How to use breathing techniques for running to reduce shortness of breath and pain
Spoiler alert. I don’t actually run every day. Sometimes travel, illness, kids, or everyday life gets in the way. But I know how good running is for health, so even on the most hectic of days, I will try my hardest to squeeze a run in.
Even if it’s only 10 minutes or a quick sprint across the supermarket car park! Let me share with you how this non-runner fell in love with pounding the pavement and discovered along the way that running really can change your life.
Why I love to run
It all started when my little boy Baxter was 9 months old. The whole motherhood thing had me feeling tired, fatigued and pretty yuck most days. My body didn’t feel like my own and I was struggling to carve out time for me. Life was full at the time. I was a first-time mum, I was running my own business and had a husband who was struggling with depression.
I knew that if I didn’t somehow find time to do something good for myself, things were going to get worse, not better. So I took up running. And it soon became my sanctuary, something that gave me back my mind and my body. I had discovered the incredible health benefits of running.
While we are not all designed to run we are all designed to move. Find the activity that brings you joy and do it every day.
How to learn to run every day
I know not everybody gets excited about running, let alone the prospect of starting a daily running habit. But like anything in life, little habits add up and soon create a practice or routine. If you have never been a runner, it’s best to work your way into it slowly, don’t expect to be running marathons in a few weeks.
My approach was to set myself a goal. For some reason, I thought that running a mountain marathon seemed like a good idea. (I now look back and question my sanity). I knew I had to put my goal out there if I wanted it to happen, so I put the feelers out to see if anyone would join me. I knew that if I wanted to achieve my big hairy, scary goal, I would need a team around me.
Everything soon began to fall in to place. My business at the time supported women going through cancer treatment with an amazing program called, Pinc Pilates. I decided to set up a Pinc Pilates team so that we could fundraise for special cause and have something to be accountable to.
Find a coach and a make a plan
Our running coach, John Gordon (the dashing man above lying across his CanRun team), was soon whipping our group of beginner runners into shape. Our muscles, respiratory system (more about that later) and brain all needed time to recover and respond to the new load that our body was placed under. When working towards running goals, it is crucial to build up slowly and create a varied running schedule each week.
The schedule should include a technique/strength session, longer endurance sessions, and short sprints. This will help you feel good when you run and avoid injury. Over a 9-month period of hard slog, our team did it. And I had just completed my first mountain marathon, New Zealand’s Motatapu, in a time of 5 hours and 20minutes. Stoked.
The Benefits of Running
Sometimes the thought of lacing up the shoes, getting out of bed early, or braving the cold sounds about as appealing as a root canal. But I am here to tell you that the benefits of running (even just a little bit) are epic and well worth the effort. When I was part of the Pinc Pilates team, I saw that everyone in the group experienced improvements in their wellbeing in different ways.
Let’s take a look at the muscles to start with. For muscles to develop or grow or even to maintain muscle mass, we need to load and stimulate them. Running causes micro-tears in the muscle fibres (which is why you can feel sore when you first start running). The body then repairs the muscle fibres and at the same time adds more muscle fibre in preparation for the next time it is loaded. As we age, we lose muscle fibres (called sarcopenia), so if you don’t keep loading your muscles you can lose 3-5% of muscle mass every decade from the age of 30!
Even more benefits of running
Running is one of the most popular forms of exercise for those who are looking to lose weight or keep weight off. We love running because it burns calories! But make sure you keep your runs short and don’t plod along if you are looking to lose weight through running.
Then there’s my favourite reason for running – stress relief. One of our main stress hormones, cortisol, is released when we run. But this isn’t a bad thing if you’re running the right way. The release of cortisol is okay for short periods of time as it stimulates the body to grow and develop. Research has shown that endurance running can increase the amount of cortisol produced.
So if you already have high levels of stress in other parts of your life or are trying to lose weight I recommend you keep your running times short, below 45 minutes. It won’t be long before you start to see how running can help with stress relief.
