Breath Your Way into Better Running & Less Injuries!
When I give a test in my endurance athlete course, my graduate students joke that the best two answers to put down are either “breathing” or “thoracic spine.”
They are not wrong. Everything eventually comes back to breathing and the thoracic spine when I think about athletes.
The thoracic spine is where the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight) is housed. It is what helps to navigate stress, anxiety, calm and focus. It is also the connection point for all limbs. If it is not moving well, it can impact your running gait and functional movement patterns.
We aren’t going to discuss the thoracic spine further in this blog, but we are going to dive into breathing. If you haven’t thought about how you are breathing when you run, it is time.
Breathing impacts every aspect of your health from your core stability, hormonal changes, VO2 max and your ability to downregulate your nervous system. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits and importance of functional breathing.
In running, how and when we breath matters.
Rhythmic breathing is a great way to integrate diaphragmatic breathing with running. Rhythmic breathing during running has been talked about by coaches like Ian Jackson, researchers Dennis Bramble and David Carrie, and author Budd Coates. Rhythmic breathing is all about inhaling slightly longer than you exhale while running, to coordinate your exhales with your foot strike.
When the foot hits the ground there is great opportunity for injury AND for injury prevention. Most injuries occur during initial contact (when the foot hits the ground) or the stance phase of running gait. When the foot contacts the ground there is a cascade of physical and physiological events that occur, all of which you can learn to manipulate to become better, healthier athletes. Today we will focus on manipulating your breath.
During inhalation and exhalation, the diaphragm and pelvic floor work together like a piston to create a stable intra abdominal pressure (IAP). During exhalation the diaphragm and pelvic floor ascend, the abdominal wall and back musculature contract. During inhalation the diaphragm and pelvic floor descend, our abdominal wall and back musculature expand creating an elastic load. At this moment the core should be at its strongest, most stable point. There are factors that can impact this including, but not limited to the strength and flexibility of the pelvic floor, proper us of the diaphragm and integrity of the abdominal wall. Don't worry about all of that yet- just continue to focus on the diaphrgam.
Most people don’t think about their breathing because it is automatic (thanks to the autonomic nervous system!) If you are one of these people, start paying attention.
Notice where in your body your breath is going and if there is a pattern
Are you breathing into your chest? Rib cage? Belly? Back?
Are you inhaling or exhaling longer? Is your breath even, easy or labored?
Collecting this initial information will help you figure out how to manipulate your breathing to improve your running (and much more).
Breathing into the diaphragm
Your diaphragm is a dome or umbrella shaped muscle. It is what separates the abdominal cavity and chest cavity in the body. The diaphragm is located inside of your rib cage and attaches to the ribs, lumbar spine, the xiphoid process (sternum) and has many other ligamentous attachments. Additionally, multiple important structures like the aorta run through the diaphragm. All these factors and more are why the diaphragm play a key role in your health and performance.
One way to practice diaphragmatic breathing is to start by standing upright. First notice where the weight in on your feet- the front, middle or back. Wherever you are take a breath. Where do you feel it? Noted it.
Next, shift your weight back and forth on your feet until you find what feels like the middle of the foot. Take a breath. Where do you feel it now? Is it easier? Lower? If so, then you are probably breathing into your diaphragm now! Changing your posture and creating a better position for the “piston” to fire will help you to integrate the diaphragm more. Learning how to properly forward lean from the ankles is another great way to help stack your rib cage over your pelvis and tap into the “piston.”
If you aren’t sure or don’t feel like anything changed with the above exercise you can also feel your diaphragm by laying down on your back with your knees bent. Make sure you head is supported so that you neck is in a neutral position (air comes in through your mouth/nose), then find a neutral pelvic position. You can do this by putting your hands on your pelvis and tilting it forward and back then finding the middle. Notice if your ribs are flat on the floor or if there is a space. If there is a space, you may want to place a pillow length wise from your mid back (about where a woman’s bra strap would be) to your head. Now you are all set up.
Next place your hand on the sides of your rib cage and breath into the hands. You should feel the ribs expand laterally. This is also diaphragmatic breathing. Master breathing into the diaphragm before you begin using rhythmic breathing in your running.
The benefits of learning to breathing into the diaphragm are significant. Don’t skip this part because you are too impatient!
Now we can begin to put diaphragmatic breathing to a rhythmic count. The body has more stability when you inhale, and it has less stability when you exhale. So, landing on the same side every exhale may cause you to repetitively overstress one side of your body. Rhythmic breathing seeks to create more balance by coordinating your exhale with when the foot strikes the ground.
Remember in the beginning how I said the inhale is longer than the exhale?
There are a few ways to count your breathing rhythmically. You can count it to a 5 or a 3 count. Using a 5 count would be inhaling to the count of 3 and exhaling to the count of 2. A three count would be inhaling to a count of 2 and exhaling to a count of 1. Typically, we would begin with a 5 count because it is a little easier to master. A 3 count is more helpful with faster speeds, race day, hills, or intervals.
Regardless of what count you use, the idea is that if your inhale is longer than your exhale, with each round of breath your exhale will synch up with one leg then the next. This will prevent you from always landing on one side when you exhale.
Rhythmic breathing has helped many athletes decrease injury and pain, especially if they typically have one side of the body that is always injured. In addition to decreasing risk for injury focusing on your breath can help you with focus and mental clarity in training and during a race. Focusing on your breathing is a form of meditation that is often easier for athletes to integrate into their regular health and wellness routine. Focusing on your breath can also help tap into the autonomic nervous system and decrease stress, anxiety in performance and life.
SO…the take home. It’s incredibly important and smart for an athlete to learn to focus on and train their breath. Breath training can lead to may improvements in health, performance, and overall wellbeing. Your breathe is like the secret sauce in your grandma's favorite recipe.
I am always excited to teach and help others improve their health, wellness and performance. Check out my health and wellness course, for some more information on how we can tap into what we already have inside of us to reach our goals. Over the next few months I will also be releasing many more courses and modules so sign up for my emails or follow me on instagram @katemihevcedwards to stay up to date.