Run Faster With Rhythmic Breathing
In my early days on the run, I, like most, didn’t give any thought to how to breathe while running. But after dealing with several injuries, I went digging into physiology research to find a solution to my predicament.
Rhythmic breathing allows you to slide easily into an effort and pace at which everything glides on.
Eventually I came across an article called “Breath Play,” by Ian Jackson, a coach and distance runner, which related breathing cycles with running cadence. Later I found a study by Dennis Bramble, Ph.D., and David Carrier, Ph.D., of the University of Utah, explaining that the greatest impact stress of running occurs when one’s foot strike coincides with the beginning of an exhalation. This means that if you begin to exhale every time your left foot hits the ground, the left side of your body will continually suffer the greatest running stress.
Hmm. My most frequent injury was to my left hip flexor. So I began to think: What if I could create a pattern that coordinated foot strike and breathing such that I would land alternately on my left foot and then right foot at the beginning of every exhale? Perhaps I could finally get healthy. It was worth a try.
I developed a pattern of rhythmic breathing and began using it between my junior and senior years of university. I also trained for and ran my first marathon the winter before graduating and finished in a respectable 2:52:45.
I continued to work on my rhythmic breathing technique during my runs while pursuing my master’s degree in physical education and exercise physiology, during which time I trained for my second marathon. I honed in on a the three-step method for faster running during that second marathon and ran an incredibly even 2:33:29. Now I knew I could manage my effort through rhythmic breathing with a great deal of success. Since then, I’ve taught this method to the many runners I’ve coached over the years. It can work for you, too.
What is the rhythmic breathing technique?
Rhythmic breathing can play a key role in keeping you injury-free, as it has for me. But to understand how that can happen, first consider some of the stresses of running. When your foot hits the ground, the force of impact equals two to three times your body weight, and as research by Utah’s Bramble and Carrier showed, the impact stress is greatest when your foot strikes the ground at the beginning of an exhalation.
This is because when you exhale, your diaphragm and the muscles associated with the diaphragm relax, creating less stability in your core. Less stability at the time of greatest impact makes a perfect storm for injury.
So always landing on the same foot at the beginning of exhalation compounds the problem: It causes one side of your body to continuously absorb the greatest impact force of running, which causes it to become increasingly worn down and vulnerable to injury. Rhythmic breathing, on the other hand, coordinates footstrike with inhalation and exhalation in an odd/even pattern so that you will land alternately on your right and left foot at the beginning of every exhalation. This way, the impact stress of running will be shared equally across both sides of your body.
An analogy would be if you loaded a backpack down with books and then slung it over your right shoulder. With all this weight on one side of your body, you’d be forced to compensate physically, placing more stress on one side. But if you were to slip that same heavy backpack over both shoulders, the load would be distributed evenly. You’d put your body in a position to better manage that stress, and your back would stay healthy.
It stands to reason that if one side of the body relentlessly endures the greater impact stress, that side will become worn down and vulnerable to injury. The rhythmic breathing technique allows a slight rest to both sides of the body from the greatest immediate impact stress of running. But there’s more to it than a pattern of footstrikes, exhales, and inhales that keeps you injury-free. Rhythmic breathing also focuses your attention on your breath patterns and opens the way for it to become the source of how you train and race.
The benefits of rhythmic breathing
Attention to breathing has a long history in Eastern philosophy. Dennis Lewis, a longtime student of Taoism and other Eastern philosophies, teaches breathing and shares the following Taoist belief: “To breathe fully is to live fully, to manifest the full range of power of our inborn potential for vitality in everything that we sense, feel, think, and do.”
In Hinduism, yoga teaches pranayama—breath work. Prana means breath as a life-giving force: The work of breathing draws life-giving force into the body. And that work is accomplished through diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, which means that as you inhale, you contract the diaphragm fully to allow maximum volume in the thoracic (chest) cavity for maximum expansion of the lungs and maximum intake of air. Rhythmic breathing does the same thing, drawing the breath—the life force—into the body through controlled, focused diaphragmatic breathing. Through rhythmic running we breathe fully and, as the Taoist would say, realise our vitality.
