This post is part of the The Balanced Runner Keys series.
Many runners feel instinctively that breathing is at the crux of their struggles with running and have pressing questions about how to do it. This instinct is right on the mark: how you breathe when you run affects your ability to find a flowing and sustainable rhythm, pace yourself, balance the stress equally on both sides of your body, and cultivate a supple, versatile, economical running technique.
This is why I’ve included breathing in my Keys to Becoming a Balanced Runner. Balanced Runner Key #8 is “Breathe downward, taking an odd number of steps per breath cycle.” There’s a lot of information packed into that sentence, so I’m going to break the explanation into two blog posts. In today’s post I’ll tackle what it means to “breathe downward.”
If you google how to breathe while running you’ll get a bunch of articles on diaphragmatic or belly breathing, many leading off with a question like, “Are you a chest breather or a belly breather”? There are basically two ways to draw air into your lungs: to lift and expand your ribs or to draw your diaphragm downwards into your abdomen. Take a look at this video illustrating the mechanics of breathing to get a picture of what I’m talking about. (The relevant part is from the start to 0:56, after which there’s an additional bit about so-called “deep abdominal breathing” that’s irrelevant to our discussion.)
To be a “chest breather” means that you don’t contract your diaphragm downwards much when you inhale, relying on expanding your chest up and out. This is also called “paradoxical breathing,” particularly if you also push your chest downwards and your belly outwards when you exhale, and it’s associated with stress and panic, the “fight or flight” response.
To be a “belly breather” means that you primarily rely on your diaphragm moving downwards into your abdomen to draw breath in. This is why your belly expands when you inhale — not because air is actually going into your belly (it only goes into your lungs in either case), but because your organs get pushed outwards a bit by the downwards movement of your diaphragm. This is particularly beneficial because the lower parts of your lungs are more heavily vascularized, making it easier for oxygen to pass into your bloodstream. It’s also associated with being more relaxed.
In all my 22 years of working as a movement professional I’ve met only a few true chest breathers who inhale and exhale by moving the ribcage alone and never the abdomen. On the other hand, I’ve found an epidemic of people who breathe with their bellies but have chests as still as stone. Neither version is healthy; the so-called relaxed belly-only breathing is highly tense, in fact, and when I help clients who breathe this way feel how to allow gentle movement in their chests as well they relax significantly and often fall asleep!
As I learned from Michael Krugman when I studied the Sounder Sleep System, relaxed breathing is breathing that happens everywhere at once. Air is drawn into the lungs by the diaphragm moving and the ribs lifting and expanding. This is as true for runners as for anyone else — in fact, as your oxygen needs go up during running it becomes increasingly important to use your entire breathing apparatus rather than just part of it.
So why do I emphasize breathing downward? Because for breathing that is everywhere at once, the diaphragm needs to move fully and easily downwards with the upper body and the belly relaxed. In running you’re of course not going to be fully relaxed, but the level of muscle tone should be relatively even throughout the torso so you’re not restricting the movement of either area.
In reality, the subject of breathing is incredibly deep and has been the life’s work of many brilliant people including Carl Stough and Konstantin Buteyko, but this simple cue of imagining your breath going downwards along the inner side of your spine can help you feel what to do while running.
What you definitely should avoid is tensing any part of your trunk to try to get your breath to go in the correct place – for instance, contracting your chest to try to keep it from moving so you will belly breathe, tightening your abs in the belief it will do something positive for your breathing, or doing any intentional contraction of your abdominals to assist exhalation.
There is a virtuous circle between the full movement of your diaphragm and a well-balanced core action in running. Because your diaphragm attaches to your spine right around the area that you counterrotate (or twist) your upper and lower body, feeling an easy, expansive downward movement of your breath in that area keeps you from tensing your upper abdominal muscles, so that not only do they not interfere with your breathing, they also don’t restrict your core action. And vice-versa, runners who struggle to “belly breathe” and may even have trouble with asthma can relieve the restriction on their diaphragm by working on their core action with Feldenkrais movement lessons and supportive cross-training. The result will be much easier breathing, I’ve seen it over and over.
Next week I’ll explain the second part of the key, regarding the number of footfalls per breath cycle. Between now and then, give the downward breathing image a try and leave a comment letting me know how it goes!