When I head out for a run there are a lot of things I need to think about. Like bringing my house keys and slapping on sunscreen. I also need to remember to land softly, hold my arms at a 90-degree angle and look straight ahead. But the one thing I don’t think about is how to breathe.
“Breathing is one of the most natural things to do – even when running,” says Damon Bray, a long-time runner, coach and owner of The Running Movement. “But sometimes runners get short of breath, which makes crossing the finish line difficult. Improving your breathing technique can help by delivering more oxygen to your muscles.”
Follow these tips to run faster and longer without feeling like your lungs are about to explode.
1. Slow down
If breathing is difficult – no matter what pace you’re running – it could be a sign that you’re out of shape. Bray says that nine times out of 10 people struggle to breathe when they are running because they are going too fast.
“Slow down and run at a comfortable speed to give your lungs time to catch-up,” he says. “If you can’t hold a conversation or sing your favourite song out loud whilst running without struggling to breathe, then you’re running too fast.”
2. Open wide
When running, breathe in and out primarily through your mouth. Giving your muscles the oxygen they need is critical when running, and breathing through the mouth is the most effective way to inhale and exhale oxygen. Besides not delivering as much oxygen, forcing air through the nostrils can tighten your jaw and other facial muscles, leading to annoying aches and pains, and even headaches.
3. Get a belly full
Most runners, says Bray, are chest breathers – not belly breathers. While chest breathing can be a hard habit to break, it’s worth it. “Chest breathing is shallow breathing, and doesn’t deliver enough oxygen to the lungs or fully expel carbon dioxide on the exhale.”
Runners should practice diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing when they aren’t running and after a while, try to incorporate it into their training. You’ll know if you’re belly breathing correctly if when you breathe, your stomach expands and contracts as your diaphragm forces air in and out of your lungs.
4. Stand tall
Many running coaches, Bray included, describe the ideal torso position for running as ‘running tall’. This means running upright with a straight back and not slouching or hunching forward.
“Your running posture is directly related to your breathing,” says Bray. “Poor posture reduces the amount of air you can breathe in, and can lead to painful and annoying side stitches.”
If you start to slouch during a run take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and feel yourself naturally straighten. As you exhale, maintain that upright position.
5. Develop a rhythm
Studies show that inexperienced runners tend to have no pattern to their breathing, while experienced runners match their breathing to their running stride for efficiency and pacing. Bray recommends experimenting with different breathing patterns to find the right one for you.
“Some runners develop a 2:2 pattern of breathing, meaning they inhale for two foot strikes and exhale for two foot strikes. While others breathe in for three steps and exhale for three steps,” he says. “The key is to inhale and exhale smoothly.”
6. Strengthen your respiratory muscles
Practice breathing exercises when you’re not running. Bray says that runners need to strengthen their respiratory muscles as much as their leg muscles.
“Practice taking deep breaths with your belly while sitting or lying on your back,” says Bray.
He also recommends swimming, which can increase lung capacity and function.
“Swimming also helps you learn how to pace your breathing, says Bray.
7. How to get rid of a stitch
And if you do all of this and you still get a side stich, don’t despair. While it’s not exactly clear what causes a side stitch, they are generally considered to be a muscle spasm of the diaphragm and affect 70 per cent of runners each year.
Bray says one way to stop getting a stitch while running is to avoid eating or drinking 30 minutes before you exercise. But if one strikes, he recommends slowing down or stopping, and breathing slowly and deeply.
“Lean forward and apply pressure to the painful area for 10 to 15 seconds,” says Bray. Another option is to stand tall and stretch your arms overhead.
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.