It might sound silly, but so many of us don’t make full use of our lungs while running. But a small change, and the INTRODUCTION OF YOGA, can teach you how to breathe correctly and run better.
Written by Siobhan Curtis
When did you last think about your breath? Many of us do not think about consciously breathing throughout the day, let alone during sporting activities. But becoming more aware of our breathing means we can use this to improve our physical performance.
“LEARN HOW TO EXHALE, THE INHALE WILL TAKE CARE OF ITSELF”
In yoga we start with the breath first. My classes begin with 12 focused breaths, to still the mind and set intention. We breathe in and out through the nose, and rather than just inhaling into our lungs, we draw that inhale deep down into the stomach so that when we finally exhale, we do so consciously, sending the full breath back out again.
Inhalation is vital for oxygenation of the body. If you think about how long we can survive without food (weeks) and how long we can survive without water (days), it puts the importance of breathing into focus. Without oxygen, we will die within a few minutes. Oxygen is needed for the brain, muscle tissue and the organs to function correctly. A lack of oxygen at the very least can result in mental sluggishness or at a more extreme level, result in illness and death. Oxygen is also vital for tissue repair, and so too our athletic recovery. If we are fully oxygenated, we are less fatigued and more mentally alert. It is also necessary for the production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), an energy-bearing molecule found in all living cells and considered by biologists to be the energy currency of life. So, good breath work b
efore a run is just as important as physically warming up. As you start your warm-up prior to any physical activity, try to focus on exhaling fully and effectively so that the subsequent inhalation that follows will be effective at oxygenating your circulatory system.
People often hyperventilate or panic at the race start because they cannot draw in enough air. This is almost always caused by not exhaling effectively. Runners who get caught up in the excitement, and are fully adrenalised, often forget to exhale. When this happens, respiration within the cells means that more carbon dioxide exhaust gas is building up within the lung cavity. There is simply no space for a full inhalation of fresh, oxygen-rich air. If we exhale, we have made space for that intake of vital oxygen rich breath.
BECOME MORE ENGAGED
Those who practise yoga regularly are continually conscious of their breath. Those who do not may be less engaged. So, a simple stress strategy is to imagine that you are blowing out a candle or humming. In doing so, exhaling and inhaling is necessary to remove the CO2 that is built up as part of the respiratory process. Within yoga, breathing the exhale is also associated with a softening and letting go. We often find that we are running with our shoulders hunched up around our ears and then wonder why we experience a tight neck, shoulders and upper back after a hard run. Softening, letting go, relaxing and allowing the shoulders to fall away from the ears will help to avoid this tightness developing. I teach my yoga students to exhale fully and to soften. This calming effect is caused by the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system and it works in the same way for athletes. And you’d be surprised the difference it makes.
USING YOUR BREATH TO HELP YOUR RUNNING:
BELLY BREATHING:This is our primary breathing system. The lungs and intercostal muscles are our secondary breathing system. Most people breathe by expanding their chest, yet this is not as effective as relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. When inhaling fully, the belly should relax fully so that it expands with the incoming breath and the diaphragm expands and moves more through its full range of motion. When exhaling fully, the belly retracts towards the spine, which supports the diaphragm’s upward movement to help empty the lungs. Cyclists demonstrate this in their racing position. Often their stomachs appear to be hanging low – this is a direct result of efficient, diaphragm-led, belly breathing.
NASAL BREATHING: During physical activity such as running, the body is stressed, causing it to produce the stress-fighting hormone, cortisol. Cortisol can weaken the immune system and create a post-exercise desire for comfort foods. Nasal breathing, as opposed to mouth breathing, can replace this activity stress with composure. Breathing through the nose draws oxygen in more efficiently, deep into the lower lobes of the lungs. These lower lobes have more parasympathetic nerve receptors; a calming action rather than fight or flight action associated with the sympathetic receptors – more readily activated during mouth breathing. There is also more blood flow in these lower lobes, allowing better CO2 removal. Inefficient CO2 removal is what leads to panting. Nasal breathing can help to reduce this inefficient air circulation. During nasal breathing the breath is also deepened because air is drawn into the lower lobes. This improves lung performance and leads to a lower heart rate. Another reason that nasal breathing can be more calming is because it increases alpha brain wave activity, as opposed to beta brain waves. Alpha waves are associated with states of calmness and beta waves with states of stress. Nitric oxide production is also promoted. This improves blood circulation, controlling and relaxing blood vessels and promoting healthy heart function. Alertness and immune system are boosted, reducing inflammation. The endurance level of muscle cells also increases, thus making strenuous activity easier. Studies have also shown that, somewhat counter-intuitively to athletes, recovery times are shorter using nasal breathing, and endurance improved. Not to mention the reduced risk of catching flies! So, try this technique in your next sprint session.
BREATHE WELL, SHARPEN YOUR FOCUS
The breath is also focusing. The 12 breaths that I start my classes with allow students to focus their minds. In the same way, focusing on our breath while running can take the mind away from the starting gun, other competitors and any last-minute worries so easily suffered as we wait. So, the next time you are out for a run, exhale fully; feel your shoulders soften and then consciously inhale, through your nose, feeling your belly expand and notice that you can maybe go that bit further, that bit faster or just feel a little more relaxed. It takes a while to make the change because habit is so deeply ingrained, but stick with it and you will reap the rewards.
A SIMPLE EXERCISE
Try this breathing exercise before your next run, and see how controlling your breath, can have a big impact on performance.
1 Start by lying on the floor, then place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.
2 As you inhale through the nose, draw the breath into the belly; feel the hand on your belly rise, and as you exhale, feel it fall.
3 As you continue, you should start to notice that the belly hand moves more than the chest hand.
4 To extend this exercise further, you can start to experiment with lengthening your breath – in yoga this is known as ‘Samavritti breathing’.
5 Count the length of your inhale; it will probably be around two or three; count to the same as you exhale.
6 Repeat this and every few cycles increase the count by one, and repeat again, maybe lengthening the breath count past 10.
7 Repeat this cycle to reduce the breath back down to your regular count, maybe around two to three.
8 This lengthening and equaling of breath can also be brought into your running routine. Try making your inhales and exhales last two to three steps; notice that this can bring rhythm and relaxation into your runs.
Siobhan Curtis is a yoga teacher and an endurance athlete. She has practised Ashtanga yoga for 13 years and completed her teacher training in 2012, the same year she discovered triathlon. She now works with a variety athletes. Nasal breathing can lower stress and improve lung performance.