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Proper breathing can make the world of difference when running. Whether you are just starting out or you’ve been running for years, chances are, you’ve often struggled with your breathing. 

Now, we get that our hamstrings, quads and calves are the driving force that propel us forward, but the power of your breath is more important than you realise. In fact, getting your breathing right will not only make your running more enjoyable but it will make you a stronger, better runner. Meaning you can run harder for longer. 

The science behind breathing

Many runners start out not knowing the importance of breathing correctly. The right breathing technique is vital as a runner. It differentiates rookies from experts. But far too few runners are actually aware of how their breathing impacts their running, not to mention how the body works when we breathe. 

When we breathe in, our diaphragm will contract and the lungs will expand – basic science. Breathing in allows oxygen into the body, an important gas that our muscles need to generate energy. We thus inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. When carbon dioxide accumulates in the body, it can lead to breathlessness and anxiety, making any run feel incredibly strenuous and hard. 

How to breathe right to run better

The first thing you need to pay attention to so that you can properly examine the efficacy of your breathing technique (apart from gasping for air like a fish out of water), is assessing whether or not you are using your diaphragm effectively. Some signs include: 

  • Pain or tightness in your upper body while running 
  • Flared ribs or an arched back 
  • Paradoxical breathing – your stomach rises when exhaling and compresses when inhaling

All of the above signs indicate an issue with your breathing efficacy. When you bring awareness to your breathing technique, this will enable you to create a calmer mind, steadier pace and help you to endure high-pressure race scenarios. Focusing on a good breathing technique will give you the power you need to fight any fatigue you might experience and maintain a proper form. 

Did you know that the common reason why we gasp for air when we run is because we have not regulated our body’s response to running and our heightened state of breathing? Instead of reacting in a ‘fight or flight’ manner, we need to adapt our way of thinking to be ‘rest and remain calm’. 

When we react in a stressful manner to running (i.e. heavy breathing, gasping for air, feeling light-headed), this will impact your lungs and heart, which in turn, means you cannot run without reaching your ventilatory threshold, this is the point at which you cannot breathe in oxygen quickly or deeply enough to meet your body’s demand. When nearing this point, our body’s stress response will kick in and result in struggle and panic. It’s a vicious cycle. 

 

Breathing with your belly and not your chest

Deep belly breathing is the correct breathing technique to use when running, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. This will result in a maximum oxygen intake compared to shallow chest breathing.  Your maximum oxygen intake is known as your VO2 max – this is the maximum rate of oxygen your body can use when exercising. The higher this value is, the more oxygen your body is able to consume and the more effectively the body can use oxygen to generate energy. 

The air we breathe in will remain in our lungs for a short period of time, which will prevent the complete exchange of air, thus reducing the oxygen intake. When our breathing technique is poor, it can not only result in unnecessary fatigue but also the common side stitch so many runners experience. Deep belly breathing allows for increased oxygen intake and prevents side stitches. 

Here’s how to do it…

For a few minutes before your run (you can also practise this at random during the day), lie down on a comfortable surface, placing your hand on your belly. Take a few slow, deep breaths, ensuring your belly naturally lifts your hand when inhaling and your hand sinks when exhaling. Once you are comfortable with this technique, you can practise it when moving around and running at a comfortable pace. 

Pay attention to your form 

Make sure you also pay attention to your posture when running. Your upper body should be straight, shoulders relaxed (not hunched forward) and your head should be in line with your body, not pushed forward. 

Applying deep belly breathing to your running: Rhythmic breathing

Experienced runners know about rhythmic breathing. This is breathing in a pattern which allows you to increase your oxygen intake and result in your body being in a more relaxed state. Remember, every time your foot hits the ground, your body experiences stress associated with this impact. It’s your job to control how your body reacts to this stress. 

An expert trick is to alternate exhales between your left and right foot. This form of rhythmic breathing will allow for less pressure to be placed on your diaphragm and balance the impact between both sides of the body. 

Following a 3:2 pattern allows you to focus on your breathing and lessen the stress your body experiences. This means you will inhale for three strides and exhale for two. If you increase your pace, you can change the pattern to be 2:1 – Allowing your body to take in more oxygen and quickly expel the carbon dioxide. 

The final stride

Following these expert tips will improve your running, lessen the stressful impact of running on your body and help make your running more enjoyable. 

A word from RunMalibu

This blog was written by WellBe&Co in collaboration with RunMalibu. WellBe&Co is a personal and corporate wellness company specializing in easy-to-implement, lifestyle-focused nutrition, training and health solutions.

Gemma Oberholzer

About Gemma Oberholzer

I guess you can say I'm a serial self-improver. Since I was a kid I can remember being weirdly thrilled at the idea of learning something new and figuring out how to use that new found knowledge to better myself. This perpetual learn-grow itch eventually lead me to the field of Health and Wellness and it's here I've been, fascinated for the last 8 years of my study and work life. From Human Life Scientist and learning the mechanics of physiology and intricacies of metabolic biochemistry, to Food and Nutrition Scientist where I deepened my understanding of diet and it's key role in human performance and health. Geared with this comprehensive education and better appreciation for human health, I've since been able to practically apply this in my career through the fields of research, product development, brand management and marketing. In 2018, I was finally able to bring all these learnings together and so my passion project, WellBe&Co, was born. WellBe&Co is a personal and corporate wellness company specializing in easy-to-implement, lifestyle-focused nutrition, training and health solutions. It's here that I've gained invaluable insights into the human-side of the health and wellness industry in a way that has enabled me to provide relevant content and value-adding services to individuals and companies alike and live out our mission to build communities that know better and grow together through better health.

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