The diaphragm aids in breathing, a fact we all likely learned in an elementary science class. And we probably all know where our diaphragm is located, but how does it move? And how can we develop it? Unlike the muscles we’re used to working, we can’t strap a 10 pound weight to our mid sections and complete a series of reps. But, breathing is both voluntary and involuntary, as Budd Coates points out in his book, Running on Air. As Coates writes, our brain takes care of breathing for us, but we can control it, and thus, can make breathing a “tool.”
When you inhale, your lungs fill with air, and several muscles help them to do that. Which ones depends on the type of breather you are. Most people use some combination of their intercostal, or chest, muscles to breath. These muscles contract to fill your lungs with air and then relax when you exhale. Your ribcage expands out as the intercostals also contract to pull the ribcage up and out. If you breathe with your diaphragm, as you should, your diaphragm contracts and pushes down on your stomach to make more room in your chest cavity. The difference between using your diaphragm or your chest muscles is that you can draw in more oxygen when you use your diaphragm. When running then, breathing more efficiently makes sense. And, because it’s a larger muscle, your diaphragm won’t tire as quickly as your chest muscles. The diaphragm is made for endurance.
I was hardly practicing rhythmic breathing, as Coates calls it in his book. But I was using my breath as a relaxation tool. We’re told to do this all the time. To just relax and breathe. Count to ten. Take deep breaths. It works. Focusing on our breath calms us. While Coates ins’t suggesting we use our breath to calm us, he is recommending that we control it to run as efficiently as possible.
For the full effect, I highly recommend reading Coates’ book. Besides being interesting and a great resource for making yourself a better and more efficient runner, it’s well written. Coates has tips and strategies for the newbie runner up to the experienced distance runner. He also has several training plans for races of all distances and addresses a wide range of goals, from finishing to setting a PR (personal record, or, as some prefer to call it, a personal best, aka PB).
But, I’d hate to make you wait any longer than you have to for the gist of Coates’ text. Rhythmic breathing when running requires two key actions: breathing with your diaphragm and alternating the beginning of your exhalations with your footfalls. So, the first step is to teach yourself to be a belly, or diaphragm, breather. Rather than moving your chest to breath, move your belly. That movement is your diaphragm at work. It took me about a week to get used to breathing this way. Whenever I thought of breathing, I focused on my belly and either feeling or seeing it move out with my chest.
The next step is to coordinate your breath with your footfalls. Your core is at its strongest and most stable when you’re inhaling. The muscles you use to breath contract when you inhale, and they relax when you exhale. So, your core is least stable when you exhale. Likely, your foot is also striking the ground when you begin an exhalation. Most people will exhale every time their right foot hits the ground. Factor into that the added stress on your joints while running, and you have the ingredients for injury. Now, obviously not everyone uses rhythmic breathing while running, and clearly there are thousands of runners who will never get majorly or minimally injured. But, the odds are definitely increased.
Coates’ solution is rather simple. Inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 2. Since your core is stronger when you inhale, you should spend more time doing that. By only exhaling for 2 steps, the odd-numbered ratio sets you up to be exhaling as your right foot hits the ground on every other exhale. Both sides of your body do the same amount of work. Both sides fatigue at the same rate. Coates also suggests a 3-count breathing cycle of 2:1 for inhales to exhale if you need to circulate more oxygen to your muscles, say if you were running uphill, or sprinting toward a finish line. Coates breaks down these two rhythmic breathing cycles further, so that you can run at any pace and use your breathe to gauge effort. You should really read his book to learn more.
I used to wonder why the right side of my body would ache or become injured before the left. My right IT band would always hurt before the left. Or, my right hip would seem stiff. The right side of my body is stronger than the left, so it would make more sense for the left (the weaker link) to suffer from injury before the right. I attributed this discrepancy to the fact that I ran harder with my right side because it was stronger. On all of my running shoes, the bottom of the right one wears down before the left. It never occurred to me that my right side was stronger because I was making it work harder.
I’ve been a rhythmic breather for about a month now. Before rhythmic breathing, my comfort zone running pace was around a 9:15 minute per mile pace. With rhythmic breathing, I can clock an 8:50 average per mile on an easy run, and I’ve had a few speed workout runs at an 8:30, or faster, pace. Is this new faster pace due entirely to rhythmic breathing? Probably not. But the only other major change has been the air temperature and the cooler temps that accompany fall. With a chill in the air, my body doesn’t have to work as hard to distribute oxygen to the places that need it. Instead of working to cool my skin and fuel my muscles, the oxygen distribution goes mostly to my muscles. Temperature is only one element, one I can’t control. I do have control over my breath though. Focusing on it when I run stabilizes me and makes me feel like I can do anything. Has rhythmic breathing solved all my running aches and pains? Of course not. It’s still running, one foot pounding in front of the other, sometimes for hours at a time. But rhythmic breathing has made me a more capable runner. Try it! You won’t be disappointed in the results.
Coates, Budd and Claire Kowalchik. Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter. Rodale 2013.