Saturday, February 19, 2011

Unlock Your Lungs-Breathing for Beginning Runners

Breathing. Air in. Air out. It's a simple thing. Right? Many beginning runners would disagree. My beginning runners often tell me, "My legs are fine, but I just can't seem to control my breathing." So what's the deal?

Because we don't have to focus on our breathing in our everyday moving around, it seems like a no-brainer that we wouldn't have to focus on it when we run. Usually the problem lies in new runners unconsciously keeping their breathing at the same rate as their foot strike. Faster feet means faster breathing. Seems like a logical thing. You need more air anyway, right? Well, while faster feet means a quicker pace, a faster breathing rate doesn't mean more oxygen. Your body needs a good deep inhalation in order to get oxygen deep into the lungs where it can be transpired from the alveoli into the bloodstream. Better oxygenated blood means more oxygen getting to the muscle where it's used to make energy. More energy means more endurance. Breathing rapidly doesn't mean you're getting in the needed oxygen, because rapid breathing often mean shallow breathing.

So how do you get in control and unlock your lungs so your breathing doesn't seem so labored? A little practice. Efficient breathing techniques can be learned by anyone. Runners may use different methods to achieve deep breathing and to find their own breathing rhythm, but the ultimate goal is the same—breathing properly to get the right amount of oxygen to your muscles increasing endurance.

Spending a few runs focusing on your breathing can ensure more enjoyable and relaxing runs. One exercise that I've found helpful for new runners actually starts with walking. This can be done on a treadmill or outside.
  1. Go for a 1-minute walk. During your walk, focus on your breathing as you take long deep breaths. Concentrate on expanding your belly as you breath in instead of expanding your chest. This is called "Belly Breathing." 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.
  2. Now, pick up the pace for a 1-minute brisk walk while maintaining the same deep even breathing pattern. It may take a little concentration to keep your breathing rate from becoming faster as you pick up your walking 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 1-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 a 1-minute run. 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, but keep practicing and you'll get it. 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 long slow breath. Then release this breath with a long slow exhale making a complete breathing cycle about 6 strides.  To make this easier, try inhaling over 3 strides and exhaling over 3 strides. (It's more important to take a deeper inhale. So, if your inhale takes more strides than your exhale, that's fine.)

There are no hard and fast rules. Depending on your stride, your breathing cycle (inhale/exhale) may take 4 strides or 8 strides. If associating your breathing with your stride doesn't work for you, try counting—3 counts/inhale, 3 counts/exhale. With practice, this will become second nature and you will no longer need keep track of strides or count.

Whichever technique you use, the main goal is to control your breathing so that you're breathing from your diaphragm or "belly breathing." Controlled, deep breathing will help prevent those annoying side stitches too. Belly breathing gets more oxygen into the blood stream, increases lung capacity and endurance. Once you have your breathing under control, you'll experience more enjoyable runs. You'll also be able to then focus on increasing your speed and/or distance.

After practicing, if you're still experiencing "tight lungs" and you feel like you're unable to get in enough air, check in with your doctor. You could be experiencing sports induced asthma.


Sara said...

I've been running for a couple of years now, but I just found out about belly breathing today! I was cramping up about halfway through my 12 mile run and I literally felt like the air I was breathing would only go about halfway into my lungs. My coach helped me learn to belly breathe today and it was so much better! I relaxed right away and felt instantly better. Thanks for sharing this info because now I know what it means/what it does and I want to pass on this info to my runners too!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Sara! That's awesome, Sara! Belly Breathing is the bomb!

Boris Terzic said...

Good stuff, I've forward this to a few people.

Regina said...

I needed this. I'm usually a two strides per inhale/exhale then find at some point I need to take a deep breath. I cant wait to try this. Thanks!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Boris!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Regina! Let me know how it works for you!!

Anonymous said...

I used this blog for an assignment for school and now I am using it again for another assignment on how to run marathons (Commenting on a blog is part of the assignment). This is such a great training tip and it really applied to my assignment!

Anonymous said...

English is not my native language, so i have to ask, what is an EVEN breathing pattern? Is it that the number of strides per inhale equals the number of strides per exale? Or the total number of strides per inhale plus per exhale needs to be even?

RunnerDude said...

Even really just refers to steady. It's temping to quicken the rapidity of your breathing as you increase pace and you want to avoid doing so. You need to focus on diaphragmatic breathing or "belly breathing." You should see your belling rising, not your chest. For some it helps to connect something tangible to their breathing like their stride. So, if it helps you can breath in a certain number of stride and exhale a number of foot strides to help keep your breathing under control.

Luana said...

Aloha and thank you for the info! I have paraseptal emphysema and have never been able to run (even as a child) because my lungs tighten up and I can't seem to get enough air. I'll try this technique and see if it will help me not panic so much when I walk fast or attempt to run.