Buteyko breathing for beginners . . . and runners

Grit Doctor: Some people rule themselves out of running because of their poor breathing

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to breathe when running after a question (from Anxious Panter). However, I now fear I didn’t give the question sufficient weight. I told the reader to get on with it, try not to worry about your breathing when running and said that you would soon know when you were not doing it right. Since then, a fellow columnist kindly pointed me towards something called Buteyko breathing, which he thought might be of interest.

Buteyko breathing was designed by Dr KP Buteyko for people with asthma and indeed a whole host of medical problems. According to his research – and there are more than 40 years of research behind it – about 150 diseases are linked to dysfunctional breathing – asthma, allergies and emphysema are just a few examples. Buteyko breathing – he claims – can alleviate those conditions.

It then occurred to me that the reader’s pen name, Anxious Panter, was perhaps a euphemism for suffering from genuine anxiety and breathlessness, two conditions which this Buteyko-style breathing has been found to help. So this extra breathing column is for all wannabe runners who, put off because of breathing difficulties, have disqualified themselves from ever taking up the sport.

There hasn’t been sufficient time for me to go through all the breathing exercises properly, but since I don’t have any breathing problems, I am instead trying to embrace the underlying philosophy of the method which is, essentially, to breathe less. This is achieved through using my nose more than my mouth while running, taking shallower breaths and less frequently, which I must confess I am finding challenging.

Having always breathed predominantly through my mouth while running, I am used to gulping down and spewing out huge gusts of air much more frequently. The Buteyko method warns against this, suggesting that this “over-breathing” causes us to breathe out too much carbon dioxide, which is the key ingredient to maintaining optimum oxygen flow to the muscles.

The Buteyko method oxygenates the blood much more effectively, maintaining the correct ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the bloodstream. It requires commitment and practice and ideally a class and/or a qualified coach. It is not without its opponents either, so be sure to arm yourself with as much information as you can before trying it out.

With that caveat in mind, however, the science behind it certainly adds up. When exercising, a large amount of oxygen is carried by haemoglobin in the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide controls of the width of the arteries and veins carrying blood around the body and when we have low levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, this causes the blood vessels to tighten and blood flow becomes restricted.

Similarly, breathing too much increases the amount of mucus being produced in the airways, which reduces the space inside them.

The smooth muscle wrapped around these tubes tightens and when these two things combine (less CO2 in the bloodstream and too much mucus in the airways), airflow is restricted, which ultimately leads to less oxygen getting to the our muscles.

By practising the Buteyko method, normal levels of carbon dioxide are maintained for longer periods while exercising. This results in less lactic acid and mucus being produced and the dilation of airways and blood vessels is maintained for longer. This means we do not tire as quickly, our hearts are not put under so much strain and – in theory – breathing becomes easier.

I say “in theory”, because in the few weeks that I have been trying to breathe less when running, it has been far from easy to achieve. Breathing “right” is, in fact, very hard, but I will persevere.

If you would like to experiment with using Buteyko breathing, just find a comfortable place to sit quietly, relax for a few minutes. Then pay attention to your breathing. If you are stressed and anxious it may be erratic, deep, gasping even, or you may be holding your breath intermittently.

Gradually allow your breathing to slow right down and try to make it more shallow, which means don’t breathe deeply. Initially this may be difficult to do for more than a few seconds at a time, so aim to train yourself over a few weeks to try and sustain it over a few minutes. What you are doing, in the Buteyko method, is developing an ability to tolerate slight “breath hunger”. It must be introduced very, very gradually.

For example, if you find yourself gasping or gulping or beginning to breathe even a little more deeply during your practice, then you are overdoing it. Take your time getting used to it. Allow a month or two to become comfortable with it.

With diligent and sustained practice you should be able to make your breathing more shallow whenever you find yourself becoming stressed or agitated. Try not to allow the levels of diligence and commitment required to stress you out while you’re at it. It works because you are building up your reserves of carbon dioxide once again.

Carbon dioxide is a natural tranquiliser, too, so it should help with the anxiety as well as improving your running performance through optimising the delivery of oxygen through the bloodstream. So in your case, Anxious Panter, that’s double bubble of the best sort.

Ruth Field is author of Run Fat B!tch Run, Get Your Sh!t Together and Cut the Crap.