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Connecting To Your Breathing

Mindful Running Series #4

Two years ago I entered my first triathlon, as part of a hilariously named team ‘Tri Not To Die’. Little did I realise that this amusing team name would become a genuine personal survival mantra. Feeling fairly confident about the running and cycling legs, I simply had to focus on my swimming training, something I had previously avoided unless in tropical climes and only then to transport myself to the poolside bar. With the help of a fellow running coach who handily happened to be a proficient swimming and waterpolo coach to boot, I spent several evenings slogging up and down my local pool, wondering why every other swimmer looked like as comfortable in the water as Nemo and I emerged from each length red-faced and gasping for breath.

“I can’t breathe!” I would cry, “I’m going to run out of breath and drown!” Very patiently, my coach explained that I needed to get my breathing into a rhythm, to synchronise my breath with my stroke. We tried different breathing patterns and finally I found one that worked, and as my swimming improved, my fear of letting my team down by drowning (totes embarrassing) lessened.

As a novice swimmer, breathing was all I could think about in the water. If you don’t do it, or do it at the wrong time, it could all go horribly wrong. But in every other area of life, our breathing is far less prominent, and often we don’t think about it at all. The average person breathes in and out around 20,000 times a day; we do it automatically, without giving it any thought at all. Most of us probably don’t think about it when running either, we take it for granted. That said, breathing is one of the most common things we get asked about as coaches by our beginner runners, as it tends to be the first thing they notice that feels different when out for a run. On these occasions, they do notice their breath, and sometimes panic that it will run out - when breathing becomes laboured, when we get a stitch, or when we try to reply to our running buddy but can’t start, let alone finish, the sentence.

And when we notice our breathing changing, it can cause panic. It is so inherently connected to our brain that it proves to be extremely powerful – our breathing effects our thoughts, our thoughts effect our breathing.

Our autonomic nervous system includes our cardiovascular system, digestion, immune system and respiratory system. Of all of these, the respiratory system is the only one we have any control over. If we are nervous and our breathing gets shallow, our brain interprets that as a warning, a sign of an impending threat. A few long, slow breaths will tell the brain that all is well, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, the part of our nervous system that helps restore our bodies to calm. Having an awareness of our breathing gives us an element of control, and this can be used to our advantage when running.

The Rhythm of Your Run

Next time you go for a run, be curious as to any rhythm into which your breathing falls. Do you notice how, most of the time, your breathing will match your footfall? This is called entrainment of locomotion and ventilation, and is something seen in dogs, lizards, hares and horses, as well as humans. In swimming training, it is done consciously until the swimmer is so good it happens sub-consciously. When you run it is probably happening without you even noticing it. Think about your inhale and your exhale and explore how you synchronise your breath with your stride. For example, do you inhale for two strides then exhale for two strides (a 2:2 pattern)? Or perhaps, you inhale for 3 and exhale for 2 (a 3:2 pattern)? Does this change when you run faster or slower? This is explained in more detail in the video that accompanies this blog.

Now that you have noticed your breathing pattern, think about your exhalation. Are you always exhaling when the right foot lands, or the left foot? If your breathing falls into a 2:2 or 3:3 pattern you will find you are exhaling on the same side of your body each time.

When we run, the force of the impact of our foot hitting the ground equates to 2-3 times our body weight. This increases when we begin an exhalation, as our diaphragm and associated muscles relax creating less stability in our core. If we always land on the same foot when beginning the exhalation, that side of our body will absorb the greater impact stress, over and over again. This increased force can eventually lead to injury, so if you regularly get a niggle, pain or recurring injury on the same side of your lower body, consider whether you are landing on the same foot each time you begin to exhale.

The ideal breathing pattern is one that allows you to alternate the exhalation onto the other foot throughout your run. If you change to a 3:2 pattern, or a 2:1 pattern, you will always exhale on alternate sides. Try it out on your next run. If you find yourself always returning to a 3:3 or 2:2 pattern, try and change sides regularly throughout your run e.g. if you are a 2:2 runner, throw in the occasional 3:2 to change sides. The irregular breathing patterns (3:2 or 2:1) mean less time exhaling and more time inhaling. When we inhale, our diaphragm and other breathing muscles contract, bringing stability to our core. The opposite happens when we exhale, so more time inhaling means we hit the ground when our body is most stable. For those runners who like to combine science with training and performance, it is possible to incorporate breathing patterns into your training to find the optimal breathing pattern for different stages of a race. The book ‘Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter’* includes breathing training plans from 5k to marathon distance.