Can you run every day?
Our body loves movement but it doesn’t like to be overworked. I try to ensure that my running practice is regular, even if my daily run is a short sprint to the car. It is when you sit on either end of the extremes that you can have a negative impact on your body. In other words, you need to find a happy medium between being a sloth or being a coyote.
When you run beyond your capacity, you run the risk of lowering your body’s ability to repair, immune function and decreasing bone density. When the body’s repair system for muscles and tendons is not able to keep up with the demand fatigue, pain, injury and exhaustion can set in. Learning to detrain and build a periodization stage into your training can help reduce the impact of over-training. Females particularly need to be aware of this because of hormones fluctuations throughout the month.
The reality is there is no magic distance or duration for running. Moving the body in a way that feels right for you is what counts. #move #running
The Benefits of Long Distance Running
Long distance running is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. As long as you build up slowly! There are loads of benefits of long distance running, including:
The ability to increase diaphragm strength (your main breathing muscle)
The ability to strengthen the heart
Increasing bone density, especially important for women
Increases mental resilience.
These are just some of the ways that running can change your body – for the better. It’s great to set goals when it comes to building up a long distance running practice, but it’s hugely important that you have the right support team around you, as well as an experienced coach.
Top endurance coach, Merryn Johnson says you should tackle any long-distance event in the same way you would tackle eating an elephant, “One bite at a time”.
What muscles does running work?
Not all running techniques are equal and because of that your body can cheat and take the path of least resistance when you first start running. The main muscles that are activated when running are the quadriceps, calves, hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
However, if you are new to running or your technique is poor then your body may cheat and try to use weaker muscles. Instead of using the main hip flexor muscle, iliacus, you may end up working the tensor fascia lata or pectineus instead, which can cause a change in the biomechanics of the hip, knee and ankle.
Faulty movement patterns due to weak or short muscles can contribute to injury and pain. Improving your running technique, your breathing technique and strengthening major breathing muscles is crucial to preventing injury.
Running techniques and breathing
My personal favourite running style and one that I often recommend to patients is called Chi Running. It takes time to build up a Chi Running practice so it is preferable to work with a trainer or coach. It’s important that you work with someone who will make sure you have the flexibility, strength and coordination to take it on.
Chi Running uses your natural spring action in your leg and the force of gravity to maximise energy used during running. Chi Running focuses on forefoot running, but this is only part of the running puzzle. Good form and efficient technique only come when you have also mastered the right breathing technique.
As legendary Physiotherapist, Gray Cook says, “You can’t own a position unless you can breathe in it.” When it comes to running, the same applies. Good breathing pattern and diaphragm strength allow for stable and efficient running technique. Chi running allows for good form through the upper body and pelvis allowing the diaphragm to work in a stability function.
Is your body designed for running?
Our body is designed for movement. It craves it. As a physiotherapist, I have treated and helped many runners to reach their personal bests and goals. Not every runner I see has found the right level of training for his or her body type and fitness level.
There are several biomechanical issues that can affect how much you should run including retroverted hips, weak and tight gluteal and calf muscles and tight and weak hip flexors.
This is why it’s always better to work with a therapist and coach to develop a strengthening and stretching program that addresses your own individual body biomechanics. Getting it right from the start will prevent a lot of pain down the track.
How to breathe when running
The ideal way to breathe is in and out through the nose (check out day 7 of The Big Exhale online breathing course for more info on nasal breathing). But when you start running your body needs more oxygen to fuel muscles and expel carbon dioxide generated during exercise.
This often causes us to switch to mouth breathing. As your fitness increases, you will be able to stay breathing through the nose before feeling the need to switch to mouth.
My top tip for runners is to deflate and exhale. When we start to run we can expand our chest using our accessory breathing muscles to get more air in.
While this is okay for short periods of time, overuse can cause muscle fatigue. When your breathing muscles fatigue you lose form and technique, which flows on to strain and injuries in the lower extremities.
