Ask any runner how to run properly, and they’ll probably start talking about heel strike, nutrition, or gear. These things are what we see most often in magazines, videos, and running stores, so it’s naturally what might come to mind first. One other consideration that’s a bit tougher to quantify when it comes to running well? Your breathing.
How is your breathing involved in running properly? So glad you asked!
You might not give too much thought to how you breathe. Why would you? We all breathe without even thinking about it, and while running, our behavior is much the same. We inhale, our chest rises and falls, and we’re good to go. Right?
Not so fast. By breathing only into your chest with short, shallow breaths, you’re leaving so much on the table in terms of performance, endurance, and even comfort. Most runners can recall a certain run (or runs) where they just felt out of breath for a good part of their mileage.
Chances are they weren’t taking advantage of deep belly breathing to help them run properly throughout their effort.
One of the key aspects of knowing how to run properly is knowing how to practice belly breathing. Rather than keeping your breath up high in your chest, try this experiment to get your breath deeper into your belly.
Lay on the ground with one hand on your stomach, and the other hand on your chest. At first, just see how your breath comes into your body…which hand moves first? Do they move at the same time? One doesn’t move at all?
Next, you’ll practice bringing your diaphragm into the mix. Inhale through your nose, focusing on bringing your breath first into your belly, then finishing in your chest. The hand on your belly should rise first, followed by the hand on your chest.
On the exhale, your chest will deflate first, followed by your belly sinking down. By having your hands on your stomach and chest, you’ll be able to notice the pattern more easily.
Not only do you feel more comfortable with a bigger breath, but you also bring in more oxygen with each inhale. That oxygen fills your lungs, where it comes into contact with your blood vessels. Those blood vessels carry the oxygen to the muscles all over your body, thus keeping you energized and able to run more comfortably.
It may feel weird to practice this deeper breathing while laying on the ground, but the purpose is to practice in a low-stress environment. Trying belly breathing for the first time while under the demands of a run can make it more difficult to really check-in and feel the difference between chest and belly breathing.
As mentioned above, pulling your breath into your belly can help engage your core and get more oxygen in your bloodstream with each inhale. Not only that, but it can also help with your posture. Likely you’ve heard how important good posture and form are when it comes to running properly and efficiently.
Modern life tends to hunch us over. We slump at our desk, crouch over our phones, and recline on the sofa at home. We spend a lot of time with that forward lean, and this learned habit can be detrimental to your running.
Try hunching forward and taking in a deep belly breath. It’s difficult to expand your belly, isn’t it? Your diaphragm is compressed and there’s nowhere for it to go when you inhale. If you have this same posture on the run, your breath will likely only travel as deep as your chest. It won’t take long before you’re running out of breath and feeling like cutting your run short.
By focusing on expanding the belly and diaphragm with each breath while running, you’ll naturally start to stand up taller. You’ll be creating the room necessary for those good breathing mechanics.
Your improved posture will translate to being able to control your breath more easily, which is a huge advantage when you’re either pushing the intensity or distance in a run.
Once you feel comfortable practicing your belly breathing on the ground, take it to the next level with some standing practice. You can either run in place or run in a flat, easy area like a park or bike path.
Again, start by placing your hand on your belly, and as you start to run (easy effort!), count how many steps you take while inhaling, and the same for exhaling. It will likely take you 3-4 steps for each inhale and exhale, but if it’s more or less, that’s what’s right for you. There’s no target number. The goal is simply to build some awareness of your breathing.
Just as when you were lying down, it might feel awkward or strange to breathe into your belly while running. It’ll take some practice to get comfortable with the process, but don’t rush. This isn’t a “one and done” improvement to your running, but rather a skill to revisit and practice regularly.
Your next progression will be to integrate this breathing awareness into your next long run. Choose to practice during an easy portion of the run when you aren’t pushing the pace or terrain. To practice, every 10 minutes spend 1-minute counting how many steps it takes for each inhales/exhales.
Most likely you’ll end up in that same range of 3-4 steps per inhale and exhale, but it may vary now that you’re not just running in place. Again, there’s no right answer here-you’re just building awareness of your breathing to help you run properly.
For this next step, you’ll be practicing your belly breathing by inhaling and exhaling exclusively through the nose. This is like leveling up your running, as you’ll be forced to stand up tall, take in deep breaths, and be in control of your effort throughout the run.
You can do this as a stand-alone run, or integrate it into one of your regular runs.
The result? Controlled breathing, strengthened diaphragm engagement, and better posture. Not bad, right?
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