You may be breathing inefficiently, especially when running

Even though you've been breathing your whole life, you may be doing it incorrectly. Getting your breathing right is so important for fueling your muscles with oxygen. Illustrations by Leanne Coelho

Breathing inforgraphic TRAIL magazine issue 15 by Leanne Coelho and Heloise Hunter

The Wrong Way to Breathe

Chest breathing TRAIL magazine issue 15 by Leanne CoelhoTake a deep breath. Did your shoulders rise and tighten? That is exactly the wrong way to breath, creating tension and not fully inflating your lungs.

The way you breathe when you’re reading TRAIL may be very different from the way you breath when you run.

Coach Kathleen Shuttleworth of Active4Life has a simple test:

  1. Warm up by jogging for 5-10 minutes, then run a kilometre at a hard pace.
  2. Stop and place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
  3. If your top hand is moving up and out, and the other is moving in as you breathe in, you are breathing with your chest.
  4. If your lower hand is moving out as you breathe in, and the upper hand is remaining fairly still, you are breathing with your belly.

Getting it Right

Exhale slowly oxygenTo correct your breathing, lie on your back, with your hand resting on your stomach. Breath slowly and deeply, feeling your belly rise as you inhale, and fall as you exhale.

After getting into the pattern, try to do this while sitting, then standing, and eventually running.

To get the rhythm right, Professor Ross Tucker, physiologist and sports scientist at, recommends that you “synchronise your breathing pattern with your gait.”

Try breathing it for three steps, out for three steps, then in for three, out for two, when you speed up. Repeat Coach Kathleen’s test once you think you’ve got it.

The Right Way to Breathe

Belly breathing TRAIL magazine issue 15 by Leanne CoelhoThink of your lungs like the inside of a syringe.

To fill a syringe, the plunger is pulled down and air is sucked in through the tip. Your body’s plunger is the diaphragm, and to inflate your lungs that sheet of muscle needs to be pulled down.

This swings out your lower ribcage and pushes your intestines out of the way, making your belly swell.

Alternatively, imagine that as you breath in, your abdomen inflates like a balloon. As you breath out, your abdomen deflates.

Breathing to beat AltitudeBenefits of Belly Breathing

  • Fuel your muscles with more oxygen
  • Reduce lactic acid build-up
  • Prevent hypercapnia (carbon dioxide build-up)
  • Decrease chance of getting a stitch
  • Delay symptoms of altitude sickness
  • Lessen fatigue
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Calming, improving mental outlook

Devon Coetzee, Biokineticist and Exercise Physiologist at the Department of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, says, “Our bodies increase breath rate during exercise, but our rate of breathing also tells our body that we are exerting ourselves.
“Therefore, by controlling your breathing pattern and not huffing and puffing erratically, we are able to feel less tired when we are working very hard. In essence, you can use your breathing to trick your mind into not feeling that tired.”

Master Your Breath

Your goal is to strengthen your breathing muscles and turn belly breathing into a habit.

  1. Sitting or standing, take in a slow deep breath through your nose.
  2. Inflate your abdomen, feel your ribs expand to capacity.
  3. Hold this breath for a slow count of three, with your shoulders relaxed.
  4. Release the breath slowly while humming. If you feel competitive, count out loud until your lungs are empty and your stomach is tight. The next time you do the exercise, aim to count higher.

The best thing about breathing exercises is that you can do them when you’re driving, sitting at your desk, or waiting for the kettle to boil. There are so many benefits to your running and your health, and so little effort involved.

This article was originally published in TRAIL 15.

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