Your breath is a powerful tool for your running.
Your breath can have a profound effect on your nervous system. Consider the admonition to take a deep breath when you are upset—this has a basis in physiology, as deep belly breathing can help you relax. Long exhalations stimulate your vagal nerve, engaging your parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system dominates, the relaxation response kicks in and your blood pressure, heart rate, and level of anxiety fall. Conversely, when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge, you’re primed for fight for flight, with adrenaline levels, heart rate, and muscle tension all higher.
The key is to be able to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Together, they comprise the autonomic nervous system. As its name implies, the autonomic nervous system is not directly open to conscious influence. But regulating your breath can have a direct effect on the autonomic nervous system, bringing it into balance by boosting the parasympathetic nervous system. This is useful not just in intense situations you’ll find yourself in while running—just before a race, or deep into a tough set of intervals—but also in day-to-day life.
Here, we’ll look at ways the breath can bring the body into balance. The first step is to get to know how your breath moves in your body. It takes some simple observation. Get into a position that feels comfortable—sit tall in your chair, or lie down on the couch, bed, or floor. Close your eyes if you like. Start to feel where your breath is moving in your body. While the air is entering through your nostrils, you’ll find that there is an action toward the opposite end of your torso, as your diaphragm drops down over the organs in your abdomen and expands your belly forward and up. As your lungs inflate, feel how the breath fills your ribcage. And at the top of inhalation, you’ll find that your collarbone lifts. These actions are reversed on exhalation. Even while your breath is leaving by moving up and out, the action of exhalation is a sinking and settling back in toward center.
Spend a few minutes feeling the balance between the action of inhalation and the action of exhalation. Then let go of conscious control of your breath and see how you feel. Calmer? More focused? Even an exercise as simple as feeling the way the breath moves in your body can be very powerful.
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Your next step is to take this sense of observation out on your next run. How is your breath moving at your various paces? Can you keep the inhalation and exhalation full and balanced even when you need to breathe through your mouth? Observing your breath will keep you focused in the moment, step by step, and that’s the sign of a good runner.
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.
About The Author:
Endurance sports coach Sage Rountree is author of books including The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery and The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. Sage writes on sports for Yoga Journal and on yoga for publications including Runner’s World, Lava Magazine, and USA Triathlon Life. Find her on Twitter at @sagetree.