When 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 skillful action that will guide you to your end goal. Tap into the magic of breathing correctly (we’re not just talking about the input of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide) and you’ll unblock energy to invigorate your running.
Your spine provides support to your barrel-shaped rib cage. “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 you arms, hands, legs or feet, you will be interfering not only with your springy, upright spine but also your breathing,” advises Sean Carey, a world-renowned practitioner in the Alexander Technique, a method that works to change movement habits in our everyday activities. Instead of your whole rib cage moving freely, with an outward expansion of your lower ribs, you will have to breathe in some other way – typically, belly breathing (pushing your stomach downwards and outwards) or more likely raising your upper chest.
To check if you are stiffening your rib cage when you run, stand with your feet a few inches apart and carefully place the tip of your index finger at the base of your skull without stiffening your shoulders. “Now 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 know you are stiffening your body, from head to toe, including your rib cage,” says Carey.
To free your rib cage, aim for your whole body to release as a unit when you run from the pivot point of your ankles, with your head poised on top of your spine, rather than initiating the movement by lifting upwards the front of your chest, or pushing the pelvis forwards or sideways. All of this will interfere with the efficient movement of your rib cage, advises Carey.
“The key to efficient, comfortable breathing during running is synchronizing breathing with the running cadence,” suggests Professor Alison McConnell, a leading authority on breathing muscle training and the inventor of POWERbreathe, a breathing muscle training system. “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 you as the left foot strikes (think of this as two ‘sips’) and exhalation starts at the right foot strikes for the second time, continuing as the left foot strikes (another two sips).
Professor McConnell also suggests getting in touch with your diaphragm. Most people lose touch with their diaphragm after infancy and become belly breathers. Stand in front of a mirror and place your palms lightly on the bottom of your ribs, with the tips of your fingers almost touching. “Take a deep, slow inhalation through your nose and observe the movement of your abdomen and rib cage in the mirror. If the diaphragm is being used effectively, you should be able to 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 visualise the movement of your lower rib cage.
Alongside breathing from the wrong area, most of us are also shallow breathers; we do not breathe to the full capacity of our lungs. This results in less oxygen being absorbed by our lungs in a single breath. “A regular practice with pranayama (yogic breathing) can increase your breathing capacity, resulting in more oxygen supply to your blood,” says Wilmien Bos, a yoga and Qi Gong instructor (oneflow.guru). Pranayama is the gentle control of inhalation and exhalation, to encourage calm retention of breath between the two.
“This oxygen-rich blood can boost performance and endurance. A regular yoga practice will make your breath deeper and more rhythmic. Yoga also enables you a level of awareness whereby you can let go of things not important and thus conserve your energy. As your endurance builds 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 practise the above techniques, perhaps at bedtime, or sitting restfully in a chair (at home or at work). As you become more confident at breathing with your diaphragm and through your nose you can introduce this into walking and then jogging. “If your breathing is still laboured, think about the muscles that attach to the base of the back of your skull releasing, allowing your spine to lengthen upwards, and your back musculature to fan outwards,” says Carey. “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.”