe in patterns. From RunnersWorld.com:
Coordinating your inhales and exhales with your footfalls develops diaphragmatic strength. Start with a 2-2 pattern-breathe in while stepping left, right; breathe out while stepping left, right. Advance to 3-3 (breathe in, step left, right, left; breathe out, step right, left, right), and then a 4-4 pattern.
Although these steps sound easy in theory, in practice, they are not always the most simple to perform. Take it from a guy who has been through physical therapy for his breathing due to a spontaneous pneumothorax (i.e. collapsed lung), breathing isn’t as simple as we all like to think. One of the best ways to improve your breathing performance while you run is through cross-training. Most cross-training exercises not only help you to build muscle in other areas of your body, but also help you work on your diaphragm. A well-tuned diaphragm will give you more control over your breathing during a long run. The best forms of cross-training for tuning your diaphragm are in the form of body conditioning (i.e. Pilates or Yoga). Pilates and yoga have many exercises (such as The Swan or The Hundred) that focus on core strengthening, abdominal muscles, and breathing form. It should also be noted that other forms of cross training, such as spinning, climbing, or strength training will help to improve your respiratory function, but nothing focuses on core strengthening and abdominal muscle training in combination with breathing like pilates or yoga.
Side Note from Meagan: One thing I’ve noticed when I run is that breathing properly can be rather difficult when I am not wearing a supportive enough sports bra. It’s tough to keep my inhale/exhale slow and even when the girls are bouncing all over the place and shaking my chest. So, ladies, save yourself from breathing woes (and future sagging), by investing in a quality high-impact sports bra for running!