Use Your Breath to Boost Performance
Your inhales and exhales can make or break a run. Experts say this technique can help you go faster, harder, longer — with less effort.
Breathing seems so basic. You do it all day, every day, usually without giving it a second (or first) thought. But if you’re looking for a simple way to make your runs feel easier, it’s time to make breathing a little less automatic.
Chest Breathing: It Doesn’t Work Well
Most of us default to breathing into our chest around the clock, says Belisa Vranich, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Breathing for Warriors. It may come naturally, but when you chest breathe, you’re using only a small section of your lungs, she says, and you have to breathe faster to get more oxygen.
And when you chest breathe during a run? “You’re not getting enough oxygen to your muscles,” explains Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett (aka Coach Bennett). Making matters worse: “When we feel like we aren’t getting enough air, our gut reaction is to take more breaths, which makes them even more shallow.” This makes everything feel harder, so why wouldn’t you pump the breaks sooner than you wanted to?
Belly Breathing: A Better Way to Breathe
Vranich — as well as many yogis and meditation instructors — likes to teach a technique called diaphragmatic, or belly, breathing. This involves inhaling and exhaling “horizontally” using, you guessed it, your diaphragm, a muscle below the lungs. Belly breathing opens and closes the diaphragm like an umbrella to create even more space in your lungs for oxygen, especially toward the bottom of your ribs, the most oxygen-rich part of your lungs.
According to Vranich, because one belly breath gets you the same amount of oxygen as several shallow breaths, it’s a more efficient way to breathe. If you can apply this technique during a run, your muscles will get a generous supply of oxygen, making it easier to pick up your pace or go farther, she says.
Because belly breathing all but ensures you’re taking deeper inhales and exhales, it’s a clutch way to slow down your heart rate, says Coach Bennett. That explains why it’s a go-to in yoga — and often cited in research as a potential technique for managing anxiety, depression and insomnia symptoms.
It’s also why Coach Bennett reverts to this breathing in those moments he finds himself losing control of his run. “If you realize you’re hurting or panicking at any moment, taking a minute to get some deep breaths is the best way to bring calm back to your run and carry on,” he says. If diaphragmatic breathing isn’t natural to you, he says, it’s probably not the type of breathing that will help you run your fastest 10K (because who can focus on deep belly breaths when they’re trying to PR?). But it can help you reclaim your run — physically and mentally — if you find yourself on the struggle bus.
“If you realize you’re hurting or panicking at any moment, taking a minute to get some deep breaths is the best way to bring calm back to your run and carry on.”
Nike Senior Director of Global Running
While Vranich supports belly breathing pre-, mid- and post-run as a way to run more efficiently, Coach Bennett instructs runners not to breathe in a way that would change their technique or cause them to think too much about breathing (except for those particularly gasp-y moments). When it comes to breathing, like many other elements of running, it’s all about experimenting until you find what works best for you.
3 Ways to Practice Belly Breathing
Whether you want to try belly breathing on a run or on the couch, these exercises from Vranich can help you nail the technique. Do 20 breaths for each whenever you have the time (might as well start right now).
- The Ideal Standing Breath
Stand with your arms at your sides and inhale, expanding your belly forward and arching your back a bit so your butt pops back slightly. Exhale, contracting your belly, feeling the bottom half of your abs tighten, and tucking in your butt (you might give your glutes a slight squeeze to learn the movement). Only your belly and pelvis should move in and out; your neck, chest and shoulders shouldn’t budge.
- 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. Inhale, expanding your belly as you lean forward. (If your build is slim, 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.) Exhale, leaning back as if you were slumping on a couch, contracting your belly and narrowing your waist, until you’re completely empty.
- Book Lifts
Lie face up on the floor. Place a large book on your abdomen, on top of your belly button. Gaze toward the book — it should be at the bottom of your field of vision. Inhale, making the book rise. Exhale, making 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.
Now that you know what belly breathing looks and feels like, bust it out whenever you need to take back control of your run. Then join us for a sigh of relief.
Try “Mindful Miles” from our Audio Guided Runs.
Words: Ashley Mateo
Illustration: Kezia Gabriella