Do you get breathless very soon after you start running?
Other than starting off too quick, without warming up properly or pacing yourself, the commonest reason would be that you aren’t breathing correctly while running. It might sound bizarre, but a majority of new runners, and even a substantial percentage of “experienced” runners, are not aware of the correct way to breathe while running.
Even someone like author and runner Christopher McDougall, who has done great service to the running community by introducing it to bare feet running through his cult book Born to Run (2009), can get breathing-while-running wrong. He points out that Dennis Bramble, professor of biology at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, US, discovered that humans were the only mammals with the anatomical capability to take more than one breath per stride while running, and it’s this capability that makes us superior endurance runners.
Capability yes, but should it be done while running? Definitely not! This error was first highlighted by Ed Ayres, founding editor and publisher of the Running Times magazine, who has been running competitively for 54 years. After doing his own research, Ayres found McDougall had misquoted Bramble, and that good runners rarely take more than one breath every two strides.
Breathless: More than one breath for each stride reduces your chances of lasting even a kilometre
If you take more than one breath for each stride, leave alone running a marathon, you wouldn’t even last a kilometre. Try it.
I like to relate each breath you take to a bus coming to a bus stop. If you are taking quick shallow breaths, it’s equivalent to the bus not spending enough time for its passengers to get on (oxygen) or off (carbon dioxide). By taking shallow breaths, you are only using the upper part of your lungs. And in that portion of the lung, there’s a minimal amount of oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange. But when you take deep controlled breaths, it’s equivalent to the bus spending the optimum amount of time at the stop for the necessary amount of oxygen to get on, and the carbon dioxide to get off.
Way back in the 15th century, Swami Swatmarama wrote a classic book on hatha yoga titled Hatha Yoga Pradipika. He says: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” The same applies to running.
You need to take long deep breaths. But it’s important to realize that you need to focus on exhaling as well. If you haven’t emptied your lungs, how will you be able to breathe in? Contrary to a lot of expert advice, I highly recommend that you don’t breathe at any particular ratio to number of strides (as long as you are not breathing more than once per stride). Breathe at a rate that is comfortable for you. It automatically ends up being more strides than number of breaths.
Irrespective of speed, simply focus on taking controlled long deep breaths in, and then an even longer exhale. This will keep your muscles relaxed. At an easy pace, you should be able to talk. As the pace quickens, your breathing gets faster, but also more efficient. Correcting your breathing will not only make you run longer without getting breathless, it’ll make you a faster and more efficient runner.
Rules do not really apply in running, but guidelines give you something you can customize to yourself. Before each run, while you are walking for the first 5 minutes, simply concentrate on breathing. I suggest you take a deep long breath, hold it for a second or two, and then exhale, taking even longer than you took for inhaling. I wouldn’t bother too much about the exact duration as it’ll change as you get better at it, and your body will tell you what feels right.
If I have to pick one exercise that would help you breathe better during running, it has to be Pranayama. I experienced it first for myself in 2004 when my parents were visiting me in London. On a long walk, my dad sat on a bench in Hyde Park and started taking deep breaths. Till then I had resisted doing things that my dad has been doing, but he asked me to try it once, and I found it the most useful exercise I had ever done for running. Kapalbhati Pranayama is the best asana for running as it reinforces the simple logic that the amount of air you can inhale into your lungs is limited by how much empty space there is in the first place. To maximize that, you need to first exhale as much as you can.
You need to sit in a comfortable position, perform five long deep inhales and exhales. Follow this by inhaling again and forcefully exhaling as much air as you can. Your belly should be drawn in as you exhale. When you inhale, let it happen passively without you making any effort as the belly goes back to its normal position. Repeat this 30 times. This single exercise trains you to breathe effortlessly while running.
Just like correct breathing keeps your muscles relaxed, being conscious of your posture while running helps promote correct breathing. Your shoulders need to be down and slightly pushed back. You need to relax your glutes (butt) as well. If you are holding yourself too stiff during long runs, you’ll notice that your upper and lower back, along with your shoulders, will start to tire, and may pain. That’s because there’s too much tension there, which forces you to take shallow, fast breaths, throwing your running in a downward spiral.
You will know your breathing technique is getting better when you notice that you can run effortlessly for longer and at a faster pace.
Like everything else, it’s not so much the quantity, but the quality of breath, that is more important.
We, however, tend to take that for granted.
Rajat Chauhan is an ultra marathon runner and a practitioner of sports and exercise medicine and musculoskeletal medicine, and CEO of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to Rajat at firstname.lastname@example.org