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Mastering the Breath

article breathing Jul 26, 2021

Breathing may not be something you think about often, but you’d better believe it becomes pretty front and center when you’re running. (Ever heard the phrase “sucking wind”?) Yet even though breathing is an involuntary function, that doesn’t mean you can’t control it — or use it to your advantage to become a better runner.


Many runners want to be able to run faster. And what usually holds them back is becoming so out of breath they can’t continue (at least not for long) when they try. Most of the time, breathlessness while running is the result of the intensity of the effort. It comes on if you’re new to running, just getting back to it after time off, or if you’re pushing the pace on a workout. It’s a symptom of your body trying to take in enough oxygen to power your working muscles and get rid of the carbon dioxide waste that energy production creates.


Breathlessness can also be the result of ineffective breathing techniques — most commonly, taking too shallow of breaths. If your breathing is shallow, it means you’re most likely breathing with your chest and aren’t filling up your lungs fully.


This can lead to side stitches caused by an improperly conditioned diaphragm, which is the large respiratory muscle below the lungs that helps you breathe in and out. If your diaphragm isn’t used to the kind of breathing running requires, it can cause those painful, debilitating pains under the rib cage.


The benefits of belly breathing


Breathing with your diaphragm — often called belly breathing — may take some time to master but comes with a host of benefits, including oxygen-full lungs, which means more air available to your working muscles.


Belly breathing also helps center you and put you in control. If you’ve taken yoga, for instance, you know that controlling the breath can help quiet the mind and guide the body.


In addition, deep breathing helps give you control over your nervous system — both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems — and lets you toggle between the two.


The sympathetic system, the body’s fight-or-flight response, is activated by stress and triggers responses in the body including increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels, heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes the body to store fat, which means you can’t burn fat as fuel as effectively.


The sympathetic system is generally activated during speed work for runners. Or short races that require relatively quick bursts of energy. (Think 5Ks.)


The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is the body’s rest-and-digest system. This system lowers cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure levels (and is generally where you want to be on recovery and long run days). You also burn fat more efficiently when expending energy in the parasympathetic system.


Steady breathing can help flip your mind from sympathetic to parasympathetic, from panic to calm, and help regulate your heart rate. This can be beneficial on slower training runs but also during longer races, when you want your body to be in as calm, relaxed state as possible for the majority of the time.


Learning how to belly breathe


So, how do you learn to be a belly breather? The best way to learn is to practice during rest:


  • Lie on your back, keeping your chest and shoulders still.
  • Focus on your belly rising as you inhale.
  • Focus on your belly lowering as you exhale.


The key is to make sure it’s your abdomen and not your chest that’s primarily rising and falling when you breathe in and out. Once you get the hang of it, you can start incorporating mindful breathing into some of your easier runs by focusing on your breath.


3 breathing best practices


Here are three breathing best practices to keep in mind when working on your breathing technique:


  • Slow down.


If you feel more like you’re hyperventilating or gasping for air than controlling the in and out of your breath, you’re probably running too fast. Slowing down will help you get your breathing back in check.


(Note that there are times, of course, when your breathing will probably feel a bit out of control, like when you’re doing speed work.)


  • Don’t limit yourself to only nose breathing.


Unlike in yoga and other meditation-based practices, nose breathing may not be for you, especially while running. Again, running requires a lot of oxygen, and you maximize your oxygen intake when breathing through the mouth.


  • Lose the earbuds (for now, anyways).


When you’re focusing on the breath and improving your breathing technique, you don’t want any external distractions, like the music or podcast you usually listen to on runs. Although you can re-introduce the earbuds once you’ve mastered your breathing, it’s best for now if you ditch them.


Also, keep in mind that factors like altitude, extreme hot or cold temperatures, and asthma can all affect your breathing. (As can running up hills.)


Now get out there and run your life.

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