Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Dont forget to Breath

'You'll beat yourself if you dont control your breathing.'

OK so the quote is from a film about Fighting, but it is equally true for running. Getting control of your breathing is one of the easiest ways to get a boost in your running performance. Poor breathing starves your body of the oxygen it so desperatly needs. In the film, the protege wins the final battle because he controls his breathing, In running youll be more efficient, and be able to maintain a better pace in you can control yours.

How should you breathe?

Breathing is simple right, billions of us successfully complete the task every day. So how hard can it be? Well Actually when your trying to maximise your performance in a sporting activity it can get pretty complicated, and endurance running is no exception. So its no surprise that there is a lot of confusion about it. Here are a few guidelines on how you should breathe when running.

  • Breathe 'from the belly',  you stomach should move out while inhaling and in when exhaling.
  • Shoulders back chin up, and stand tall, you want to give your chest as much room to expand as possible, if you hunch your shoulders your restricting the amount of air you can breathe in.
  • Keep a slack open mounth, this is sometimes called the dead fish, puffing or making an 'O' mouth limits air flow.
  • Inhale and Exhale through both mouth and nose.
  • Try to keep it regular and even, beginners especially tend to turn their inhales and exhales into a series of pants, try to avoid this if possible.
  • Take regular breaths when inhaling and make sure that you exhale fully*
  • Dont hold your breath at all, an inhale should transition smoothly into an exhale and vice versa. 
  • Breathe in rythem to your steps.
* Some recomend short shallow breaths, some recomend long breaths. which adds to the confusion, what they both 'mean' is something in the middle. You DO NOT want to be panting like a dog, and you DO NOT want to be taking a hugh lungfull of air like your diving for pearls... somewhere in the middle is just right, take a breath that is just a little deeper than you would in a relaxed state.

    But I though I should breathe through my nose?

    One of the biggest confusions over how to breathe when running is wether you should breathe in through your nose only ... If you want to run at a good pace then in the words of Arthur Lydiard "Breathe through your mouth, breathe through your nose, suck the air in through your ears if you can." Nose breathing may be great for Yoga, but this is running were talking about not Yoga. You want to get as much volume of air into your lungs as possible, so breathe through both mouth and nose. If a Multi-sport coache advocates breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Then he's probably biased by the focus on sports where a mouth guard is required.

    The only real exception to this is for runners that suffer from exercise induced asthma, or asthma agravated by the cold, for them nose breathing may help to limit the extent and frequency of asthma attacks, for everyone else its the dead fish and converting your ears to gills if you can.


    This is the process of matching your breathing pattern to your steps... It happens unconciously in most of us. Whilst there doesnt seem to be any performance improvement in the actual oxygen uptake from entrainment, some studies show an improvement in overall running efficiency when breathing is entrained. So what this means for you and me is that we should aim to keep our breathing in rythem with our steps.

    The Human Advantage

    Most animals have entrained breathing, Most quadrapeds have strictly phase locked breathing, horses for example allways take one breath per stride regardless of trotting or galloping. infact the only land animal that doesnt entrain its breathing at all seems to be the tortoise. Humans have a pretty unique advantage when it comes to breathing during running. Our breathing pattern is not fixed. We can vary the pattern with which we are breathing to suit the level of effort required. If we are just running to get from point a to point B we can take 3 or 4 steps per breath, If we need to get somewhere in a hurry, then we can switch to taking 1 or 2 steps per breath.

    This ability to regulate our breathing to the effort level required gives Humans a significant advantage when it comes to running endurance. We may not be able to out sprint many animals... but our breathing and other evolutionary advantages mean we can outlast many, so much so that persistence hunting has been viable used in many cultures. In fact some believe that this was an evolutionary driver for our development.

    Breathing patterns.

    There is also some confusion out there about breathing patterns, or more specifically how to express them. There is an oft quoted and reproduced article from Dave Elgar that explains a 3:2 pattern as 2 inhales followed by 3 exhales. Which if it wasnt for the next part in that article I would have thought was a typo. It seems natural to me to express breathing as inhale-exhale ratio's, thats also how the US military defines them and im not going to argue with them. So when I write a pattern as 3:2 it means you inhale for 3 counts and exhale for 2.

