Hey readers. I thought I would post a blog on proper Breathing. I have been doing a lot of research and as I am now training for my first full Marathon I have adjusted my training research towards Breathing and Nutrition (more blogs on nutrition to follow). My previous Half Marathon training was focused on breathing but more about how it related to my running form and not so much about the “act” of breathing.
The basics of Breathing
We all know breathing is a cyclical process that has two major stages: breathing in and breathing out, or inhalation and exhalation. I can feel your eyes rolling as you read this but bear with me as we ground on the basics and some key components of the overall process.
When we inhale air through our nose and mouth it is because our diaphragm (The diaphragm is the large, dome-shaped muscle underneath the lungs) contracts, air is pulled into the lungs based on the principal that the air pressure “inside” the lungs is lower than the atmospheric pressure outside our body. The Exhaust or exhalation happens as the air is squeezed out of the lungs by the elastic recoil of the lungs and pleura (The pleura are membranes that surround the lungs).
Ok so what happens to that air?
Pulmonary gas exchange is the process of transferring oxygen from the air to the blood, and carbon dioxide from the blood to the air. This Process takes place in the alveoli (Small air sacs or cavities) of the lungs. The alveoli are surrounded by tiny blood vessels carrying blood to and from your heart.
When we breathe in, air enters the alveoli; this inhaled air is high in oxygen and low in carbon dioxide (assuming you’re not running in an industrial park or downtown LA). Once the air enters the alveoli, the gases diffuse across the thin membrane that separates the blood from the alveolar space. (A gas moves from the side of the barrier where there is more of that gas to the side where there is less. For this reason, oxygen moves from the alveolar space into the blood, and carbon dioxide moves from the blood into the alveolar space.) The blood that is pumped from the heart towards the alveoli is low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide. When we breathe out, the air in the alveoli, which now contains a lot of carbon dioxide or CO2 (Carbon dioxide is a waste product of cellular metabolism), leaves the lungs and is exhaled into the air around us.
So why do we need oxygen from the air?
Oxygen is required by the muscles and organs in order to efficiently burn glucose (blood sugar), fat and protein to produce energy! This process creates CO2 which as you read above is the byproduct of this process.
Breathing is primarily an involuntary action and is controlled by your brain (you don’t need to think about it to do it.) Your brain, since it is automated, still needs to know how hard and often to make you breathe, this is accomplished based on the amount of CO2 that is in your blood.
As we work harder our muscles will generate more CO2 and this will signal your brain that you need more oxygen to maintain the level of exertion. This will trigger your brain to signal your respiratory muscles to work harder.
So when exercise requires you to breathe faster and deeper the muscles outside the chest cavity also lend a hand to expand the chest (thoracic) cavity during the inhale. On the exhale the intercostal muscles work with the rectus abdominus to force the air out of the lungs.
Your heart also responds as part of this process and increase the volume of blood flow, more flow means more oxygen in and more CO2 out.
Now here is the key..
Unlike your heart rate you CAN influence your breathing. There is a voluntary component of your brain (cortex) that allows with direct thought to change how you are breathing. You can breathe deeper, shallower, through your nose or mouth or both. Since breathing is not only an involuntary action but also a voluntary one, it makes it a VERY effective tool for athletes (us runners) to enhance our abilities to go for longer, feel stronger, and if done right it even promotes injury free running.
Now some examples of how do we can use this knowledge to get better…
- As work increases (for example as you run on flat road and then start-up a hill) there is a lag between the true need for oxygen and the eventual triggered increase in delivery of more oxygen. The brain needs to receive a trigger before it tells your respiratory system to work harder. If you consciously train yourself to breathe sooner before the hill as an example, you will have more energy WHEN you need it and not experience the lag. The trick is to do it at the right time and that takes practice. This is where experienced runners can get the edge by not leaving the process completely up to the automatic responses of their brain.
A lot of runners breathe in tune to their footsteps. We inherently will breath in and out on a particular foot strike. Typically it is your dominant leg so most runners are right-footed breathers (in other words we inhale and exhale during the right foot strike). This is where I am now focusing my efforts; I want to understand the benefits of what is known as Rhythmic Breathing techniques.
One really good book on the subject and one of the sources of information for this blog is
“Running on Air” by Budd Coates and Claire Kowalchik (Runners World publication)
I highly recommend the book as it has more detailed information to provide. However, I will share the basics of what I have been learning.
- In order to benefit from rhythmic breathing you first must become a belly Breather, in other words depend on your diaphragm for your breathing and not just the muscles of your chest cavity. This is critical as the diaphragm will allow your lungs to expand to their fullest and more air means more fuel can be burned for your muscles and more energy is created. I personally found I was not properly using my diaphragm for breathing and early on in my running I often had sore back muscles, shoulder neck or back cramps from depending on the smaller intercostal muscles to do most of the work. These muscles will fatigue much more quickly. Proper breathing means we should breathe from our diaphragm at all times (whether we are sleeping, eating, reading a book and definitely while running.)
- At the point of exhale your body experiences the greatest impact force and is the most unstable (your diaphragm and chest muscles contract during the inhale process and this inherently creates a stronger core). If you have developed a common 2:2 (inhale for 2 steps, exhale for 2 steps) rhythm during your running it means you are always exhaling on the same leg and foot. That means the negative forces of the exhale cycle are always impacting that same side of your body and not evenly distributed across your body. Remember that during the exhale the air has high CO2 and low Oxygen count.
- To maximize injury free running conditions you need to increase the number of steps you do over the time of your run, with your core strength maximized. So more steps during the (inhale) process. This means moving from an even to an odd rhythm. So if you have a 2:2 rhythm you should move to an odd 3:2 rhythm (inhale 3 steps and exhale 2 steps).
These are the basic principles of rhythmic breathing. The book will give you much more detailed instruction on different “odd” number patterns, when to use them, how to gauge when to change your pattern, the length of the inhale verses the exhale etc. I hope this “teaser” will get you thinking (as it did me) on how much proper breathing is critical to becoming a better injury free runner.