Rhythmic Breathing For Better Running

All Summer long, I've been struggling to hit decent pace times. The way this most typically unfolds is that I'll go out for, say, a six-mile run, start out at about 7:30 per mile pace, hit the wall at mile three, overheat, and gasp my way back to my starting point, cutting as much mileage as possible to just get out of the heat.

This is simply unlike me. As someone who was born in a hot-weather desert climate, I've always somewhat taken to hot weather. And as someone with thirty years of pretty fast running experience, 7:30 per mile pace and slower is a big step down for me, personally. How could this happen?

Part of the story involves the heart-rate-zone-based training I did during the first part of the year. In order to keep my heart rate in the correct zones, I found more often than not that I had to slow my pace down considerably. Eventually I realized that this was a pretty bad idea. Not only is getting accustomed to slower paces a counterproductive training strategy, when I finally started training at my more usual paces, I found that my heart rate was mostly unaffected, anyway. In other words, with proper running form and an attention to correct pacing, heart rate zones fall into place without having to be "managed" to the exclusion of pace. Lesson learned.

But the other part of the story is that something about Texas weather has been bothering me for years. I've been a tad slower ever since I moved here, much slower than can be accounted for by age or training style. Is the heat really that bad, or is something else going on?

Recently, I stumbled upon a technique that has greatly improved my capacity to run faster speeds, and longer distances, despite the heat and humidity. I say "stumbled upon," but maybe what I should be saying is rediscovered. Learning how to coordinate my breathing and my running stride was one of the first things I discovered when I started running more than three decades ago. It was the "secret" that turned me into a runner, the thing that made me go from running around like every other kid to being able to sustain fast speeds over long distances while maintaining composure. Basically, it's the thing that makes distance running possible in the first place.

I can't believe I forgot it! This is such a fundamental, elementary lesson of running. I feel a little silly or ashamed at having temporarily "lost it," but this is a good example of why screwing with your pacing via heart rate zone or cadence training is such a bad idea. You don't just change the little things, you change the fundamental things.

Now, for the past few days, I've been focusing really hard on my breathing, and to my delight I find that I am able to run closer to my usual pace and much closer to my usual mileage. The lesson for novice runners here is that, if you want to move up to a faster pace, sooner or later you have to focus on your breathing pattern. The lesson for veterans is that if you find your pace and energy levels dwindling, try focusing on your breathing pattern. ;)

The next logical question here is, okay how do I fix my breathing? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this question that will work for every runner. Breathing and running cadence are both highly individual things. My rhythm may not be your rhythm, so matching what I do might be a mistake for you. But that doesn't mean that it's hopelessly subjective.

I recommend running at a brisk but comfortable pace along a long, straight section of sidewalk. Get comfortable in your pace and watch how your stride interacts with the sections of sidewalk. Are you taking one step per section of sidewalk? Two steps? One step per section-and-a-half of sidewalk? Whatever it is, as long as it's comfortable, that's your stride and your stride length. The rate at which you're running at that particular stride will determine your cadence. That's your cadence. Embrace it.

Breathing is the final step in the process. You have to find a breathing pattern that is sustainable. That is, your breathing should match that pattern for mile after mile, without your having to think about it at all. You shouldn't have to take any "make up breaths" or occasionally gasp for extra air. You also shouldn't get a side cramp, which can sometimes happen if you're drawing in more air than you're exhaling.

The trick is to match your breathing to your stride rhythmically. Perhaps a good starting point is to inhale over the course of two strides (one per foot), and then exhale over two strides. This creates a "one-two, one-two, one-two, one-two" rhythm that is easy to stick with. But if this doesn't quite fit what your body wants to do, adjust accordingly. Lately, I've found the most success with a pattern that consists of inhaling over two strides, exhaling over one stride, and resting for a fourth stride. Like this: "one-two ONE (rest), one-two, ONE (rest)" and so on.

Your preferred breathing rhythm might be similar to mine, or might be very different. Perhaps your rhythm is best expressed in a three count. Perhaps you prefer a one-beat inhale and two-beat exhale, or perhaps something else entirely. So, do some experimentation until you find the most comfortable and intuitive breathing pattern for yourself. Once you have it, you'll only need to focus on it for a short time before it becomes second-nature. At that point, you'll be ready to apply your breathing pattern to faster speeds, longer distances, or both; racing or training; you might even find yourself using your rhythm in other sports, like cycling or soccer. 

No comments:

Post a Comment