Breathing is a reflex: it’s something you do automatically and independently of your conscious mind between 5,000-30,000 times a day and two million to 500 million times during your lifetime. Breathing marks the beginning and end of your life. Keep in mind, if don’t breath right, this can significantly affect your running experience.
CONTROL YOUR BREATHING
While you run, do you feel your breathing is like a steam engine veering out of control down a very steep slope that has no end in sight? This can be a frightening sensation, and most of us have no insight into why it happens. You can change this, though, and make your breathing a controlled and skilful action that will lead you to your end goal. Tap into the magic of breathing right (we’re not just talking about the input of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide) and you will unblock energy to invigorate your running.
Do you get annoyed when you can’t control your breathing? Breathing and emotional responses are very closely connected. Anyone who has ever felt anxious or had a panic attack knows the experience of a racing heart, feeling of breathlessness and profuse sweating. It’s very easy to associate exercise-induced exertion, which produces bodily responses similar to those connected to anxiety, with an unpleasant past experience. Different experiences of breathing reflect a variety of things, the most obvious being your level of fitness. Running might seem like very hard activity in the beginning but it will become less so because your body adjusts to the demands put upon it, and your aerobic fitness improves. This is a very good reason for not doing too much running too fast. However, how you are breathing from moment to moment also indicates your general coordination. Humans are the only ones among primates in possessing a double-S shaped spine, which allows us to keep a vertical or upright posture but also acts as a springy shock absorber in activities such as walking, running or jumping.
FREE YOUR RIB CAGE
Your spine also provides support to your barrel-shaped rib cage, which (in comparison to other great apes) is wide at the top and middle but narrow at the bottom. If you pull your head down on to your neck, raise the front of your upper chest and pull your middle back in, or stiffen your arms, hands, legs or feet, you’ll be interfering not only with your springy, upright backbone but also your breathing. Instead of your whole rib cage moving freely, with an outward expansion of your lower ribs, you’ll have to breathe in some other way – usually, belly breathing (pushing your stomach downwards and outwards) or more likely raising your upper chest.
How can you know if you are breathing inefficiently? Stand with your feet a few inches apart and carefully put the tip of your index finger at the base of your skull without stiffening your shoulders. Then run on the spot, or run forwards slowly and then speedily and see whether the pressure against your finger increases or not. If it does you are stiffening your body, from head to toe, including your rib cage. Ask a friend with a smartphone to record your full-length sideways profile, standing still, and then as you start running. Your whole body should be releasing as a unit from the pivot point of your ankles, with your head poised on top of your backbone, rather than initiating the movement by lifting upwards the front of your chest, or pushing the pelvis forwards or sideways, all of which will interfere with the efficient movement of your rib cage.
GET IN TOUCH WITH YOUR DIAPHRAGM
Whoever you are, training your breathing muscles makes any physical challenge feel easier. Running presents an enormous challenge to the breathing muscles, as they are also involved in controlling posture and protecting the backbone from injury. The key to comfortable and efficient breathing during running is synchronizing breathing with the running cadence. During a moderate-intensity run, the breath cycle should be completed on every other footfall of the same leg. This means you should start to inhale as your right foot strikes, and continue as the left foot strikes (think of this as two “sips”) and exhalation begins as the right foot strikes for the second time, continuing as the left foot strikes (another two sips).
You should get in touch with your diaphragm. Most people lose connection with their diaphragm after infancy and become belly breathers. Stand in front of a mirror and put your palms lightly on the bottom of your ribs, with the tips of your fingers almost touching. Take a deep, slow breath through your nose and pay attention to the movement of your abdomen and rib cage in the mirror. If the diaphragm is being used effectively, you’ll see and feel the ribs move sideways and forward, and your abdomen will also bulge forward. Your fingertips will also move apart, making it easier to visualize the movement of your lower rib cage.
Beside breathing from the wrong part of your body, most of us are also shallow breathers; we don’t breathe to the full capacity of our lungs. This leads to less oxygen being absorbed by our lungs in a single breath. A regular practice with pranayama (yogic breathing) can improve your breathing capacity resulting in more oxygen supply to your blood.
Pranayama is the gentle control of inhalation and exhalation, to encourage calm retention of breath between the two.
This oxygen-rich blood can enhance performance and endurance. A regular yoga practice will make your breath deeper and more rhythmic. Yoga also increases your level of awareness whereby you can let go of not essential and important things and thus conserve your energy. As your endurance improves and your lung capacity increases, the body becomes more efficient. Changing the way you breathe may feel strained at first, so find a quiet place to practice the mentioned techniques, perhaps at bedtime, or sitting restfully in a chair (at home or at work). Once you become more confident at breathing with your diaphragm and through your nose, you can incorporate this into walking and then jogging. If you still experience hard breathing, think about the muscles that attach to the base of the back of your skull releasing, enabling your backbone to lengthen upwards, and your back musculature to fan outwards. This will create the space for your rib cage to work efficiently, allowing you to be in control of your breathing every step of your run.