Strengthening respiratory muscles and focusing on your inhalations and exhalations while running can boost stamina and help keep your head in the zone on race dayBy: Hollis Templeton
Whether you’re propelling yourself across a finish line or racing around the block, your lungs are just as important as your legs. After all, becoming a better endurance athlete is all about improving aerobic function, a factor of which is your body’s ability to take up oxygen and turn it into energy that will keep you going for a long distance at a relatively low intensity. Problem is, breathing often takes a backseat once your shoes are laced.
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While you’re running, you’re likely thinking about miles, speed, form, the music on your iPod, or maybe even a daunting to-do list. You might not be concerned much with the rhythm and depth of your inhalations and exhalations, but the right breathing technique can help you boost stamina and finish like a champ on race day. Use these five simple techniques to strengthen respiratory muscles and keep you running stronger, longer.
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Perhaps you’re familiar with patterned breathing techniques from a yoga or Pilates class. This technique forces you to not only bring awareness to your breath, but also to sync your breathing with your movements and match the length of your inhaling and exhaling. A similar concept works to improve running endurance. Cadenced, or ratio, breathing improves stamina by delivering a consistent stream of oxygen to your lungs, which then is passed to your running muscles. (Run too hard and breathe too fast and you’ll end up with the dreaded side stitch.)
A 2:2 breathing ratio is a good starting point for runners new to getting in tune with their breath, says Greg McMillan, a distance running coach and owner of McMillan Running Company Inc. This means two inhales followed by two exhales. Syncing your strides to your breath would look something like this:
Left foot hits: Begin exhale
Right foot hits: Continue to exhale
Left foot hits: Begin to inhale
Right foot hits: Continue to inhale
If you haven’t tried cadenced breathing, it may seem tricky—and it might trip you up. Dedicate just a small portion of each run to focusing on your breath until it becomes second nature, suggests McMillan.
Syncing your breaths and your strides will not only regulate your respiration, but will also provide something for you to focus on besides miles, and it could have a calming, meditative effect. “If you’re having a bad day, focusing on your breathing can bring you around and get you in the running groove,” says McMillan. Rhythmic breathing also helps you maintain steady intensity. “It gets your breathing under control and allows you to feel more in control of your exercise without going over the line.” By this, McMillan means that you are moving from an aerobic training zone, in which your heart is pumping at 70 to 80% of its maximum capacity, into a red-line zone, in which your heart is working at 90 to 100% capacity.
The distance of your run should not alter your breathing rhythm, says McMillan. But higher-intensity runs will require faster breathing and perhaps a 2:1 or 1:1 ratio, he adds. “Recognize that as you get tired, go up a hill, or into a headwind your breathing rate will change and so will the extent of each breath.”
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There are benefits to both nasal and mouth breathing. Taking breaths through the nose filters and warms oxygen on its way to the lungs, and mouth breathing gets air to the lungs faster. If you want to improve aerobic fitness, the bottom line is this: “Breathe in with as many pathways as you can have open,” says McMillan.
After all, maintaining a 2:2 rhythm gives you enough to focus on. “Don’t think about breathing just through your nose or mouth, says McMillan. “You’re trying to deliver oxygen to working muscles—that’s where the training effect happens—and you don’t want to limit that focus.”
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To stay in the aerobic training zone—versus fluctuating between aerobic and anaerobic zones during interval training or reaching a red-line zone during an all-out sprint—endurance runners should avoid shallow (chest-only) breathing. When less oxygen is coming into the lungs via shallow breaths, your heart has to work extra hard to pump a higher volume of oxygen-rich blood to working muscles, pushing itself toward maximum capacity. This is not the desired training zone for distance running.
Maintain a regular breath, one that is not too deep or too shallow, advises McMillan. “The 2:2 rhythm creates that naturally,” he says, explaining that other breathing depths can thwart the ratio; shallow breathing results in 2:1 rhythm and deep breathing a 4:1 pattern.
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Slow and steady might win the race, but incorporating intervals into your training can help build the aerobic capacity you’ll need for a strong finish. Research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests that high-intensity interval training drills are more effective than running workouts performed at low to moderate intensities in improving VO2 max, the maximum capacity for transporting and using oxygen during exercise (the higher your VO2 max, the more fit you are).
Norwegian researchers assigned 40 healthy, nonsmoking, moderately trained males with an average age of 25 to one of four groups. After completing three workouts a week for 8 weeks, study participants who completed running workouts consisting of 15-second or 4-minute intervals at 90 to 95% of their maximum heart rate (with resting periods at 70% maximum heart rate) demonstrated increases in VO2 max of 5.5% and 7.2% respectively. On the other hand, men who ran continuously at maximum heart rates of 70% and 85% did not experience significant gains in VO2 max.
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Inspiratory Muscle Therapy (IMT) is used to strengthen the muscles needed in inhalation for people with asthma, cystic fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but it’s now being marketed as a way to enhance athletic performance in endurance sports like running, swimming, and cycling. IMT is performed using a handheld device that delivers resistance when you inhale through it, requiring greater use of breathing muscles when you suck air in.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Indiana University found that IMT significantly reduces the amount of oxygen that breathing muscles require during exercise, which researchers suggest could make more oxygen available to other muscles, like the legs.
During the 6-week study, 16 male cyclists ages 18 to 40 were assigned to two groups. Half of the men took 30 fast, forceful breaths from the IMT device twice a day, while the other half did not. At the end of the study, inspiratory muscles of the men who had used the breathing device required 1% less oxygen during low-intensity exercise and 3 to 4% less oxygen during high-intensity exercise.
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