This post is the ninth in the series on The Balanced Runner Keys.
Last week I explained the first part of Balanced Runner Key #8, “Breathe downward, taking an odd number of steps per breath cycle. This week I’ll tackle the second half, that stumper of an instruction regarding steps per breath cycle.
By “breath cycle” I mean one inhalation and exhalation. By steps I mean footfalls. Most people breathe in and out across an even number of steps — inhaling for 2 steps and exhaling for 2 steps, for example. However, this means you’re always exhaling on the same foot.
About six years ago I began to realize that exhaling on the same foot all the time ends up mattering more than you might think. My first clue was a question a runner asked me about “leaking” a little when she runs — a common issue for women who’ve had babies, due to the muscles of the pelvic floor never fully recovering after childbirth. I experienced that myself briefly after I had my son, giving me a chance to really understand the problem firsthand.
The leaking happened at footstrike, but especially on the footstrike that started my exhale, so I started paying attention to what was happening then. I noticed I was using the impact of my landing to drive the air out of my body in a big whoosh. Perhaps you’ve heard someone doing that — it’s a pretty noisy exhale and not at all uncommon. I realized that relaxing so that my landing pushed the air out of my body caused me to lose support throughout my torso, including in my pelvic floor (which incidentally is structurally a diaphragm as well and is sometimes even called the “pelvic diaphragm.”) However sustaining my exhale so it didn’t start suddenly or end so fast made me feel lighter on my first exhaling foot strike and I found I could maintain my overall buoyancy, so to speak. (Ladies with leakage issues, give this a try!)
That was my first inkling that exhaling on footstrike had an effect. I also noticed I always did it on the left foot — perhaps the legacy of my high school marching band days, when we always stepped with the left foot on the downbeat — and I began experimenting with alternating the foot I exhaled on. In other words, I switched from inhaling 2/exhaling 2 to inhaling 3/exhaling 2. That’s 5 steps per breath cycle, an odd number.
It worked nicely and gave me a gliding feeling and improved endurance. I’ve tried it with the inhale longer and also with the exhale longer, and I’ve found that having the inhale longer is better for my endurance. This article by Mark Cucuzzella may explain why. I also have discovered I prefer a 7-step breath cycle (4 in, 3 out) to a 5; if I’m breathing downward as I described last week that suddenly becomes easy and breathing more often feels forced.
In the years since then I’ve found with myself and my clients that alternating which foot your begin your exhale on powerfully reduces movement asymmetries. So if you’re regularly having discomfort somewhere on one side of your body, you will feel it reduces over the course of a run in which you breathe this way.
A few years ago, Runner’s World published Running on Air by Bud Coates, and though frankly I haven’t read it yet every excerpt I’ve come across has been excellent and agrees with what I’ve found myself. I highly recommend you read this excerpt. The video on the page is also excellent, including his comment that that it’s right for the chest to move in belly breathing.
The Feldenkrais Method is full of breathing lessons to help you feel how to use your diaphragm and its connection to the movement of your spine, ribs, pelvis, and limbs. In the coming year I plan to record some to help you learn to breathe more easily and fully, supporting good core action and efficient running.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.