It might seem far-fetched that your breathing can affect your running biomechanics, but it does happen. The diaphragm is a stability muscle for the core, so if it fatigues then the body will beg, borrow and steal from other muscles for respiration which ends up changing your biomechanics.
Form needs to win over length of training. So, if you feel you have reached your breathing limit then stop and recover with long exhales before returning to training.
How to control your breathing while running
It takes time to build up running fitness and breathing endurance. But it is a lot easier if you know how to breathe right when running. When I trained for my first mountain marathon in 2012, it took me 9 months to go from a non-runner to someone who could complete a 42km run through stunning mountains in New Zealand.
When I first started running, my biggest challenge was shortness of breath. As I analysed my running technique, I found that I was breathing as if I was sprinting instead of beautiful belly breathing. Belly breathing takes time to master and is the ultimate breathing goal for any runner.
To really master the best breathing techniques for running, you need to master breathing in your day to day life. It’s only once you can breathe properly when lying down, sitting at your desk or standing that you will be able to master breathing well when running. And it’s all about retraining your breathing pattern.
The Benefits of Belly Breathing for Runners
Your big breathing muscle, the diaphragm, has three roles.
- The first is respiration where we exchange gas in our body (oxygen in and carbon dioxide out),
- The second is speech, which you will notice becomes more difficult the harder you exercise,
- The third role of the diaphragm is stability through your abdomen and torso, helping your body transfer load through your limbs.
What I realised from my own journey and many of my patients’ journeys was that breathing right while running has resulted in less injury, increased performance and a more enjoyable experience.
And as an extra bonus, running helps reduce stress levels. Changing those small daily breathing habits can add up to enhance or hinder your running.
You can learn more about how changes to your daily breathing habits cannot only dramatically change your running but also your life in my 30-day online breathing course, The Big Exhale. On Day 21 of the course, I take a detailed look at breathing exercises for runners.
How to Strengthen breathing muscles for running.
Once you have your base breathing pattern retrained, then you can start strengthening your diaphragm. Like any muscle it needs load. One of the best ways to do this is to use an Inspiratory Muscle Trainer (think of it as dumbbells for your diaphragm).
- Decrease the stress reaction in the body
- Increase diaphragm thickness by 8-12%
- Increase aerobic endurance
- And most importantly help increase distance in less time for runners.
For more information on how to improve your running training with a Power Breathe I recommend completing the 30-day online breathing course The Big Exhale and then progressing to the recommended 30 breaths 2x a day over an 8-12 week training period.
For more information about using the Power Breathe or a one-on-one skype training call contact me at email@example.com.
Breathe Right While Running
I wish there was a formula that told us how much we would need to run to live longer, stop disease or avoid injury. The reality is there is no magic distance or magic duration for running. Moving the body in a way that feels right for you is what counts. To be honest running may not work for everyone as the most beneficial form of exercise.
It’s all about finding a movement practice that works for you and that you will want to jump out of bed to do. Whatever type of exercise works for you it’s important that you learn how to maximise your breathing, decrease stress and maximise function as you do it. My go-to way of moving happens to be running but yours may be dancing, swimming, walking, biking or yoga. Whatever it is you need to love it to get the body and brain benefit. Just get out and move.
Over to you
What exercise do you love and why? We would love to hear from you. Jump over to our Facebook page and tell us why you run, walk, dance or whatever brings you joy and inspire others to get moving.
Don’t forget if you want to try the 30-day Big Exhale program to help retrain your breathing for running use the coupon code RUN at check-out to get $30 off the full price.
Emma Ferris is known as a breathing guru and is the creator of The Big Exhale 30 day breathing course. She’s also called wellness nut, entrepreneur and a woman on a mission. Drawing on a 12-year career in physiotherapy, as well as expertise in pilates, acupuncture and stress management, Emma Ferris is teaching the world to find their calm and stress less at The Butterfly Effect.