Breathing while running is easy. Step 1: Breathe in. Step 2: Breathe out. Step 3: Repeat until you reach the finish line… Just kidding, there’s a little more to it than that. We asked sports scientist Benjamin Garcia to go into into more detail. Let’s take a deep breath and dive right in.
We take approximately 23,000 breaths a day and 8,400,000 breaths in a year, and we do it automatically without being aware of it. The physiological process of breathing is responsible for taking oxygen from the atmosphere for our bodies to utilize. The human body uses this oxygen for cellular respiration, among other things, and expels carbon dioxide as a by-product.
While this all happens automatically, some elements of life make us more conscious of our breathing – sport being one. The importance of controlled breathing rate is perhaps more synonymous with sports such as synchronised swimming, Tai Chi and yoga, but can your breathing impact your running? Can it improve performance? And if it can what techniques should you employ?
Before looking at those questions it’ll be helpful to remind ourselves of the human respiratory system and how it works in conjunction with the rest of the body.
GETTING TO KNOW THE HUMAN RESPIRATORY SYSTEM
The human respiratory system is split into two parts: 1) the upper respiratory tract and 2) the lower respiratory tract.
THE UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT
The upper respiratory tract consists of the nose, mouth and upper section of the trachea, which connects the throat to the bronchi and is responsible for allowing airflow to and from the lungs.
THE LOWER RESPIRATORY TRACT
The lower respiratory tract consists of the trachea, the bronchi, bronchioles and the lungs. Organs of the lower respiratory tract are positioned within the chest cavity and are protected by the ribcage, sternum (chest bone) and muscles that sit between the diaphragm and the ribs.
HOW WE BREATHE
The process of breathing can be split into two main areas, inhalation and exhalation. Inhalation is the process by which air is taken into the lungs by expansion of chest volume. The intercostal muscles are groups of muscles that sit between the ribs and help form and move the chest wall. During inhalation, these muscles contract, causing the ribcage to expand. As well as this, the diaphragm contracts which causes the volume of the chest to increase, which in turn causes a reduction in the pressure inside the chest, which sucks air into the lungs.
Conversely, exhalation is the process by which air is driven from the lungs by contraction of the chest volume. The intercostal muscles relax, causing the ribcage to drop inwards and downwards. The diaphragm relaxes causing the volume of the chest to decrease, which in turn causes an increase in the pressure inside the chest pushing air out.
RESPONSES TO EXERCISE
Similarly to the cardiovascular system, a greater stress is placed on the respiratory system during certain types of exercise. At the start of exercise an increase in breathing (pulmonary ventilation) is observed which is in direct proportion to exercise intensity and the metabolic demands of the exercise. For example, pulmonary ventilation is significantly greater during heavy exercise and much lower during light intensity exercise.
BREATHING WHILE RUNNING
In some sporting situations to achieve effective and efficient ventilation it may be beneficial to integrate breathing and movement, so that breathing in and breathing out happen at points that correspond and are compatible with certain moments in the specific movement cycle.
Debate in the literature remains around the efficacy of this concept, with some studies suggesting there is no significance in matching breathing with running foot strike, while others believe our pattern of breathing can influence how efficiently we run. Advocates argue that there may be benefits to physiological function, such as preventing respiratory muscle fatigue, improving respiratory efficiency and causing the ventilator muscles to work less.
A research group from the University of Utah and the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield in the UK looked at how humans coordinate their breathing and locomotion and if this can minimise the loading of respiratory muscles, therefore reducing the work of breathing and minimising fatigue. They found that a runner’s foot strike can impact how air moves through the respiratory system and that runners do naturally fall into a cycle that is most efficient. The findings suggest that breathing at a rate which rhythmically matches locomotion may be beneficial in reducing the stress placed on the respiratory system during running.The take home message is that a runners’ breathing pattern can manipulate respiration efficiency, but this translates to a very minimal improvement in performance. However, there is a link between running locomotion, an individual’s breathing cycle and the respiratory system, which can positively effect perception of effort and therefore pacing.
Another interesting observation has been taken from this type of study relating to the number of steps/foot strikes for every breath taken. Most runners naturally either exhale during every step/foot strike or exhale every other step/foot strike. It might sound like an insignificant difference, but it’s thought that exhaling during every step may increase the risk of injury because when we exhale our diaphragm relaxes and thus our core becomes less stable which places an increased stress on one leg and foot. Exhaling on every other step means the stress and forces associated with running are split more evenly between both feet and legs.
As well as the timing and rate of breathing, the type of breathing should also be a consideration, especially if you are prone to stitches. Stitches may be caused and therefore resolved by several different things, but performing deeper breaths rather than shorter, shallower breaths may help. Deeper breaths which incorporate the stomach as well as the lungs decrease the stress placed on the ligaments that support the diaphragm by improving posture.
To give this type of breathing a go lie on your back on the floor and begin to breathe deeply, with your hand lying flat on your stomach. A natural rise in your hand position will indicate your stomach is being used. If your chest moves up and down a lot more than your stomach you’re utilising your chest a lot more. If this is the case focus on taking long, deep breaths which will move your hand up and down on your stomach. Whilst running, intermittently take a deep inhalation and forceful exhalation to help relax your posture and get back to a steady breathing rhythm.
The next time you’re practicing yoga or meditating be sure to focus on your breathing. The next time you go for a run it could be beneficial to do the same. Controlling your breathing, but also synching your breathing to your movement may prove to be beneficial, improve the feeling of your training session and help to maintain a suitable pace, as well as posture. Become aware of your running cadence, the rhythm and type of your breathing to see what difference it makes to your next run.
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Please note that the information provided in this article cannot replace individual advice from health professionals or physicians. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.