Just Breathe – Can You Breathe More Efficiently While You Run ?

Running is a largely aerobic sport: your energy gets delivered through the lungs. How can we maximize the use of our lungs, i.e. our breathing in running? Let’s start with a simple quiz: if you wanted to improve your running and had a choice between the following which would you choose:

  • A) A very simple breathing technique
  • B) Lance Armstrong’s 7 liter lung capacity
  • C) Kenisha Bekele’s leg speed and kick

Just choose whatever appeals to you.

Let start with C: Leg speed is good and Bekele’s technique is excellent. But Chances are YOU would not be able to maintain leg turnover longer than 30 seconds to match Bekele’s s 100 plus rpm leg turnover. Just try that out by running at 20kmper hour: you will be out of breath shortly. The fact is we do not have the aerobic engine to drive deliver the oxygen to drive those legs for very long. Some of us have a Ferrari and others a Volkswagen engine.

Option B then? B is a good choice! However, maximum oxygen uptake capacity is a 95% genetically given property. Meaning that most of us will have to do with a more modest oxygen uptake capability of 4 to 5 liters. Now the uptake means something for running in relation to bodyweight and it is certainly trainable how long you can sustain YOUR maximal uptake %. But it is wise choice anyway, if you had the genetic markers.

Option A : this definitely the low-cost option. To continue in the car metaphor :there are ways to make a car more efficient: the first one is to make it lighter , the second to make it more aerodynamic in frame. Whether F1 or Volkswagen, this holds for all cars: most of us could lighten up.. But the third option here is to improve the fuel efficiency of the engine in the car. You can do that by changing the tune of the engine ? Which is what this article is about?

So how about saving some fuel ?

Let’s start by seeing how much you burn! The start-off is easy ; just count you breaths while running. That is the number of steps you take on the intake and then on the out breath , f.e 2 steps in , 2 out. Then count the number of steps per minute f.e 85, and you will know your breath cycle number (bpm). In this case about 21 bpm. Does this sounds easy enough? That’s because it is.

Now, increase your speed and see what happens to the bpm. The number will go up because you respiratory rate has to match the oxygen demand of the muscles ( they need more fuel) and you will start panting ( 1 in 1 out, then up to a point where you will be out of breath).

Now Heavy panting with the emphasis on taking air in, is great, for dogs and couples too. It increases the lung expansion and breathing muscles. But in the end you are short changing yourself and you may have to stop before the finish line. Bummer.

Now to the heart of the matter: you are going to slow down your respiratory rate by applying a breathing technique. The technique is simple: prolong the exhalation and keep it in pace with the inhalation. Let’s start off with a basic 1-2 relation: 2 steps in 6 breathe out. Emphasize the out breath by pulling the abdominals back to your spine, breathe in quickly by expanding your belly first. You can breathe through either mouth or nose.

Just count 1,2, 3,4 in the out breath and if you want, hiss ( hissing is done by making your mouth opening smaller, thereby slowing down the Co2 release: shh, shh, shh, shh)

If you have done some yoga or pranayama breathing before you may recognize this technique , f.e with nasal breathing through one nostril : 4 counts in and 8 out, 6 in 12 out etc. The effect of this technique is that the oxygen is delivered slower to the blood and the brain. Making you calmer, and ready for deep meditation.

Slower breathing is definitely something many world leaders could do more of. The application of this breathing pattern to your running gives the same effect. Initially you are likely to experience some discomfort: lightheadedness, dizziness or slight nausea. Now DON’T STOP. JUST SLOW DOWN , to a walk if necessary, and then start jogging again. HOLD THE PATTERN, Soon you will be able to hold a comfortable pace with fewer breaths per minute. You will feel relaxed and a little high from the hypoxic effects of the oxygen shortage. Don’t worry about the speed you are running at, enjoy the ride.

Now practice this for a while (3-4 weeks) and your engine ( the lungs and the heart) will start to adapt. : your heart rate will drop at the same sustainable speed, in some case by as much as about 10-15 beats per minute, as your breath cycles per minute decrease to about 12-15. When this occurs you are ready to run faster, and play around with the number of breaths per minute ( 3-6, 2-4 etc) you can also increase your rpm to 90 steps or more ,to challenge yourself while you maintain the same breathing pattern.

Your maximum aerobic pace will increase and you will become a faster runner at your previous threshold. And you will have practiced a valuable technique to calm you down while you run. In fact , you can apply it to your cycling as well, or practice when attending a boring work meeting, or while procastinating in your car in traffic etc. The options are many and you will improve your running while you practice.

Just breathe!

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