How much attention do you give to your breathing? Research shows that a lot of people don’t make full use of their lungs while running. Try making small changes to improve your breathing and introducing yoga into your week schedule, and soon you’ll see positive changes and improve your running performance.
When did you last think about your breath? Many people don’t think about breathing consciously throughout the day, let alone during exercise. However, focusing more on our breathing means we can use this to improve our physical performance.
WHEN YOU LEARN HOW TO EXHALE, THE INHALE WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF
In yoga, every session starts with the breath. First, we usually start with 12 focused breaths, to relax the mind and set intention. We breathe in and out through the nose. We don’t just inhale into our lungs, we draw that inhale deep down into the stomach so that when we finally exhale, we do so consciously, sending the full breath back out again.
Inhalation is crucial for oxygenation of the body. If you just consider how long we can survive without food (weeks) and how long we can survive without water (days), it puts the importance of breathing into focus. Without oxygen we would die within several minutes. Oxygen is required for the brain, the organs and muscle tissue to function correctly.
A lack of oxygen at the very least can result in mental sluggishness or at a more extreme level, lead to illness and death. Oxygen is also essential for tissue repair, and therefore our athletic recovery. If we’re fully oxygenated we’re less fatigued and more mentally alert. It’s also required for producing Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), an energy-bearing molecule found in all living cells and considered by biologists to be the energy currency of life.
So good breath work before a run is just as important as physically warming up. When you start your warm-up before any physical activity, concentrate on exhaling fully and effectively in order that the subsequent inhalation that follows will be effective at oxygenating your circulatory system.
People often hyperventilate or panic at the race start because they can’t breath in enough air. This almost always happens because they don’t exhale effectively. Runners who get excited too much and are fully adrenalized, often forget to exhale. When this occurs, more carbon dioxide exhaust gas is building up within the lung cavity, meaning there’s simply no space for a full inhalation of fresh, oxygen-rich air. When we exhale fully, we have made space for that intake of crucial oxygen-rich breath.
BECOME MORE AWARE OF YOUR BREATH
The people who practice yoga on a regular basis are continually aware of their breath. Those who don’t might be less engaged. So a simple stress strategy is to imagine that you are blowing out a candle or humming. In doing so, breathing out and breathing in is necessary to remove the CO2 that’s built up as part of the respiratory process.
Within yoga, breathing out is also associated with a softening and letting go. We often notice that we are running with our shoulders hunched up around our ears and then wonder why we experience a tight neck, shoulders and upper back after a demanding run. Relaxing, softening, letting go and allowing our shoulders to fall away from the ears will help to avoid this tightness developing.
We recommend you to practice exhaling fully and softening. The calming effect is caused by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and it works in the same way for athletes. You may be surprised the difference it makes.
USE YOUR BREATH TO IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING PERFORMANCE
The belly is our primary breathing system. The lungs and intercostal muscles are our secondary breathing system. The majority of people breathe by expanding their chest, but this isn’t as effective as relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. When breathing in fully, the belly should relax fully so that it expands with the incoming breath and the diaphragm expands and moves more through its full range of motion. When breathing out fully, the belly retracts towards the spine, which supports the diaphragm’s upward movement to help empty the lungs.
You can see this in cyclists when they are in their racing position. Often their stomachs look like hanging low – this is a direct result of efficient, diaphragm-led, belly breathing.
During physical activity such as running, the body is stressed, causing it to produce the stress-fighting hormone, cortisol. Cortisol can weaken the immune system and stimulate a post-exercise desire for comfort foods. Nasal breathing, in comparison to mouth breathing, can replace this activity stress with composure. Breathing through the nose draws oxygen in more efficiently, deep into the lower lobes of the lungs.
These lower lobes have more parasympathetic nerve receptors; a calming action rather than fight or flight action associated with the sympathetic receptors – more readily activated during mouth breathing. There’s also more blood flow in these lower lobes, allowing better CO2 removal. Inefficient CO2 removal is what leads to panting. Nasal breathing can help to reduce this inefficient air circulation. While breathing through the nose, the breath is also deepened because air is drawn into the lower lobes. This improves lung performance and lowers your heart rate. Another reason that nasal breathing can be more calming is because it improves alpha brain wave activity, as opposed to beta brain waves.
Alpha brain waves are connected to states of calmness and beta waves with states of stress. Nitric oxide production is also increased. It improves blood circulation, controlling and relaxing blood vessels and improving heart function. Immune system and alertness are boosted, and inflammation is reduced. The endurance level of muscle cells also increases, thus making strenuous activity easier. Studies have also discovered that, somewhat counter-intuitively to athletes, recovery times are shorter using nasal breathing, and endurance improved. And don’t forget about the reduced risk of catching flies!
Try nasal breathing during your next sprint session.
BREATHE CONSCIOUSLY, SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS
Breathing is closely connected to focusing. A yoga class starts with deep breaths, which allows participants to focus their minds. In the same way, focusing on our breath before a race can take the mind away from other competitors, the starting gun, and any final minute worries so easily suffered while we wait.
So, the next time you are out for a run, exhale fully; feel your shoulders soften and then consciously inhale, through your nose, feeling your belly expand and observe if you can maybe go that bit further, that bit faster or just feel a little more relaxed. It takes a while to make the change because habit is so deeply ingrained, but stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards.
EASY BREATHING EXERCISE
Try this simple breathing exercise prior to your next run, and see how controlling your breath can have a big effect on performance.
1 Lie down on the floor. Place one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
2 As you breathe in through the nose, draw the breath into the belly; feel the hand on your belly rise, and as you breathe out, feel it fall.
3 As you continue, you should start to notice that the belly hand moves more than the chest hand.
4 Once you get these basics right, you can start to experiment with lengthening your breath – in yoga this is known as “Samavritti breathing.”
5 Count the length of your inhale; it’ll most likely be around two or three; count to the same as you exhale.
6 Repeat this and every few cycles increase the count by one. You can try lengthening the breath count past 10.
7 Repeat this cycle to reduce the breath back down to your regular count, maybe around two to three.
8 This lengthening and equaling of breath can also be incorporated into your running routine. Try making your inhales and exhales last two to three steps; notice that this can bring rhythm and relaxation into your runs.