Out of Breath: What’s really happening when you lose your breath on the run

Rounding the trail’s bend, Carole raises her head to gaze in dread at the steep hill looming ahead. She digs in, knowing that this next quarter mile is going to hurt.

Within seconds, she’s panting loudly as sweat drips from her brow and legs strain to propel her up the hill. Her breath becomes more rapid and shallow as she pushes against gravity to maintain her pace.

Cresting the hill, another runner pulls up beside her, breathing so silently that Carole doesn’t notice her until she’s passing, seemingly with little effort. The silent runner appears relaxed as she floats over the hill and down the trail.

Carole assumes that the silent runner is infinitely fitter than her.

But what Carole didn’t know is that
by changing her breathing, she could
ascend the hill just as powerfully and calmly.

The reason is that Carole’s labored and erratic breathing pattern was triggering reflexes that hindered her movements and making running feel way harder than it should.

“A cardiovascular reflex is activated when the breathing muscles are forced to work hard during exercise that restricts blood flow to the limbs,” says Alison McConnell, PhD, the world’s leading expert on breath training and author of Breathe Strong.

Carole’s shallow, rapid breathing doesn’t properly engage the diaphragm, the main abdominal muscle below the lungs, which means she’s not properly using her core strength, which makes her legs far less powerful.

Not only that, running with an unengaged core means she’s more likely to become injured, as each step puts more torque and impact on her vulnerable knees, hips and back.

McConnell explains that breathing deeply is the best way to properly engage the diaphragm muscle, creating intra-abdominal pressure that stiffens the trunk and stabilizes the spine, generating more power and leverage for your legs.

Breathing deeply stabilizes the core, thereby making you a more powerful uphill runner. Click To Tweet

So how you do breathe better so you can ascend the hills with power and ease?

Step 1. Breathe Rhythmically

Sync your breath with your footsteps in a regular pattern that keeps you feeling relaxed and your movements fluid.

Pay close attention to your breath as you run, consciously drawing the air deep into the lungs for three beats (footsteps), then exhaling for two beats.

This 3:2 pattern–where the inhalation is slightly longer than the exhalation–alternates which foot hits the ground at the beginning of the exhalation, which is when your core is weakest. This uneven breathing rhythm more evenly distributes the landing impact stress across both sides of your body.

This is especially important if you have one side of your body that is more chronically tight, sore or injured, because it’s probably taking the lion’s share of running’s impact. But the 3:2 breathing pattern evens out the imbalance.

Breathing mindfully and in a consistent rhythm is also very mentally calming and focusing.

And that is no small benefit, since you run your best when you feel completely confident in your ability to meet the challenge ahead.

Narrowing attention to just your breath focuses your mental energy on the present moment, leaving no room for self-doubt based on past experiences or fears about your chance of future success, which frees up a tremendous amount of energy that can then be channeled into running.

Step 2. Breathe Like a Baby

Carole’s rapid and shallow inhalations is called apical breathing, which only inflates the lungs’ upper lobes. Besides being less efficient for running, this type of breathing triggers the stress response, a hormonal shift associated with feelings of anxiousness and panic.

However, it is possible for the body to work hard (like running uphill) without having to go into panic mode.

The key is slowing and deepening each round of breath so that the diaphragm is fully engaged. This diaphragmatic breathing pulls oxygenated air into the lower lungs and triggers the relaxation response, which elicits feelings of calmness, control and focus.

Babies are masters at belly breathing. But as we age, a stressful and sedentary lifestyle leads us to become habitual shallow breathers.

To breathe like a baby, inhale slowly, extending the belly outward. This helps draw the breath into the lower lungs and extend the diaphragm. By fully inflating the lungs, you’re also taking in the maximum amount of oxygen possible with each breath.

As you exhale, the belly draws in and the diaphragm moves upward.

Since it may feel “backwards” to breathe this way, practice belly breathing while walking before using it in workouts until it feels more natural.

Put it Into Practice

Practice these two aspects of mindful breathing separately at first, for just a few minutes at a time. Then try both the 3:2 breathing pattern and diaphragmatic breathing together for longer periods of time, say 10 to 15 minutes at the start of each run.

It may feel challenging at first, but at the muscles in the rib cage expand to accommodate the fuller, deeper breaths, it will feel easier and more natural. Try this first on flat terrain and downhills first (when your heart rate is low) before using on your hilly runs.

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