14 Aug

Every Breath You Take

Red Vest Runner

Elite runner and physiotherapist Jenny Blizard focuses on good breathing practice for running...

It's a question I often ask my running buddies and, invariably, it's met with a standard response. Something along the lines of - 'never thought about it', or 'I just do it'. The question? How do you breathe when you're running?

But breathing's not as straightforward and uncomplicated as many of us would believe and it's possible, through practising a technique that will work for you, to improve your performance.

Wouldn't it be great to:

  • Reduce your heart rate at the same time as increasing your pace
  • Be able to feel the ground being pushed away from you rather than the effort of lifting your legs each time to propel you forward
  • Allow your arms to connect with your lower limbs to help forward momentum
  • Be less prone to injury through a more efficient and stable running style
  • Find ways of getting back on pace and focus in hard races
  • Turbo charge your sprinting ability for that final finish line burst.

All this can be achieved with a good breathing pattern, however it requires some work - daily practice in fact. But results are almost immediate and this is a spur to keep working at it.

A normal breath cycle takes the form of a breath in and out performed subconsciously, at rest. On the breath in, the lower rib cage should expand and the abdomen protrudes, as the diaphragm gets stretched downwards to allow air entry.

During a deeper breath the upper chest wall will rise. During the breath out the rib cage and the abdomen slowly shrink. With exertion, accessory muscles of breathing come into action to allow the upper chest to expand further at the end of the in breath.

This is where runners come unstuck. Through lack of practice, conscious thought or awareness, runners soon perform the opposite pattern and during a breath in, the chest wall quickly rises and the abdomen is sucked in, in an attempt to gasp further air in.

Over time and left uncorrected this can make a profound change to your style and efficiency because the arms are no longer able to swing relaxed by the side for counter rotation and forward momentum. Lung volumes are reduced therefore less oxygen in one breath, which means increased heart rate and breathing rate to compensate.

The running style becomes upright preventing the ground being pushed away, and the quads have to work harder to drive forward, and certain muscles of the abdominal wall are less able to protect the spine from stresses. This all creates an inefficient running action, which reduces pace and increases effort and exposure to injury. All this from your breathing!

First action is to become aware of your normal deep breathing pattern. You need to find out how you breathe to start with, so lay on the floor with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart on the floor. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your tummy. Take a deep breath in and out. Now what did you do? Was it:

Breathing Image 1

  • A - As you took a deep breath in, your hand on your chest rose upwards and the one on your belly dropped downwards. On the breath out, the opposite occurred. (illustrated right)



Breathing Image 2

  • B - As you took a deep breath in, your hand on your belly rose upwards and towards the end, the hand on your chest rose upwards. On the breath out the opposite occurred. (illustrated right)


  • C - A combination of the two.

What happened? B of course! But in truth most runners do A. Correct breathing patterns allow increased air entry i.e lung volumes which reduces both respiratory rate and heart rate meaning you go faster! Breathing incorrectly as A, means that your breathing rate is shallow, your diaphragm rises upwards rather than downwards on the inward breath, reducing lung volumes, increasing your respiratory rate and heart rate to accommodate.

Breath control practice

Get back to the floor in the position shown, now breath in for two and out for a count of 6. On the breath in allow your belly to rise up, your lungs to rise at the outside and refrain from lifting your upper chest. This may feel awkward and restricted at first but as you practice the joints and muscles will relax, your brain will get in gear and your lungs will start to expand. On the breath out count for 6 and force every little bit of air back out allowing your rib cage to fully drop to its proper resting position. Practice 10 breaths at least 2 sets per day.

Putting it all together for faster times

If you have been practising your breathing you should be able to feel your belly expanding on the breath in and dropping on the breath out. The upper chest should rise and fall slightly on the inward/outward breath cycle.

Now its time to practice out running. I recommend you walk for 5 minutes and in this time practice taking deep breaths in and out. When ready begin a steady jog and continue with the correct breath action. What you should notice is that attempting to breathe in this way allows your arms to drop by your side and an automatic slight forward lean. Continue to practice this breathing for 1 minute in every 5 during your easy runs.

Now for the fast bit! I would recommend once per week practising 10 x 150m strides at the end of a steady run. In these stride,s practice overcompensating by leaning further forward, breathing correctly and feel the ground being pushed away by the work of your hamstrings and gluts. The pace should increase dramatically and you feel like you are almost falling forward.

Over time by repeated practice these drills will become your normal running style. During hard workouts or races when focus is lost you can automatically get back on track by going back to your breathing, and you will almost definitely find that your breathing pattern has gone wrong.

Cross-training with the non-cardio workouts like yoga and Pilates can help. Along with strength and flexibility, these forms of mind-body exercise help you learn to breathe deeply and effectively.