Tag Archives: Training

Breathing Has Three Sides (at least!)

A recent post encouraged runners to try out different breathing intervals; two step, four step, six step, etc., to see what works best for them at different levels of speed or intensity.

There’s nothing in The Book of Nike though, that says we have to always breathe in for the same duration as we breathe out, or go right from one to the other without a pause. Start messing with those variables and you enter the world of asymmetrical breathing – yet another chew-toy-for-the-brain, to drown out your inner couch potato.

The simplest asymmetry is a three count – in on one, pause on two, out on three – which lets the lungs mine that air for a bit longer before pushing it out, and also reduces the number of lung expansions over any given length of time, thereby saving some energy and stamina in your core. A useful tool when you want to push hard, but with more efficiency and for than breathing in/out on every two footfalls would allow.

Way more intense is a seven count: long, slow in on one/two/three, pause on four, then long slow out on five/six/seven. Keeping that up for an extended time can be a useful way to force a slower pace – and maybe trick the body into efficiency adaptations that will come in handy in other situations.

Sounds arcane and complex, I’ll admit, so why bother? Well, I’m convinced there are at least three potential benefits.

One, asymmetrical breathing gives us lots more options to match respiration to effort. Is a two-step interval too fatiguing on that gentle grade, but a four-step feels like oxygen starvation? Try a three- step and see how that fits.

Two, Our core muscles create different motions and stresses on inhaling than on exhaling, and if you breathe symmetrically, you’re always making inhale motions on the same foot/leg and exhaling stresses on the other.  Yup; symmetrical breathing can actually lead to asymmetrical fatigue and even injury. Asymmetrical breathing distributes stresses more equally – which is well worth a try if you ever find yourself with a pain or glitch on one side and not the other!

Three (and my personal favorite, though I have no scientific basis for it): Try filling your lungs with air and holding your breath, and note how long before you start to feel desperately in need of exhaling. Now, try emptying your lungs and holding there. If you’re like me, the horror movie sensation comes a lot quicker. My guess is, our bodies are hard-wired to suck in air, but not so much to push it out. ‘Full lungs good, empty lungs bad. Ugh.’  With that in mind, my tendency is to exhale harder or longer so I get as much of the old, stale, oxygen-depleted air out, and then let the body’s reflex take care of pulling in the fresh stuff.


These days, my sweet spot seems to be hard-out on one/two/three, and let the body inhale naturally on four/five. When I find my pace lagging on a long run, choosing to breathe that asymmetrical five-count works wonders to bring me back in range.

I’ve even found myself getting into a mode with a hard exhale, quick partial inhale, another hard exhale and then a big full inhale, all in a five count.   Difficult to describe, but whenever I fall into it, I find my pace has improved with little to no increase of effort.


So mix it up, chop it up, find out what works for you, and when. There’s more than two sides to breathing in and out!

Keeping Busy

When lay-persons hear about long runs – the kind that are clocked in hours rather than minutes – their first comment is often “Don’t you get bored?”  It’s a question that applies far more to us mid-pack runners than the elites because every one of our miles takes a lot longer than it would for, say Shalane Flanagan or Jim Walmsley; or even the local hot-shots. Still, whenever that question comes up, this half-their-pace-on-a-good-day slogger feels very fortunate to shoot right back and say, “Never!”

Maybe it helps that I live in a notably scenic region, but as much as looking at your surroundings can help maintain a positive vibe, it’s near-impossible to pay much attention to scenery if you want to stay on your feet!

It’s safer to fill the seconds with people watching, if they’re available. Checking out other runners or walkers to evaluate their pace, the grace of their stride, the much-nicer-than-mine clothes they’re wearing. Cyclists always rate a runner’s attention – and sometimes demand it (come on, guys; because yes, it’s always the guys who pass within arm’s reach without any warning…). Plus, the free ride they get on downhills where runners still have to ‘lift ‘em up and set ‘em down’ is enough to occupy this runner’s mind with a mix of envy or contempt for several minutes after a sighting.