    There are a number of commonly quoted breathing patterns that you come across in the blogosphere. There is the so oft quoted Jack Daniels statement that 'most elite runners use a 2:2 pattern' .... whats not often mentioned is that this is during races, not their training. If your running your 'regular' training runs and using a 2:2 pattern then you are almost certainly running too fast, breathing much too shallowly, or both.

    The next most common one is the 3:2 pattern promoted by the US Military. Once again for me this pattern is one that indicates a reasonably high effort level, Its also a little trickier than an a symetric pattern. Altough a Asymetric pattern may actually help to avoid repetitive strain injuries by automatically switching the starting foot at the start of each cycle.

    Other common breathing patterns are 4:4, 3:3, 2:1 and even 1:1 for those sprint finishes.

    Selecting the Appropriate Breathing Pattern.

    If you are not making concious use of various breathing patterns during your running then you are missing out on a serious advantage. On the flat or gentle down hills once comfortable you should try to conciously increase the number of paces per breath, as you start to go up a hill you should decrease the number. Do this early before you are out of breath and you will find that the hill is easier to get over.

    You can also use breathing patterns to control your effort level during training. If you are supposed to running at an easy pace then ensuring that you maintain 4:4 breathing pattern will limit how fast you can run and will keep you in your easy pace zone. Or if your supposed to be runnig a longer tepo run and find yourself breathing at 3:3 you may find youve slipped off pace a little.

    Personally during training i run the majority of my runs breathing in a 4:4 pattern, this covers both recovery and easy paced runs. I will move to a 3:3 pattern when running at a medium effort. 3:2 I use for hard efforts, and 2:2 is almost entirely reserved for tempo runs, sprints, and strides. I do switch from 4:4 to 3:3 when climbing a hill on an easy run.

    In a races upto 10k I find myself using the 2:2 pattern, and for longer races the 3:3 and 3:2 pattern at the start before switching over to the 2:2 pattern in the later stages.

    During training you should familiarise yourself and become comfortable using all of the various different breathing patterns. If you feel a suffer from side stich a temporary adjustment to your breathing pattern can help avoid it and or restrict its impact. Switching the foot that you start the pattern on can also help, so that too should be practiced.


    If you happen to be in a race, then paying attention to the breathing pattern of the runners around you may also provide you with some feedback as to their current effort level and wether they have an extra gear available... unfortunately your breathing divulges the same information about you. If your both running at the same pace and you can see that the other runner is using a faster breathing pattern, then its more likely that you will be able to pull past them when the time comes.

    Getting Started

    For some breathing properly will come naturally, others may find that they need to work on it over a longer period of time before it 'sits'. That magical Flow state that we fall into on a long run is much easier to achieve when your whole body is running in one rythem. If your still wondering how to start breath properly when running, here are a few tips to get you started.

    To tell if your belly breathing lie on your back does your stomach rise when you inhale... if not then practice this until youve got it....

    If you seem to be having issues with entrainment ie matching your breathing to your steps, and have been running with an iPod or Mp3 Player, then you may want to leave them at home until you have the hang of it as you may end up breathing in time to the rythem of the music instead of the rythem of your feet.

    If that doesnt help then practice while walking, where the effort level, pace etc will give you more time to work on it ... once youve got it during walking then move onto to practicing it during slower running.

    Using a Mantra, a few words that you repeat over and over in your head as you run can help you to stay in rythem especially if you find yourself holding your breath at times.... The simplest and most effective one i use is 'In two three four Out two three four' ... I know, I know... but its not enlightenment your looking for its remembering to breath.

    Some beginners may find it easier if they inhale over 3 steps as a serie of short gasps eg.. in - in - in - out - out - out gasping like this may help initially with getting your breathing in time with your steps. In the long term however you will want to move to an even inhale and exhale.

    Finally if its still all not working for you then relax... forget all about worrying about your breathing for a few weeks, just get out there and do some runs at an easy pace, find your happy again before worrying about your breathing.

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