I’m always looking for ways to improve my running without having to put myself through too much physical hardship. I’m not a runner who thrives on lung-busting workouts. Yes, I’m a bit soft.
But thankfully I’m hoping I’ve found a secret to improving performance and fitness without having to race endless sweaty laps of a track or scale mountains at pace.
A breath of fresh air
As runners, we generally chase our personal bests by working harder. We focus our attention and time on nutrition, mobility and strength as complementary ways to improve. We invest in gadgets, physical therapy and online workouts, but many runners fail to address something that actually stops them in their tracks when running – their breath. How we breathe can make a huge difference to our running. Breath training is gaining more and more recognition in all sports now as the additional piece in the jigsaw for peak performance, elite or recreational. The best news is that it doesn’t generally involve working up a sweat.
Training our breath
A few years ago I was introduced to “oxygen advantage”, a breathing technique for sport. Throughout lockdown I’ve been experimenting more with it and have enjoyed adding something different to my running routine. This particular breathing programme was developed by Irish man Patrick McKeown and is made up of series of exercises which include breath holding and nasal breathing which mirror altitude training. The aim is to increase our body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles that need it efficiently. If that last sentence is a little too technical, don’t worry. In simple terms, most of us could benefit from breathing more efficiently, and in order to get there we need to pay attention to how we breathe – in and out of running shoes.
Nasal breathing practice
One key element of the technique is the focus on breathing in and out of our nose rather than our mouth. I have been encouraging all my running groups to practise nasal breathing over the past few years. I have even occasionally provided tape to keep their mouths shut as we ran in training (don’t try that just yet). Personally, I’m a big fan of nasal breathing when running and almost all my runs are now run with my mouth closed. Running solo through lockdown certainly made that easier than trying to multitask it with chatting to others. Before you try it out, check are you nasal breathing as you read this. There is no point attempting running with your mouth closed until you are happy to nasal breathe when sitting still.
Why should I bother?
Before you dismiss breath training as another fad, I encourage you to think about your running and how efficient your breathing currently is both on and off the running paths. From beginners all the way to elite athletes, our breathing controls our performance. We train harder in order to push our limits and often assume this is the only way to overcome breathlessness or improve performance. But how much time have you given to strengthen your main breathing muscle, your diaphragm? I’m guessing your legs and glutes have been given much more attention over the years.
Keep it simple
I could bombard you with the science on breathing, but the best way to learn is to experiment and see what works for you. Let’s keep things simple for now and introduce just one focus to your breathing. Try to breathe in and out of your nose instead of your mouth. Like any component of running technique, start gradually and see how your body feels. When we put too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect, we end up frustrated and giving up. Often, we quit just before we see progress and revert to old ways. Hang in there and don’t expect it to be easy to start.
Your resting breath
If you are curious about how you are breathing when you run, check how you breathe when you are not running first. Pay attention this week to your breath as you read, watch TV or commute. We need to become aware of how we breathe when we are doing daily non-strenuous tasks. When you notice your mouth open, close it, try not to panic and breathe lightly through your nose. Don’t concern yourself with big deep breaths, just focus on the cool air going into your nostrils and the slightly warmer air coming back out. When your mouth is closed, the body will naturally breathe deeper and use the diaphragm as it is meant to be used. You don’t need to force the air in any particular direction for now.
Swallow no flies
If breathing through your nose is not comfortable while you sit at a laptop, it won’t be manageable on a run just yet. Try walking first. But if you can’t resist the temptation to see if you can nasal breathe when running, give it a go. Next time you are out running, close your mouth, leave your ego at home, slow your pace and see how long you can run breathing lightly in and out of your nose. Stop and walk when you need to open your mouth and when your breath is relaxed start running again. It might be a humbling exercise for now but give it a little time and it does get easier. Let’s chat more about this again next month when I’ll share the benefits and the next steps in making breathing part of your running training.
In the meantime, close your mouth whenever you remember.
Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary's book Get Running published by Gill Books is out now.
Read: Exercises to help you breathe better