Learn to control your breath to calm down and recover faster.
Written by: Sage Rountree
In my last column, we looked at the powerful tool of breath awareness. Getting to know the mechanisms of your breath will give you a greater sense of your body’s abilities—and thus will help you know when you can push the pace during a run and when you need to settle down. Better yet, you can learn to use your breath to help you with this settling down, specifically by paying attention to your exhalations.
Drawing your exhalations longer will help bring your heart rate down and will engage your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax and recover. Here’s how to learn to draw your exhales longer.
First, get comfortable and observe how your breath is moving in the space of your body. Begin to take deep nasal breaths that expand your belly, your ribcage, and your upper chest as you inhale, and that release from those areas in reverse order as you exhale.
Now notice how your breath is moving across time. Count to yourself as you inhale and exhale. How long does each inhalation take? How long does each exhalation take? Is there symmetry between the two? If not, bring them into evenness, so that your inhalation and your exhalation are of equal duration.
Next, start to draw your exhale slightly longer. If you’ve inhaled to, say, a count of six, pull your exhalation longer so that it lasts for a count of eight. It takes a few rounds to get the pacing right. (This can be good practice for your running—you must learn how to time your release of energy so that you’re totally empty when you reach the end point.) If that feels alright, you can work the exhalation even longer, for example, inhaling for a count of six and exhaling for a count of ten.
This exercise can feel like lying on the beach, especially if you try it lying down. The inhalation feels like a wave coming in, and the exhalation feels like a wave going out. As you start to draw the exhalation longer, it’s like a receding tide. Each wave goes out for a little longer than the time it took to come in.
After a few rounds, come back to an even inhalation and exhalation, and then let go of any project for your breath. Instead, let it flow in and out freely. How do you feel? Calmer, more focused? More relaxed? More mellow? Good. You can apply this tool on the run, for example, in your rest intervals. Don’t force the exhalations to be too long, but make them slow and intentional. You might breathe in through your nose, then slowly breathe out through your mouth. This will help you recover faster and be ready to nail your next repeat.
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Sage Rountree, Runner’s World’s yoga expert, is author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Pocket Guide to Yoga. In addition to teaching yoga workshops nationwide, she is an active coach with certifications from USA Triathlon and the RRCA.