I was approaching the end of a faced-paced training run when I begin to hit a wall. Lactic acid hijacked the fibers and tissues of my muscles. I got the feeling that I was running against water. My heart rate began sore as did my breathing. Something wasn’t right.
Breathing is an involuntary action. Meaning, you don’t have to think about it, it happens without intention. Could you imagine having to think about breathing? That would be exhausting. Thankfully, the medulla oblongata takes care of this so we don't have to. Mama wasn't right! (Water Boy anyone?).
Short Anatomy Lesson
As we increase our speed there is a higher demand for oxygen in our muscles. But how does the oxygen get from the air outside our body to the muscle tissues inside our body? It’s complex, but the simple answer is diffusion. The oxygen we inhale from the environment enters our lungs via our airway or trachea. It travels down the trachea to our bronchi to tiny grape-like structures known as alveoli. These alveoli harness capillaries which are the center of diffusion. Diffusion, simply put, is the movement of a substance from one area to another. The oxygen moves from the capillaries to connected blood vessels, where is it transported to the tissues of the muscles. At which point, the muscles are able to contract. Thus, you move forward. The amount of oxygen that we need is regulated by our brain without us having to be conscious of it. But what should you do when you’re in a sprint and you feel as if you don't have enough oxygen?
Learning to Control the Breath
Increased speed means an increase in heart rate, and subsequently, breathing. As a runner, there have been numerous speed workouts where I think I should be taking in more oxygen, I feel hypoxic (lack of oxygen), and because of this, I inhale deeper. As a result, my efficiency drops, I feel an increase in shortness of breath, and my muscles begin to fatigue. Why? Well, sometimes more isn’t always the answer. Wait, what!? You ask. Yes. At this point of a run, quality is more important than quantity.
Focus on slowing your breathing. More importantly, breathe from the abdomen. Abdominal breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. Why stimulate something when we are already at a heightened state you ask? Stimulating the vagus nerve activates the relaxing response. It’s the same type of breathing taught during yoga and meditation. When the relaxing response is activated, our body's heart rate and blood pressure drop, breathing slows, and we feel relaxed. Most importantly, we are able to focus. This redirection and focus teaches our body to work more efficiently which will potentate a steady and consistent growth in the sport.
Can you really practice breathing? Yes, and you should. Just like your legs, your lungs have muscles around them that can be strengthened for efficiency. So what exercises can you do?
Yoga — not only helps with strengthening and lengthening the muscles, but it also teaches us to consistently focus our attention on the breath while mimicking poses. This focus lengths the attention span and allows the yogi to distance themselves from negative thoughts that may arise on the mat or on a run.
Box Breathing — How it works: Inhale for 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 (like a box). Repeat while increasing the duration of time by one second up to 4 times. Box breathing teaches the runner consistency. As time increases during this exercise, the runner will be challenged to maintain consistency. With time, the runner is able to relax into the practice and establish a consistent abdominal breath. This breath then can be replicated on the run to promote a calm state of mind which enhances performance.
Pranayama (alternating nostril breathing )— although not yet well known in the western world, pranayama has ancient roots and a plethora of health benefits. It’s derived from the ancient Buddhist sutras or scripts. Some benefits may include calming the mind, increasing immune response, and improved focus and attention. How it works: take your right index and middle finger and place them between your eyebrows (if you don’t have them then above the bridge of your nose is fine). Take your thumb of the same hand and occlude your right nostril. Breath in through the left. At the top of the inhale, take your fourth digit and now occlude your left nostril while taking away your thumb to opening up your right nostril passageway. Exhale fully out your right nostril. Continue the same on the right as you did with the left. One complete cycle is returning to the nostril where you began.
Wrapping it up
If you didn’t read any of this article and skimmed to the parts of your interest (as I usually do), I have one takeaway for you: learn to relax your body. The activities above are tools used to slow the breath and calm the body down during heightened states of strenuous exercise. When the body is calm in nature, efficiency can proliferate, but not until then. Happy running.