I’ve been eavesdropping on other peoples’ breathing. Normally I’d refrain from comment, but these people happened to be running at the time, and oxygen was important to them. Erroneous breathing techniques were overheard. The most common were mouth-breathing, shallow, erratic, irregular, asymmetrical, skew-if, elliptical, eccentric, unbalanced, disturbed, and not-quite-all-there breathing. Not only are these things related, they are, in fact, all space junk of the same uncivilized planet: panting.
After years of participatory research, a nicely overlapping string of prestigious scholarships, commonwealth research grants, and millions in donations solicited from the public and distant relatives to fund my voluntary and essentially costless, not-for-non-profit venture, I have concluded that further research is needed… but that panting is possibly perhaps likely to be an unsustainable breathing practice for running over distance.
Panting causes premature exhaustion, a flustered demeanor, and in my experience also has a positive correlation with stitches (side ache). Here’s my two cents on how to breathe and run at the same time:
Synchronise your breathing with your steps
The first stage in bringing order to chaos is synchronizing your breathing with your steps. The ratio of breaths to steps will depend on the intensity of your output versus individual lung capacity, cardiovascular fitness, and mental discipline. The following are ideal targets for a healthy (non-asthmatic or otherwise chronically affected) respiratory system, by my own reckoning.
On flat ground, a relaxed jog should draw one breath for every five steps taken, and expend one breath for the duration of the following five steps. As you increase your pace, you’ll need to increase your oxygen intake, but keep it measured against your steps. For a moderate jog, inhale for four steps, exhale for four. A solid run, three steps per breath. A sprint, two steps per breath.
Think of this breathing system as the gearbox in your automobile. The engine is your heart, the revs your pulse, and the fuel your energy. The more steps per breath, the higher the gear you’re driving in. At five steps per breath, you’re cruising in 5th for maximum efficiency. The revs (your pulse) are low, the engine (your heart) is purring like a snoozing feline, fuel (your energy) economy is as good as it gets. When you want more power, you downshift. At four steps per breath, you’re in 4th gear, the tachometer needle bumps up a grand and you burn a little more fuel to accelerate past the fair-weather runner… I mean the truck… in front of you. Three steps per breath, the engine’s roaring in 3rd, pistons tap-dancing, fuel draining steadily from the tank, as you push past another sports machine, maintain your pace up a winding mountain road or use engine breaking for a controlled descent. At two steps per breath, you’re in 2nd gear. You’re either drag-racing, pedal to the metal, with your nemesis right behind you, or charging a drawbridge, or something equally dramatic. Engine screaming, bolts and fleshy sinews rattling, tachometer redlining, fuel gushing into an inferno. You have maximum power, but something has to give. This is your last short laugh before deploying the parachute, lest your weakest component rupture and you grind to a halt in a ball of flame.
Breath-to-step ratios should be tailored to the individual runner. You have to be quite fit indeed to even have a running 5th gear in your system. I estimate that most casual runners will find that they need at least one breath per 3 or 4 steps to maintain any kind of ‘airborne’ (non-walking) stride, until greater cardiopulmonary and cardiovascular and cardiodracular capacities are achieved. Give your body what it needs; don’t starve yourself of oxygen. But whatever your fitness level, I believe that the principle breath-to-step synchronicity should remain. Regular breathing carries you further, with greater efficiency and composure. The ‘gearbox’ breathing system puts you in control of your body’s oxygen intake, exertion and energy output, rather than your legs and organs firing of their own accord like those of a decapitated chicken and crashing in about the same amount of time. In the beginning, this will demand taking conscious control of your respiratory system, but will gradually become unconscious and natural, as I believe it once was for hunting the mammoth and evading the saber-tooth tiger. I don’t see it as something new or invented, just a skill we’re forgetting as a car-driven people.
Control inhalation and exhalation
Once you’ve mentally set a breathing pace or ‘gear’, the techniques for control of inhalation and exhalation (elongation or shortening of breaths as necessary) may occur reflexively, or may require another level of focus. Here’s how to stay in gear.
‘In through your nose, out through your mouth’, is a good general rule, but is not exactly what happens, at least in my own practice. I have found that the most effective way to control my intake and elongate each inward breath, while ensuring that I still get all the oxygen I need to sustain my pace, is with a combination of nasal breathing and drawing a limited volume of air through my mouth. When I inhale, most of the air reaches my lungs through the nasal passages, but my mouth is slightly open, with my tongue poised just beneath the roof of the mouth. The tongue acts as a valve to control air intake. The slower I want my inhalation to be, the more ‘closed’ my tongue. The passage can be sealed completely when slower, nasal-only breathing is desired, without any need to seal the lips.
The lips and cheek muscles, in turn, are used to control the exhale. A pursing or near-closing of the lips will funnel air more gradually from your mouth, allowing the desired number of steps to transpire before the lungs are depleted.
How to kill a stitch (side ache)
I find stitches occur when my breathing becomes shallow or erratic (or I did something dumb like eat too much too close to training… the following technique only works for non-gluttony related stitches). Keep your pace and re-assert conscious control of your breathing. Breathe in steadily and exhale more completely than you would normally or unconsciously. Focus on the exhale, squeeze your abdominals and really exaggerate the expulsion of air from your lungs, perhaps over more steps than your inhalation. In my experience, the stitch will begin to dissipate immediately and should be gone within 30 seconds. Continue to regulate your breathing: full, regular breaths (with a slight contraction of the abs at the end of the exhale for a couple of minutes) to avoid recurrence.
Paper T Tramp,