How Breathing Is Changing My Runs

I once had a coworker tell me he started running. Before he started, he got books on technique from the library and watched YouTube videos on proper form. I congratulated him while inside I was a touch bewildered. I just threw my shoes and socks on and hit the pavement. I once had a guy say “nice gait” during a race but I figured it was just a runner-friendly pick-up line. 

Since then, I have refined my form a bit. My shoulders are actually relaxed, my fisted hands don’t swing crazily near my face, and I try to be conscious of my foot strike. But the one thing I never thought much about was my breath. 

When I saw it come up on blogs or magazines, there were always different experts endorsing a different technique. “Run and the breath will follow,” “only breathe through your nose,” “breathe in for two steps and out for two steps.” So I sorta just breathed how I breathed and didn’t think much about it. 

My copy of Runner’s World came last week and as I was paging through it, I read an article called “Running on Air: Breathing Technique.” I almost just flipped past it, but figured I’d see what the new-fangled theory was now. 

I won’t get into the details because the article explains it much better than I can, but it boils down to an uneven rhythmic breathing pattern. The article focuses on 3 breaths in, 2 breaths out, so your exhales alternate between sides. According to the article, this can prevent injury because of the relationship between exhaling and impact. 

I figured I had nothing to lose so I tried it out, first on a short treadmill run. The run flew by and my breathing stayed regular. I tried it on a longer run outside with hills and downhills, and the same thing happened – the run didn’t feel as tedious and I noticed fewer twinges in my legs and hips. During speedwork a few days later, I switched to a 2-1 technique and it worked beautifully. 

I finally tried it last weekend on our long run – 15 miles. Normally, I need constant chatter on long runs to keep me distracted. Alex isn’t always much of a talker, so I usually prattle away while he gives me the occasional nod or grunt. But I found with the 3-2 breathing technique, I was actually focused on how I was feeling and enjoying the run, not counting down the miles. This week I tweaked it a bit to a 4-3 rhythm, because I find the 3-2 to be a bit like forced panting on slower runs. Maybe if I ever get faster, that’ll be the ticket. 

Now, I can’t say with any certainty whether breathing this way is preventing injury. What I can say is that it has changed the way I think while I’m running. In fact, running feels a lot more like meditation now and I drop into the zone a lot faster. Perhaps it would be the same if I focused on my breathing in any intervals, I’m not sure. But this seems to be working for me, so I’ll take it. 

Breathing is so basic that we often take it for granted, but it’s actually a very powerful, if often subtle, force. In yoga this morning, the teacher talked about how our breath moves energy through the body, even when we can’t feel it. My cousin who has a yoga studio in Montreal called The Little Yoga Room once told me how she went out for a 10 mile run on the spur of the moment and had no problem because yoga had trained her how to breathe. I practice yoga for a lot of reasons, but the fact that it can help my running is a nice bonus. 

Like yoga, I think of running as a practice. I’ll always be tweaking and refining and learning and changing this or that or the other. But having the fundamentals down makes it a lot easier to build and grow. 

 

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