The mental image is of a hurricane: immensely powerful winds moving at tremendously high speeds, but at the center of it all — in the eye — peace and stillness.
It’s an appealing ideal for how you should run — the winds, of course, being your limbs; the eye, your lungs and heart.
And it’s for real. Since I’ve started running this way, breathing this way, I’ve gotten my share of funny looks from the people out for a stroll in the opposite direction whom I pass. I’m moving along at a decent pace — okay, maybe more like a breeze than a hurricane — but the visible and audible signs of stress are none.
No huffing and puffing, no familiar “runner’s mask,” where the mouth hangs slightly open to help the nose take in air. Instead, a calm, closed-mouth smile and an unlabored “Hi there.”
Whereas I used to take a full 30 breaths per minute (in for three steps, out for three steps, at 180 steps per minute), I’ve slashed that number in half, often dipping down to only 12 breaths each minute (five seconds per) on flat or downhill stretches. And with these longer, deeper breaths comes a drastically slower heart rate — hovering around 125, when at a similar pace in the past, the slightest hill, headwind, or even an upbeat song on the iPod would push me over my target rate of 140.
Changing my breathing has changed how I run. The biggest key: training myself to breathe entirely through my nose, instead of my mouth.
In search of the Zone
I became interested in breathing technique when I read Scott Jurek’s book, Eat & Run. There, he writes just enough about breathing through your nose and breathing abdominally to pique one’s interest, and notes that he learned to breathe this way from a relatively obscure book called Body, Mind, and Sport.
As soon as I was done with Eat & Run, I ordered my copy of Body, Mind, and Sport. (Paperback, since no ebook exists.)
It’s a unique and interesting book. The explicit goal of author John Douillard’s methods is to maximize the amount of time during each workout that you spend in “the Zone”– that often talked-about, Zen-like state where everything just flows, where athletes perform at the very top of their game, without conscious effort or exertion.
And although that distinguishes the book from so many others whose goal is simply improved performance, Douillard believes that finding the Zone in training eventually begets optimal performance in competition.
Note: Before you go and buy Body, Mind, and Sport, make sure it’s for you. The first two-thirds of the book are about determining which of three Ayurvedic types you are, then using that information to tweak everything from your nutrition to what time of day to exercise, to which sports to do in which season. It’s 150 pages before you get to the breathing part.
What other running coaches say about breathing
For as integral to running (and almost all sports) as breathing is, the topic is oddly ignored among runners. Ask a runner, even a good one, how he or she breathes, and you’ll likely get a shrug, or maybe, “I don’t really think about it; I just do what comes naturally.”
For fun, I checked out some of the running books on my shelf to see what they said about breathing — which, if anything, must have been so briefly mentioned that I had forgotten it. Here’s what I found:
- In Daniels’ Running Formula, Jack Daniels suggests a 2-2 rhythm — in for two steps, out for two steps (45 breaths per minutes) and says most elite runners breathe this way. Interestingly, he says that something like 4-4 would require such deep breaths as to become inefficient.
- The Chi Running approach (in Chi Marathon anyway; I actually don’t own the original Chi Running) is to breathe in through the nose for two steps and out through the mouth for three steps. For more intense paces, it’s in for one step and out for two. (Later, the reverse is suggested: in for two, out for one. I’m not sure if this is an error or if I’m misunderstanding something.)
- There’s no mention of breathing in Core Performance Endurance.
- Several books suggest using your breath rate as a way to regulate your pace. I independently “discovered” this about a month ago, though surely I had read it before and just forgotten about it. I like this technique and I’ll expand on it later.
You can see that, in comparison to the other common approaches, Body, Mind, and Sport is extreme. The 15 breaths-per-minute rate that Douillard suggests equates to a 6-6 pattern if you’re taking 180 steps per minute, and as I said earlier, I’ve found that I can comfortably slip into an even slower breath rate, about an 8-8 pattern (though I don’t always precisely line it up with steps and sometimes just let the breath flow independently of the feet).
This technique of slower breathing is fascinating to me. Slower breathing means a lower heart rate (about 10-15% lower, in my own experience), and this translates to lower perceived exertion (as shown in studies by Douillard which measure subjective exertion among athletes). It remains to be seen how well this works at higher speeds, but at this slow, aerobic pace like what I’d hope to maintain throughout a 100K ultramarathon, spending half as many breaths and 15 percent fewer heartbeats seems it can only be a good thing.
And if it’s good enough for Scott Jurek, well, it’s good enough for me.
If you’re interested in experimenting with it, here’s the exact process I followed to get the results I have.
