Diaphragmatic Breathing: How It Can Make You a Better Runner

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Did you know that a few simple breathing exercises can help you run longer without getting tired, prevent side stitches, and generally improve your performance? While the techniques to adjust your breathing are simple, it can take some practice to change a habit that you have been doing every second of your entire life. Here are some tips and information to help you get started.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing by contracting your diaphragm, the muscle situated between your thoracic and abdominal cavities. Also known as ‘belly breathing’, ‘deep breathing’, or ‘abdominal breathing’, this method provides your lungs with the most amount of room to expand. This maximizes the quantity of oxygen going into your bloodstream. When you breathe through your diaphragm, you should feel your belly expanding with your breath, not your chest.

A woman breathing deeply.
Photo by Le Minh Phuong

To practice deep breathing while running, breathe deeply (through your belly), inhaling through your mouth and nose for the space of three steps. Then exhale through your mouth for the next two steps. It helps some runners to match their inhales and exhales to a favorite song, rhyme or mantra to lend them a hand in getting the rhythm down.

Another good way to practice deep breathing and make sure you’re doing it correctly is to try it while you are laying down.

  1. Lie down on your back on a flat surface with a pillow under your head.
  2. Place one hand on your chest, and one hand on your stomach.
  3. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and focus on filling or expanding your belly with air.
  4. You should be able to see and feel your stomach rise with each inhalation, and fall with each exhalation.

Preventing Side Stitches

Breathing deeply through your belly is also one of the best ways to avoid the torment of many runners – the ever frustrating side stitch. While they seem like a minor nuisance, a side stitch can easily throw the results of a race, or discourage a new runner starting out. Side stitches were originally thought to originate in the diaphragm, but newer research seems to have disproved this theory.

A woman running.
Photo by Andrew Tanglao

 

Unfortunately, the exact cause of side stitches (formally known as Exercise-Related Transient Abdominal Pain or ETAP) is still unknown. However, studies have shown that there are several ways you can prevent or alleviate side stitches, including practicing abdominal breathing or deep breathing. Being conscious of your breathing can also help improve your posture, which decreases pressure and irritation of the parietal peritoneum (a membrane that wraps around the abdominal cavity).

Other steps you can take that may help prevent side stitches include not eating or drinking large amounts within two hours of running, warming up and stretching thoroughly before running, engage in core-strengthening exercise, and dress warmly in colder weather.

A runner on a cold morning.
Photo by Jenny Hill

Benefits of Deep Breathing

By incorporating deep breathing exercises into your daily running routine, you can improve your running stamina. Because of the increased blood flow and oxygen it provides, diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to have many more health benefits such as:

  • Controlling oxidative stress in type two diabetes
  • Improving pulmonary function in asthmatics
  • Lowering or stabilizing blood pressure
  • Increasing blood flow can improve digestion and appetite
  • Elevating mood and lowering cortisol levels
  • Promoting better sleep and preventing insomnia
  • Increasing the relaxation hormone melatonin

Another benefit of deep breathing is it can help prevent anxiety. Interestingly, only breathing through your chest (which is what most of us do, most of the time) can prompt something known as ‘over-breathing’. Over-breathing, also known as shallow breathing, can cause you to feel breathless or anxious. Why? Because it activates our bodies’ sympathetic nervous system and a fight-or-flight response. When we consistently take too many shallow breaths through our chest, it is effectively putting chronic stress on our body.

Deep Breathing and Running

You might be asking yourself the question, if breathing deeply through my belly is so good for us, why doesn’t it come naturally? Harvard Medical School has an intriguing answer. According to their article “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response,” it states “Body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture. A flat stomach is considered attractive, so women and men tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow “chest breathing” seem normal, which increases tension and anxiety.”

A runner on the beach at sunset
Photo by Bradley Wentzel

In order to perform at peak levels, our bodies need the most amount of oxygen fueled red blood cells possible. Working on diaphragmatic or deep breathing is one of the simplest ways you can improve your performance as a runner. It’s free, and you can achieve noticeable results by committing to just 10-20 minutes of practice a day.

Practicing deep breathing can be something you focus on throughout the day, or it can be a simple set of 20 deep breaths before a run. By taking the time to breathe deeply, you are giving your body a much-needed intake of extra oxygen and red blood cells.

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