Playing with your breathing patterns does three things. Firstly you can prevent injury by avoiding greater impact stress on the same side of your body each time. Secondly it can act as a useful distraction tool when your run becomes hard work, tedious or full of negative self-talk. I often play around with my breathing pattern on a run as it keeps my mind focused on something other than the fatigue in my legs, and before I know it I have run an extra mile. Thirdly, by focusing on our breathing we are bringing our awareness to our body, tuning into our running pattern and immersing ourselves ‘in the moment’.

MIND RUNNER TIP: When experimenting with different patterns, it is advisable not to listen to music at the same time, as it’s all too easy for your breathing pattern to fall in line with the beat of your favourite running anthem.

Your Breath as an Anchor

Breathwork is a vital part of meditation and mindfulness and can be called upon in everyday life as well as when running. Using our breath as an anchor means that we can always return to our breath as a focus, bringing us back into the moment and helping us to be mindful and present. When running, we can use our anchor to quieten our minds, especially if the chatter of our internal negative dialogue is drowning out the sound of the birdsong or the wind in the trees. We can also use it to bring our focus back to our environment scan or body scan. When we find our mind has wandered, it is easier to bring our attention to the breath for a few cycles and then return to your mindful task, as it helps us to refocus and start again.

In the first Mindful Running blog** I described a particular type of breathing known as diaphragmatic breathing, or ‘belly breathing’. Many of us get into a habit of only breathing with our chest, and these intercostal muscles are smaller and will therefore fatigue more quickly than the diaphragm. If we work the diaphragm to its fullest potential, we can expand our lungs to their greatest volume and allow them to fill with the greatest amount of air, and the more air we inhale, the more can be circulated throughout our body to the muscles. As most of us breathe with our chest only, belly breathing takes a bit of practise.

Belly breathing

1. Sit or stand and close your eyes, bringing your full attention to your breath.

2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, just above your naval.

3. Breathe in gently through the nose and exhale gently through the mouth.

4. As you inhale, imagine your diaphragm moving downwards and aim to fill the belly with breath. You should feel your belly rise and your chest less so.

5. As you exhale, feel the belly lower as the air leaves your body.

If you feel lightheaded, sit down, or stop.

MIND RUNNER TIP: When incorporating this into your run, you will need to breathe in and out through your mouth and nose to ensure you take in sufficient oxygen. But see if you can bring your attention to your belly rising and falling.

Breathing patterns and belly breathing are examples of ways we can be more curious about our breathing and our bodies in general. By all means don’t change anything if you have a running style and rhythm that works for you, remember mindfulness is not about judging or changing anything, just noticing.

The Breathing Remedy

I’m sure many of us can relate to the feeling of pre-race jitters and race-day nerves. That sensation of having butterflies in our stomach and the last minute panic about the weather, fuelling and the last minute toilet trip (shall I go now, wait, or go twice?!) can send us into a flat-spin of nervous energy. However, research has shown that short breathing exercises as part of a race-day routine can not only make us feel calmer, but can also focus attention, counteract stress, reduce blood pressure, regulate heart rate and even diminish symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome, worth remembering if you suffer from ‘runners’ tummy’.

Another runner’s curse is the side-stitch, another topic regularly raised by beginner runners. There are many theories relating to the prevention and treatment of the stitch, and one involves your breathing. A stitch is often thought to be a muscle spasm of the diaphragm, and this can get fatigued like any other muscle. Shallow chest breaths may not provide adequate oxygen to all the muscles, including the diaphragm. To try and iradicate the stitch, slow down and exhale. If you cannot slow down (mid-race perhaps) focus on your breathing/footfall pattern and switch your rhythm so that you are exhaling on the opposite side to the stitch. The theory goes that when you exhale and your foot hits the floor on the same side as the stitch, the impact force travels up the body and through your core, and irritates the muscles already in spasm. When you change your landing foot on the exhale, the tension in the stitch can release.

MIND RUNNER TIP: Incorporate a short breathing exercise into your pre-race routine - whether at home before you leave for the event, during a warm up, or at the start line.

To view the video, click here and then click on the video tab.

*Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter, by Budd Coates, M.S., and Claire Kowalchik (Rodale, 2013).

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