Your body doesn’t do anything without air—let alone crush workouts and score new PRs.
“During exercise, we breathe to satisfy the biochemical demands of that exact exercise, providing the body with ATP for energy, quelling acidity so that muscles can fire properly, and removing carbon dioxide and other byproducts from the body,” explains strength coach and physical therapist Michael Roncarati, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., director of rehabilitation for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.
But while all exercise needs air, the process for properly delivering that precious O2 depends on what your workout is that day, he says. Are you running? Cross-training? Performing some rehab work? The answer matters.
Here, we dive into five important breathing strategies every runner needs for better exercise performances—and results.
Calm Race Nerves With Belly Breaths
Most athletes, whether they are going into a marathon or obstacle course race, go into the event too amped up and jittery for optimal performance. (Cue the nervous poops.) Using your breath to activate your parasympathetic, calm-inducing nervous system can help get anxiety back to a manageable level while increasing focus, explains strength coach Todd Durkin, C.S.C.S., who has trained top athletes including the NFL’s Reggie Bush and snowboarder Shaun White.
Before you take to the start line, he recommends spending a few minutes performing deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Find a spot and lie flat on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. With your eyes closed, deeply inhale through your nose for five counts, inflating your stomach, and then your chest, like a balloon. (You're doing it right if the hand on your chest rises after the hand on your stomach does.)
Pause, then forcefully exhale through your mouth for the count of five, contracting your core and causing both hands to lower as you do so. Repeat until you feel your nerves have calmed down and you you are mentally ready to go. (If you still can’t shake jitters before that 5K, here's How You Can Deal With Prerace Anxiety.)
Master a 3:2 Breathing Pattern
Every runner needs to implement diaphragmatic breathing into their runs, as it expands and fills the lungs better than shallow “chest-only” breaths, explains Runner’s World training director Budd Coates , M.S., author of Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter. The one catch: Instead of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, when running, you can breathe through both on every inhale and exhale. This will help you maximize the amount of air into and out of your lungs per breath, allowing your body to efficiently use oxygen for both your lungs and your working muscles.
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Tailoring your midrun diaphragmatic breathing to an odd pattern—for example, inhaling for three steps and then exhaling for two—can prevent one side of your body from taking the brunt of running’s repeated pounding. “When you first begin to exhale, the side of your body that your weight is on receives a great amount of stress. So, if you are breathing in an even pattern, which is most runners’ default, that same side will experience the stress associated with each exhale,” Coates says. “If, however, you breathe with an odd pattern, the load is shared 50-50 during any run.”
To train your body into a new, safer breathing pattern, lie flat on your back with your hands on your chest and stomach. From here, practice inhaling to the count of three and exhaling to the count of two. Once that feels comfortable, try tapping your feet along with your counts. Finally, get on your feet and try walking, and then running, along with that 3:2 breathing pattern. (For more instruction, see the video below.)
Exhale on Exertion When Strength Training
“Strength training requires very specific times to inhale and exhale,” explains trainer Jacquelyn Brennan, C.S.C.S., cofounder of Mindfuel Wellness in Chicago, Illinois. Specifically, that involves inhaling on the eccentric (or easy) phase of the exercise and exhaling on the concentric (or difficult) phase. So when performing a squat, that would mean inhaling as you lower your body toward the floor and exhaling as you fire back up.
Your body’s muscles are naturally stronger eccentrically than they are concentrically. But when you forcefully exhale during this phase, you allow your body to transmit forces better—contracting your core and stabilizing your body through any movement. It's really a little extra oomph, Brennan explains.
For the biggest benefits, it’s best to forcefully exhale through your mouth. Meanwhile, inhaling through your nose may be your best bet. “When air enters the nasal cavity, hairs naturally removes allergens and pollutants, the air becomes dehumidified, and the body is able to more easily extract oxygen,” Roncarati says. And If you notice your breathing is all over the place when strength training, make sure to pause and catch your breath before starting your next rep.
Get a Boost on Max Lifts
When lifting heavy loads, near the maximum amount you can handle for one rep, try performing a forced breath hold called a Valsalva maneuver. According to a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, the Valsalva maneuver can effectively increase intra-abdominal pressure, which may help stabilize the spine and increase the rigidity of the trunk. Translation: You can lift more while also reducing the stress placed on the spine (similar to wearing a lifting belt).
Here’s how it works: During the entirety of the eccentric, or easy, part of the exercise, take a deep inhale. Then, while keeping your mouth and throat closed, forcefully exhale (imagine trying to “pop” your ears on an airplane), making sure that no air actually leaves your body as you begin the concentric part of the exercise. Once you get past the exercise’s “sticking point”—the hardest part of the rep—let yourself fully exhale.
You can resume normal breathing for the rest of your reps as soon as you pass this “sticking point," Roncarati says. One note: The Valsalva maneuver increases blood pressure and, while that can be perfectly okay and healthy, there’s no reason to raise your blood pressure any higher than is necessary. If you have any known heart conditions like hypertension or are concerned about the safety of performing a forced breath hold, talk to your doctor before trying this.
Find Your Yoga Flow
In yoga, breathing goes by its own name, “pranayama,” which literally means “controlling your life force.” It places emphasis on using the breath to create energy and balance, calm the body, and increase mindfulness for a meditative practice, Brennan says.
While dozens of various breathing techniques exist within yoga, arguably the most common and foundational one is called “ujjayi” (meaning to conquer or be victorious). Slowing and steadying the breath, ujjayi helps the body to move more fully and deeply into each pose. “Most yoga teachers will cue an inhalation for opening and lengthening the body, and an exhalation for deepening a twisting posture or fold,” she says.
To get a feel for ujjayi, sit down in any position, close your eyes, and begin breathing slowly through your nose. Focus on making each breath diaphragmatic, inflating and deflating your stomach and chest—about four to five breaths in and out. Next, slightly tighten the muscles of your throat so that with each breath it makes a soft hissing sound.
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Once you have this down, you can begin to incorporate ujjayi into your yoga practice. Exhale as you move into each new pose, and then continue breathing in and out.