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Breathing - Using your breath to improve your well-being and your running

I don’t think I have ever met a runner who at some point in their running journey hasn’t struggled with breath; not being able to breath fully, unable to get a breathing rhythm, gasping for breath, feeling as if your lungs are going to explode or just not ‘feeling right’.

This blog is going to explore how ‘practising breathing’ can help your mental state, help your running and fitness works outs and also physiologically help your health & your body.

Practise breathing?

So, you want to run a half marathon for the first time. You buy a pair of shoes, look online or buy a book with a training plan, you look up strength and conditioning for runners and away you go. You follow the plan, you practise running at a race pace, you practice squats and lunges, you practise running up hill for endurance, you do running drills to improve your technique but how many of you ‘practise breathing’?

Yes, breathing. That system where we breathe in, oxygen diffuses into our blood, haemoglobin takes it to working muscles, and energy is produced. The resulting waste, carbon dioxide, is transported back to our lungs for removal.

Do breathing exercises form part of your running practice? I would suggest not! Don’t worry, you are not alone!

Just think about this for a moment - Imagine running up a hill. The effort forces your legs to work harder, increasing their demand for oxygen. Your chest heaves more rapidly in response, but eventually it's unable to keep up with the demand. Carbon dioxide, meanwhile, builds up. Soon your respiratory muscles become fatigued, and because they're more important for sustaining life, oxygen-rich blood is shunted preferentially in their direction.

The body has to decide: Do I want blood to flow to my leg muscles for running or to my respiratory muscles for breathing? The respiratory muscles win every time.

Researching breath has been an interesting project – those advocating mouth breathing over nasal breathing, those advocating the reverse. Those with a dogmatic 2 breathes in, to 2 breathes out approach, those with a 3 breathes in and 2 out. Where do you start and what is right?

Chest or Belly Breathing?

Well let’s start with what the majority of us tend to do naturally – Shallow chest breathing. As you read this blog just recognise what is happening with your breathing. Is your chest rising, or is your belly moving in and out? Is your breathing deep or is it shallow?

We use only 50 to 60 percent of our available lung capacity," says Alison McConnell, Ph.D., author of Breathe Strong, Perform Better. The reason: We rely too heavily on our chest muscles when we breathe.

Your chest muscles should be your back up - you want to use your diaphragm muscle to drive your breathing.

The Barn Door or Cuckoo Clock Exercise

Here’s an exercise to tap into what diaphragmatic breathing feels like.

Lie flat on the floor, legs extended and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe in deeply through your nose into your belly, feel your hand on your belly rise. If you feel the hand on your chest rise first, then you haven’t breathed into your belly. Now breath out and feel the hand on your belly fall. Just lie for 1 minute deep breathing into and out of your belly. I am a very visual person and imagine barn doors opening as I breath in, and then imagine them closing again as I breath out. Breathing into your belly uses your diaphragm and gets way more oxygen into your lungs than breathing into your chest.

Now lying on the floor in the same position try breathing into your chest only. Breathe into your chest so that it is only your hand on your chest rising and falling and the one on your belly is still. You will find you can do it, however it will feel like you aren’t getting as much air into your body. Often the feeling is short and quick, like a cuckoo coming out of a clock.

Nose or mouth?

Now this seems to be a contentious subject!

“Breathing through your mouth is as practical as eating through your nose” write some, “breathing through your mouth allows more oxygen into the lungs” write others. So, who is right?

I am not sure I am qualified to answer that question however here are my thoughts on what I know.

Breathing in and out through the nose helps us take fuller, deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. Also, the lower lung is rich with the parasympathetic nerve receptors associated with calming the body and mind, whereas the upper lungs — which are stimulated by chest and mouth breathing — prompt us to hyperventilate and trigger sympathetic nerve receptors, which result in the fight or flight reaction.

So, do I want a mechanism for breathing that keeps my body in a more relaxed and calm state, or do I want a mechanism that has me in a heightened fight or flight state? Me, personally I would always take the former.