Rhythmic breathing also creates a pathway to a deep centeredness. Practitioners of every style of yoga, martial arts, relaxation, and meditation use breath work to connect mind, body, and spirit. In the martial arts, this inner connection and centeredness allows more immediate and precise control of the physical body.
The same can be accomplished when you practice rhythmic breathing while running. You achieve centeredness first by focusing your mind on fitting your breathing to an optimal foot strike pattern. Then your awareness of breathing links mind and body and creates a smooth pathway to gauging the effort of running. Rhythmic breathing helps you feel your running, and that ability to feel your running allows you immediate and precise control.
Yoga teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and quiet your mind. When we allow ourselves to become distracted by trying to match our running effort to a pace we’ve defined with numbers on a watch, we break that mind/body connection. We open up a gap where stress and tension can enter. And we create a disturbance in the flow of running that hinders our success and enjoyment.
Rhythmic breathing is calming, and awareness of breathing draws your focus toward calm. It allows you to remain as relaxed as possible, quieting any stress in the body that could inhibit performance. And if you should feel a twinge of tension or discomfort, you can mentally “push” it out of the body as you exhale.
During moderate or long runs, rhythmic breathing allows you to slide easily into an effort and pace at which everything glides on autopilot. Your breathing is comfortable, your cadence is smooth and even, and the rhythm of both combines for that “harmonious vibration with nature.”
How to breathe while running
Before learning the rhythmic patterns that will take your running to a new level, you must first become a belly breather, that is, learn to breathe from your diaphragm. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward, while muscles in your chest contract to expand your rib cage, which increases the volume in your chest cavity and draws air into your lungs.
Working your diaphragm to its fullest potential allows your lungs to expand to their greatest volume and fill with the largest amount of air, which of course you need for your running. The more air you inhale, the more oxygen is available to be transferred through your circulatory system to your working muscles.
Awareness of breathing draws your focus towards calm.
Many people underuse their diaphragm, relying too much on their chest muscles and therefore taking in less oxygen, which is so important to energy production. The other downside of breathing from your chest is that these muscles (the intercostals) are smaller and will fatigue more quickly than your diaphragm will.
To rely less on your chest muscles to breathe, you’ll want to train yourself to breathe from your belly, that is, with your diaphragm. Practice belly breathing both lying down and sitting or standing, since you should be breathing diaphragmatically at all times—whether you’re running, sleeping, eating, or reading a book. Here’s how to learn the technique:
- Lie down on your back.
- Keep your upper chest and shoulders still.
- Focus on raising your belly as you inhale.
- Lower your belly as you exhale.
- Inhale and exhale through both your nose and mouth.
How to establish a breathing pattern
Many runners develop a 2:2 pattern of breathing, meaning they inhale for two foot strikes and exhale for two foot strikes. Some breathe in for three steps and exhale for three steps. Both have the same result—your exhale is always on the same side. Breathing patterns that extend the inhale will shift the point of exhalation alternately from left to right or from right to left, from one side of the body to the other. The singular point of all rhythmic breathing patterns is this: Exhale on alternate foot strikes as you run. You never want to continually exhale on the same foot.
The rhythmic breathing technique I recommend calls for a longer inhale than exhale. Why the longer inhale? Your diaphragm and other breathing muscles contract during inhalation, which brings stability to your core. These same muscles relax during exhalation, decreasing stability. With the goal of injury prevention in mind, it’s best to hit the ground more often when your body is at its most stable—during inhalation.
Let’s start with a 5-count or 3:2 pattern of rhythmic breathing, which will apply to most of your running. Inhale for three steps and exhale for two. Practice first on the floor:
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
2. Place a hand on your belly and make sure that you are belly breathing.
3. Breathe through your nose and your mouth.
4. Inhale to the count of 3 and exhale to the count of 2. You might count it this way: “in-2-3,” “out-2,” “in-2-3,” “out-2,” and so forth.
5. Concentrate on a continuous breath as you inhale over the 3 counts and a continuous breath as you exhale.
6. Once you become comfortable with the inhale/exhale pattern, add foot taps to mimic walking steps.
Exhale on alternate foot strikes as you run.You never want to continually exhale on the same foot.