How Mindful Breathing Can Improve Your Run

A Runner’s Confession:

Confession: It wasn’t until about five years ago that I ran my first mile. Ever. It happened one day while walking Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail in Austin, TX. A fast walk turned into jog, turned into a slow run. One mile turned into four. I felt like I was walking (or running) on air — the rush of endorphins and sense of accomplishment. I loved feeling the exhaustion in my legs, yet it made me feel so energized and clear-headed. I was hooked.

As a newbie runner, I had much to learn. First of all, not the best idea to run over four miles right off the bat. My muscles and joints were not fans of that. Second, it wasn’t as easy each day to hit the trail and pick up a run. I had to learn form, how to pace myself, and, so not to tire out after the first mile, I had to teach myself how to breathe. I had no idea that running would be so complicated! Haven’t we been doing this since the beginning of man?

Just like any new sport or exercise, you get better with practice. I wasn’t used to learning how to breathe. Over time, I learned how important it is to take in as much oxygen as possible on the inhale and, equally important, to rid my body of as much carbon dioxide on the exhale that I could.

Mindful Breathing While Running – What’s the Point?

Even though our bodies breathe involuntarily, mindful breathing while you exercise can not only boost your endurance, you’ll also be doing your body a favor by reducing injury.

Many people have a tendency to hold their breath when they exercise, especially when the movements or pace increase in difficulty. Your body doesn’t appreciate this for several reasons. One, your muscles need oxygen. Your muscles simply won’t work effectively if they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Oxygen gives your muscles energy through a process called cellular respiration. It fuels the muscle contractions that happen when your body is in motion and is converted in the muscle to other molecules[1]. Your muscles use energy from glucose and fatty acid molecules to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) [2]. So what is happening here is is an energy transfer, from glucose to ATP, to provide energy to cells, in this case, the energy for muscle contractions. All of this starts with the inhalation of oxygen.

With your muscles working extra hard during exercise, they need more energy and produce more ATP. For this reason, your breathing rate increases so that the amount of oxygen being delivered to your muscles keeps up with the increased ATP production [1]. That’s why you breathe harder and faster when you increase your pace or intensity.

We often think of inhaling and taking oxygen in as the most important function of breathing, but many argue that carbon dioxide removal is equally, if not more important. As Alison McConnell discusses in her book, Breathe Strong, Perform Better, “the supply of oxygen becomes a secondary objective of breathing during heavy exercise, then the emphasis of its role switches to getting rid of the by-product of exercise, carbon dioxide.” Carbon dioxide is a by-product of cellular respiration. You blood takes carbon dioxide from your muscles, back to your lungs. The quality of your exhalation determines how well your body rids itself of this waste product.

“…the supply of oxygen becomes a secondary objective of breathing during heavy exercise, then the emphasis of its role switches to getting rid of the by-product of exercise, carbon dioxide.” -Alison McConnell, Breathe Strong, Perform Better 

Thus, we breathe deeply and exhale completely.

Synchronized Breathing

Developing a breathing pattern while we run is another reason why mindful, synchronized breathing is important to your running. Breathing patterns not only help you keep pace, they can also prevent injury. In the study “Impact Loading and Locomotor-Respiratory Coordination Significantly Influence Breathing Dynamics in Running Humans,” Monica Daley points out that “Rhythmic breathing can help reduce fatigue of respiratory muscles in endurance running, which could improve endurance performance and, quite possibly, reduce injury risk[3].”  In addition, the study found that the practice of couple breathing, or locomotor-respiratory coupling, can “reduce the amount of work muscles have to do during a run[4].”

“Rhythmic breathing can help reduce fatigue of respiratory muscles in endurance running, which could improve endurance performance and, quite possibly, reduce injury risk.” -Monica Daley, “Impact Loading and Locomotor-Respiratory Coordination Significantly Influence Breathing Dynamics in Running Humans”

However, there is argument over which coupled breathing patterns are the most efficient and least prone to injury.

Breathing Patterns: Find the Sweet Spot

To synchronize your breathing, you use the rhythm of your steps to regulate your breath. The breathing pattern you prefer or choose will depend on a number of things. If you are on a longer, slower run, for example, you may want to choose a different breathing pattern than when you’re running for speed. Regardless of the type of run, the goal is to synchronize your breath with your strides.

Many runners prefer a 2:2 breathing pattern, that is two strides for every inhale, two strides for every exhale. This helps create a rhythm that, overtime, you will no longer have to count in your head. Eventually, it will become second nature, no matter your pace. tough mudder

On the other hand, there are many, such as Budd Coates, author of “Running on Air”, who recommend breathing in odd, not even patterns — two strides for every inhale, three strides for every exhale. In a study by Dennis Bramble and David Carrier, they found that you are more prone to injury when the “exhalation always falls on the same foot” because it puts more stress on that side of the body[5].

To be honest, I’ve tried both kinds of coupled breathing, even and odd. For me, the breathing pattern I prefer usually depends on the type of run I am on. For longer, slower runs, I lean toward the odd pattern. Because I am aware that even breathing could have an negative impact on my leg, I don’t like to give one leg significantly more impact than the other when running for longer periods of time. Plus, at a slower pace, it’s easier to extend my exhale for three strides. For shorter, more intense runs, however, the odd pattern has never been a comfortable breathing technique for me. Perhaps, with more practice, it could be, but I find even breathing helps me keep the faster pace. On a fast run, it is also more difficult to extend the exhale for three strides.

Do Try This At Home

Ready to try it out on your own? Here’s how to get started:

  1. Try different breathing patterns for different types of runs until you find the one (or ones) that work best for you.
  2. If you are new to running, start at a slow pace and use a longer breathing pattern, such as a 3:3.
  3. Take note of how you feel during and after each run. How is your energy level? How are your muscles feeling? If you’re not feeling your best or tiring out more quickly, try adjusting your breathing pattern until you find one that works for you and your pace.

The most important thing is that you remember to breathe and that the quality of your breathing remains constant.

Want to know what your breathing looks like when you run (or during the rest of your day)?  Check out Spire – the wearable for activity, breath and state of mind.  More info at https://spire.io

Update July 2015: We have just released free email courses on being more mindful and productive, sleeping better, and reducing anxiety. Check them out at www.spire.io/courses.


[1] http://www.livestrong.com/article/490948-does-oxygen-leave-muscles-during-exercise/

[2] http://faculty.clintoncc.suny.edu/faculty/michael.gregory/files/bio%20101/bio%20101%20lectures/cellular%20respiration/cellular.htm

[3] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070752;jsessionid=1B2D5E7F1C861DF333527F7935A2CD67

[4] http://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/exercise/a-breathing-trick-to-run-faster-and-farther-20130904#ixzz37lf6SCxW

[5] http://running.competitor.com/2014/05/training/how-should-i-breathe-when-i-run_75131

How mindful breathing can improve your run - from spire.io

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