However, nasal breathing takes practice. And nasal breathing whilst you are running takes even more practice. If you haven’t tried nasal breathing or have realised that you always breath through your mouth when you run, you have to be prepared for your running practice to take a deviation whilst you incorporate this calming way of breathing into your running.

You will need to slow your pace, as you adapt to nasal breathing however I think it is a deviation that pays dividends in the end and here’s a few other scientific reasons why:

· Air that we inhale through the nose passes through the nasal mucosa, which stimulates the reflex nerves that control breathing. Mouth breathing bypasses the nasal mucosa and makes regular breathing difficult, which can lead to snoring, breath irregularities and sleep apnoea

· Breathing through the nose forces us to slow down until proper breath is trained; therefore, proper nose breathing reduces hypertension and stress. It also helps prevent us from overexerting ourselves during a workout

· Mouth breathing accelerates water loss, contributing to dehydration

· Our nostrils and sinuses filter and warm/cool air as it enters our bodies

· Our sinuses produce nitric oxide, which, when carried into the body through the breath, combats harmful bacteria and viruses in our bodies, regulates blood pressure and boosts the immune system

· The nose houses olfactory bulbs, which are direct extensions of part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for many functions in our bodies, particularly those that are automatic, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, thirst, appetite and sleep cycles. The hypothalamus is also responsible for generating chemicals that influence memory and emotion

· The increased oxygen we get through nasal breathing increases energy and vitality

So, I am not saying, never breath through your mouth. I am advocating working towards spending the majority of your time breathing through your nose. Be mindful during the day of when you are breathing through your mouth and when you are breathing through your nose. Is there a link to how you are feeling, (stressed? calm? tense? Chilled) and how you are breathing?

Running and breathing rhythm

You will find lots on the internet about breathing rhythm and tying it in with your foot strike or cadence. Now we all need to breathe in order to run, so what do you do? Breathe in for 2, breathe out for 2? Try 3:3 breathing, or 2:3 breathing?

If you are trying to connect your breathing rhythm and running for the first time or want to reset things, here is a really good drill to see what works for you and to set you in good habits. We are all different and I believe that there is no ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ way. This drill will hopefully help you work out what is right for you and is also a great way to start any run in a calm relaxed state.

1. Go for a one-minute walk and focus on slow deep nasal breathing. Concentrate on expanding your belly as you breathe (remember the barn doors opening wide!). Keep an even breathing pattern during the walk. Pay attention to your stride. More than likely you're taking multiple strides during each inhale as well as each exhale. Remember that a good exhale will clear the lungs of CO2 making room for more oxygen. Also focus on good posture. Keep your head floating on top of your neck, looking 20m or so ahead, relax your shoulders, and ensure your chest is open, a slumped posture will decrease your lung capacity.

2. Now, pick up the pace for a one-minute brisk walk while maintaining the same deep even breathing pattern. It may take a little concentration to keep your breathing rate from increasing as you pick up the pace, but you'll be surprised how easily you can actually control it by just paying a little attention to it.

3. Now, pick up the pace for a one-minute slow jog. Focus on keeping the same even breathing pattern. This may be a little more challenging, but you can do it. Pay attention to the number of strides your taking with each inhale and exhale. (To count a stride, just count each time your right foot hits the ground.)

4. Finally, pick up the pace to your normal running pace. Focus on keeping the same even breathing pattern you've been keeping since the walk. Take note of the number of strides your taking for each inhale and exhale. They may not be the same.

The first few times you try this exercise, you may find it challenging to keep that even breathing pattern through the progressively faster intervals. Keep practicing, as it will pay dividends, in the same way that practising running up hills helps endurance! And don’t beat yourself up either if it takes a while to get it. Very few people can leave their front door for the first time and run a marathon. Running is a journey to be enjoyed, so enjoy the breathing practice journey as part of it.

Keep practising - When you're ready to try it with a "real run" begin by running at a slow pace. Focus on belly breathing as you take in a deep breath. Then release this breath with a good exhale.

As you keep practising you will learn what is right for you and you can then begin to play, try inhaling over three strides and exhaling over three strides, making a complete breathing cycle six strides. There are no hard and fast rules.

Happy running, and happy breathing!


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