Breathing – Un-simplified

Running is simple right?  Well, maybe not so much; fact is, magazines, books, websites and blogs are full of info on how to run better.

But if running isn’t as simple as it might seem, surely breathing is; absolutely every human does it all the time, without having to decide ‘OK, I’m gonna breathe now.’ Mostly, in fact, without thinking about it at all. In, out, in, out; repeat as needed ad infinitum (don’t we wish!); what’s to think about? Well, just like running, it turns out not to be so simple when you’re trying to get the most out of it.

Respiration (gotta give it a fancier name to go with the overthinking) can also be thought of as how we mine the atmosphere for the oxygen our muscles and organs need to metabolize nutrients and turn them into energy and motion. Not just leg muscles, but arm muscles to pump and help keep our balance, core muscles hold us straight and to transfer momentum and vectors of motion from one part of the body to the others (thereby keeping us head-on-top-and-feet-on-bottom), the heart to pump, the brain to daydream about how good it’s gonna feel when we finally stop.

It may feel natural and even necessary to fall into a rhythm of breathing in on one footfall, out on the next. Simple and clear. And good for a short sprint maybe, but the truth is, breathing itself is work (just like any other kind of mining), requiring repeated expansion and then compression of the chest cavity to pull air into the lungs and then force it out.  Respiring has other impacts, too; like drying out membranes and lungs during an activity that’s already causing the body to lose great amounts of moisture through perspiration and chemical reactions. As good as the old in-out may be, unless you’re hitting a really maximum level of effort, deeper and slower breathing is usually more efficient, getting more oxygen into the system relative to the amount of energy and drying that it costs.

Everyone’s different, so it’s worth experimenting. Get up to whatever pace you’re interested in, and try a mental count of one-two on the inhale, three-four on the ex, one-two in, three-four out… That leave you feeling starved? Maybe in on one and out on two-three, then in again on one… Or if you’re young with a really high VO2Max, go the other route, four and four for an eight beat cycle…(if that works, I hate you. Not.).

So be conscious of how you’re breathing. Try different frequencies and patterns, and learn to use the one that works best for you at whatever pace and intention you run. When you want to dial up the pace, dial up the frequency too, going from six beats to four, to three, and even down to two when you hit that last 100 yards to the now-I-can-stop line.

It’s that simple! (?)

Next time: asymmetrical breathing, or why this slow-and-steady runner loves to count to five.


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