3 steps to lowering your breath rate while you run
One thing to be aware of before you start: this shouldn’t be about forcing anything or running through shortness of breath — to do so would be dangerous. There will be times when changing your breathing is mildly uncomfortable, sure, but I’ve gotten to this point very gradually over the course of about six weeks without ever having felt like I was struggling to get enough air.
If you feel at any time you’re not getting enough air, slow down your pace, take more frequent breaths, open your mouth, or stop running until you regain your breath. Don’t do anything stupid.
Another note: I’ve done entirely easy runs during this time, in an effort to build an aerobic base and because the slow pace is more conducive to focusing on my breathing. Douillard suggests ways to train yourself to nose-breathe even during interval workouts, but for now, I’ve only tried this with easy runs.
1. Go out for an easy run, close your mouth and breathe through your nose in whatever pattern is comfortable.
Why the nose? Douillard argues that the mouth is meant for eating, the nose for breathing. While the mouth can deliver more air to the lungs at once, Douillard writes, it’s often so much oxygen that it builds up in the bloodstream when the body can’t exchange it for carbon dioxide fast enough. Associated with mouth breathing is also a highly stressful survival state, while the nose delivers a smoother stream of air that doesn’t trigger the survival response and more easily reaches the critical lower part of the lungs. (This is all new to me; explanation and arguments about these points are welcome in the comments.)
The first time you try breathing exclusively through your nose while you’re running, it’ll be tough. You’re not used to it, so the temptation will be to chalk this all up to hogwash and go back to mouth breathing. But stick with it on your easy runs for a few weeks, breathing out through your mouth only when you really need to, and you’ll find that your body adjusts and nasal breathing gradually becomes much easier. (This is also a good way to remind yourself just how easy an easy run is meant to be — rather than resorting to mouth breathing right away, just slow down to the point where nose breathing becomes comfortable.)
2. Once you’re comfortable with nasal breathing after several runs, start experimenting with different patterns — say, 3-3 or 4-4 at first.
Here’s where you’ll start to use your breath to regulate your pace. Settle into an easy running pace that’s comfortable for nose breathing, and notice how your breath lines up with your steps.
For example, when I first tried on an easy trail run, I found that breathing in for four steps, out for four steps (4-4) was comfortable. As I paid closer attention, I found that any uphill or increase in pace would make this breathing rate difficult, and I’d have to go to 3-3. At that point, I’d adjust my pace to return to 4-4.
Even if you went no further with breathing or didn’t care at all about lowering your breath rate, this technique could feasibly replace your heart monitor as a means of measuring biofeedback. It certainly feels more natural and meditative to pay attention to your breath than to have something strapped to your chest sending data to your watch.
3. Experiment with slower breath rates every few runs as your body adapts, until you reach a point where improvements are minimal.
If you determine that 4-4 is your comfortable rate, stick with that for a few runs and enjoy the act of being so in tune with your breath. Notice how slight changes to your pace, the terrain, or the temperature affect your breathing, and when you’re ready, try slowing the breath even more. Go to 5-5 for a few minutes, paying close attention to how it feels.
If you find that to be comfortable, you’re making progress, and 5-5 can become your new default. From there, you can repeat the process to gradually slow down your breath even more, and if you’re like me, you’ll find that you improve for several weeks as your body adjusts to this new type of breathing, and you eventually hit a point where further improvements are hard to come by.
A final word of caution: there’s a tendency to breathe extremely deeply whenever we focus on the breath. Be careful with this. I’ve read (in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness) that one can damage the lungs by breathing too deeply before the body is conditioned to do so. And I actually found that at the end of a run on which I had breathed particularly deeply, I had a strange shortness of breath that didn’t feel right. So understand that while you’re breathing more slowly with this technique, it’s not necessarily deeper breathing, and it shouldn’t strain your lungs.
There’s a lot more to write about breathing as it relates to running, just from the little bit of research I’ve done on this topic that is mysteriously ignored by most authors. But for now, this is plenty, as it’s a major shift from what most of us do and if you actually have the patience to stick with this, I think you’ll notice the same dramatic results I have.
Douillard writes that even 5K runners and sprinters can learn to effectively breathe this way. And maybe this is true, but I expect that his approach to breathing will be of interest mainly to longer-distance runners, where there’s enough time during a run to relax, zone out, and enjoy the act of paying attention to your breath.
Even if fewer breaths, lower heart rate, and less perceived exertion didn’t translate into performance gains — and as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out — it’s a worthwhile experiment for anyone interested in meditation, relaxation, and spending more time in the mysterious, elusive Zone.
I’m interested to know what others think about not just this technique, but the concept of breathing in general as it relates to running. Is there an approach you swear by? Do you know of other authors who have written at length about the topic? Let us know in the comments; I look forward to the discussion.