Coaching

How to Breathe to Boost Performance

By Nike Running

Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance
Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance

Learn what it really means to take a deep breath—and how it may help you run stronger and longer.

You may never think about breathing during a run, but how well you do it can affect how far and fast you go. Here, we'll teach you the keys to belly breathing—taking deep inhales with your diaphragm—to help you breathe more easily on and off the road.

Inhale, exhale, repeat. We all do this automatically, every day, all day. But chances are the subconscious way you're breathing isn't the most effective way for your performance or your health.

"The problem is, when someone says, 'take a deep breath' or 'breathe deeply', we don't really know what that means", says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Breathing for Warriors. "Everyone assumes that when they puff up their chest, that's a good breath".

When you breathe into your chest, you're actually using only a small section of your lungs, says Vranich, and you end up having to breathe faster to get more oxygen. That's bad news when you're running. "When your breath becomes fast and shallow, that means you're not getting enough oxygen to your muscles", says Nike Running global head coach Chris Bennett. "Your gut reaction is to take more breaths, which makes them even more shallow". You won't be getting enough air, and everything will feel harder. In this way, something that seemed so simple—breathing—is limiting your potential.

"The problem is, when someone says, 'take a deep breath', we don't really know what that means"

Belisa Vranich, Author, Breathing for Warriors

The proper way to breathe is not up and down through your chest, or vertically. It's in and out using your diaphragm—horizontally. Your diaphragm is a Frisbee-sized muscle in the middle of your body that looks like a skirt steak, says Vranich. When you inhale, it spreads out like a jellyfish and tries to push your ribcage open. When you exhale, it's like an umbrella closing. "You want to expand your diaphragm and ribcage horizontally on the inhale and contract and narrow on the exhale", says Vranich.

"When your breath becomes fast and shallow, that means you're not getting enough oxygen to your muscles"

Chris Bennett, Nike Running Global Head Coach

This 360-degree breath is called belly breathing (imagine inhaling and puffing your belly out), and it opens up even more space in your lungs for oxygen. "The densest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs is at the bottom of your ribs", explains Vranich. That's the place you want to reach.

Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance
Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance

"The densest, most oxygen-rich part of your lungs is at the bottom of your ribs"

Belisa Vranich, Author, Breathing for Warriors

Diaphragmatic breathing can be a key component in meditation and mindfulness, two practices that may help manage the symptoms of insomnia, depression, anxiety and even digestive disorders, research suggests. This style of breathing can also make you less likely to have lower back problems and upper neck tightness, Vranich adds.

And it can boost your running performance. To understand why, take a look at the immediate effects of belly breathing: Because you can get the same amount of oxygen in one breath as you would from several shallow breaths, your breathing becomes more efficient. This gives you more pacing choices, says Vranich. When you take deeper inhales and exhales, you're delivering more oxygen to your muscles when they need it most, which allows you to maintain or pick up your pace. "Controlling your breath can also slow down your heart rate", adds Bennett. That lessens the stress on your body, which can boost your endurance and help you run longer—just like pro distance runner, Jordan Hasay.

The caveat? This type of breathing takes practice. "Runners are often braced, and their inhales don't tend to be very good", says Vranich. "So it's important to train your breathing muscles separately from running".

To do that, practise horizontal breathing as often as you can, especially pre- and post-run. "Doing it beforehand is going to better prepare your body to do it while running. And doing it afterwards is going to help you recover faster, because it's getting more oxygen to your muscles", says Vranich.

"It's important to train your breathing muscles separately from running"

Belisa Vranich, Author, Breathing for Warriors

Taking deep, horizontal breaths as you run has other training benefits. The breathing forces you to relax, helping you direct more energy towards running. (Just don't obsess over it, which can bring the tension right back. Periodically checking in is all you need to do.) Plus, says Bennett, "When people realise they can control their breath, it becomes important not just during a run but after a run too". Belly breathing can help quiet your mind and ease anxiety. As Bennett says, "When things get tense, you have a tool to help calm yourself down".

3 Ways to Practise Horizontal Breathing

Vranich uses these exercises to help people nail proper breath. Do 20 reps for each.

  1. The Perfect Standing Breath
    Stand with your arms at your sides and breathe. Your neck, chest and shoulders shouldn't move; only your belly and pelvis should be moving in and out. As you let your belly expand forwards, arch your back a bit so your bum pops back slightly. On the exhale, contract your belly, feel your lower abs tighten and tuck in your bum (you might give your glutes a slight squeeze to learn the movement).
  2. Rock and Roll
    Sit in a chair without leaning against the back, or sit cross-legged on the floor on top of a blanket or pillow to give you a little height. Now, breathe. On the inhale, expand your belly as you lean forwards. (If you're a slimmer build, you may have to "push" your belly out to get the right posture in the beginning. If you're heavier around the middle, the sensation is about "releasing" your belly, or putting it on your lap.) On the exhale, lean back as if you were slumping on a couch, contract your belly, narrowing your waist, and exhale until you're completely empty.
  3. Book Lifts
    Lie face up. Place a large book on your abdomen, on top of your belly button. Gaze towards the book—it should be at the bottom of your field of vision. Take a belly breath with the goal of making the book rise, and on the exhale, watch it lower. You might find that your hips rotate slightly as you breathe, and your lower back comes away from the floor on the inhale. Bring awareness to and even exaggerate this movement.

Try "Mindful Miles" from our Audio-Guided Runs.

Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance

Nike Run Club

Your perfect running partner.

Proper Breathing Techniques to Boost Your Running Performance

Nike Run Club

Your perfect running partner.

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