Which brings up all the other technical aspects of executing a long run: keeping track of pace so you know when to push a bit more, when to pull back; noting if your pace is lagging on this slight uphill – and trying to recall if there is a downhill coming up to pay that effort back? Chalking off the miles to know how much is left, or strategizing how best to navigate that intersection coming up, the one with the overgrown rhododendron bushes making it impossible to see if there’s a car coming around the corner?

Fuel and hydration are another place to distract oneself; should I take some water soon, or suck down a gel first? Can I afford to squirt some water down the back of my neck to cool off, or will I need it all for drinking?

Then there’s listening to the body – is it worth a stop to remove that grain of sand that somehow climbed up and into my left shoe? And what is that hot spot under my right big toe – is my sock curled up and it’s gonna cause a blister? How can I adjust my stride to ease that complaining tendon in the back of my left thigh, and would it be more efficient to short stride for a while and take more steps, or to slow the rhythm and stretch out for longer strides? Maybe change to some complex asymmetrical breathing pattern that takes conscious effort to maintain?

Speaking of listening, for some there’s music and for others, there are podcasts. Personally I find the former helpful in the later stages of a big effort, and the latter too distracting (anytime I get absorbed in verbal media, I eventually wake to find my effort and pace have slacked off considerably).

And we still haven’t really gotten outside the moment; to things like going over your schedule for the rest of the day (week), fuming about some news story you read before heading out, or suddenly realizing the solution to that lingering problem in your outside life has suddenly become obvious in the middle of your run – and then hoping to heck you’ll still remember that brilliant idea once the sweating stops.


Who would have guessed that something as simple as running would offer so much to keep the mind busy? A Mid-Pack Runner, that’s who!

(In an upcoming post I’ll admit to another coping tool that’s less objective than the ones above, but maybe even more effective.)

Pushing Down

The arrival of spring this year found this runner looking-forward eagerly to a long event that started up in the mountains and ended down in town. With a couple thousand feet of overall drop, I figured it was a sure formula for a fast pace and an ego-boost to start the season. Sure enough, I crushed my goal pace on the first half (which contained nearly all the downhill) but when I got to the flats…ouch! Turned out my enthusiasm had gotten the better of me and my legs were already shot. By the last few miles I could barely get my feet off the ground as I watched shufflers pass me by and ended up with the worst finish I’d had at that distance in years.

Looking back on it now, I see several things I did wrong. First off, after years of living and training in a mountain region where up and down is a fact of life, I’d taken my fitness in that regard for granted.   Ignoring the fact I’d spend half the last year living in a city where a highway overpass counts as a scenic overlook, I just assumed running all that downhill at an eager pace would still be my thing. Wrong!

Second, because that city sojourn had been at sea level and my regular home and running are all above 6000’ elevation, since my return I’d focused my training on pace work to get re-acclimatized to thin air with less oxygen. Add in the long runs needed to prepare for the event distance, and I completely ignored the kind of up and down runs that would have prepared my legs for this event.

As I mentally beat myself up for that overconfidence, I recalled that an event in which I’d DNF’d a few years ago also had a big downhill in the first half, and that time too, I’d been proud of my pace on those drops, self-image swelling as I wove my way around slower runners and watched the valley floor come rising up to greet me. There too, once we got back on the level, my legs were noodles, only that day, on top of the fatigue I discovered I had no idea how many miles were left to run, thanks to poor signage and a course that looped around and crossed-over itself like a pre-schooler’s shoelaces. Pretty sure my car was closer than the finish line, I bailed and snuck away in shame ( well, maybe just embarrassment…). So much for that earlier flash of ego!

Putting those two together, I’ve resolved to spend this winter on uphill runs and treadmills with the incline set high. And, never again to be deceived by an early downhill. It’s one thing to let it all hang out on a downslope at the end of a run ( thank you to all those race-planners who lay out their courses for a downhill finish, you let us mid-pack runners feel like heroes!). From now on I’ll read the entire elevation profile (another thank you to all the race directors who include that vital info on their web site), and take just a little help from gravity’s boost, while preserving my legs for what comes after.

Pushing downhill, I’ve discovered, is a drug best-taken in controlled doses!