I have lots of people ask me about breathing, so I've decided to take it on for this month's article in hopes that you'll all breathe a little easier.
Many people experience a shortness of breath while running. It's not a bad thing. It's supposed to happen in certain circumstances, most commonly if you're running faster than your body is conditioned to go or if you're just starting out on your run. I've had more than one person admit to me that they intentionally taught themselves to breathe slowly so that no one would know how out of shape they were. Meanwhile, they were killing zillions of brain cells to look good. I can empathize. I used to do it myself back in junior high school. I didn't want to look wimpy to the other kids in gym class so I'd fake slow breathing during exercise to look cool; then, I'd take a huge gasp when they weren't looking. At some point later in my life (in college, I think), I realized I didn't care if people saw that I was out of breath. If I needed to breathe hard, so be it.
There are also people that have a large amount of fear come up when they start to breathe hard. It triggers a sense of running out of air, of suffocating, of passing out because of a lack of oxygen. Well, what's the worst thing that can happen? I guess you could die of a heart attack, which is probably the biggest fear underneath it all. But, if you really thought that you were going to die of a heart attack, you shouldn't be out there running and pushing your luck. You might want to consider shooting pool instead.
There are many reasons why you might come up short of breath, so I'll discuss a few of them here and do what I can to dispel your fears.
A. You could have a low aerobic capacity
When you're just starting up a running program you can expect to be out of breath at first. It's because your body is using muscles that it's not used to and those muscles are not equipped to take in the additional oxygen supply needed to sustain the increased workload. The best way to increase your aerobic capacity is with LSD. No, it doesn't stand for Lysergic Dimethyl Acid, it stands for Long Slow Distance running. This type of running triggers your body to produce more extensive "capillary beds" in your muscle tissue so that they can take in oxygen at a higher rate.
B. You are shallow breathing
If you're only breathing from the upper part of your lungs, you're not getting as much air as you could if you were breathing more deeply from the bottom of your lungs. A doctor in one of my classes reassured me that there are no alveoli (those little air sacs in your lungs that exchange carbon dioxide with the oxygen from the air) in your upper lungs. Therefore, if you're only breathing into your upper lungs, you're not getting as much air into your blood supply, even though you might be breathing really hard and fast. The cure for this is to breathe deeply, into your lower lungs. If you're short of breath, it's not because you're not breathing IN enough it's because you're not breathing OUT enough.
Here's how to "belly breathe ". Place your hands over your belly button. Now purse your lips like you're trying to blow a candle out and exhale, emptying your lungs by pulling in your belly button towards your spine. After you've blown out as much air as you can, just relax your belly and the inhale will take place on its own. Practice breathing this way when you're not running so that you can learn the technique while under any physical duress. Then, once you get comfortable with belly breathing you can introduce it into your running. Try matching up your breathing with your cadence. I usually breathe out for 3 strides and breathe in for 2, but do what works best for you. The main thing to remember is to fully empty your lungs before inhaling again.
C. You are carrying tension in your muscles
If your muscles are tight or tense it is much more difficult for oxygen to squeeze its way into your muscle cells because the oxygenated blood from your lungs cannot enter dense (tense) muscles. As I've said in class, It's like the difference between pouring syrup onto pancakes or bagels. The bagels are so dense that they don't absorb anything. On the contrary, soft muscles act like sponges and do quite a good job of soaking up all that oxygen-laden blood.
The cure for this is easy. Just relax! Isn't that why you're running to begin with? Don't take yourself so seriously. Drop your shoulders. Smile. Relax your glutes and don't be a tight-ass. Float like a butterfly ... you get the idea? Just look around you and get into enjoying Nature.
D. You have just started playing a rousing game of tag with your 3-year old daughter in the back yard immediately after downing a huge dinner.
There is no cure for this. Just deal with it dad, and have fun.
I've seen runners that have increased their speed and distance simply by learning to breathe right. The better you get at identifying your particular cause, the sooner you'll be able to do something about it. Sometimes it can be no more than identifying a poor breathing habit and working to overcome it. The biggest help will be when you can learn to really relax while you're running. It's then that everything happens easier and because you're working more efficiently, your oxygen requirements are lower and your breathing will take on more of a natural rhythm. Now take a deep breath and thank the powers that be that you're still breathing!