Monday, January 24, 2011


Learning the art of breathing is one of those things that is often forgotten in training.  We spend so much time refining our running technique with a never ending mantra of "relax the shoulders, quick feet, hands up, look forward,"... that we forget what is going on with our breathing.  Most times in the early conditioning stages of running, it’s not muscle fatigue that is slowing us down, it’s the tight pain in our lungs and the heart beating out of our chest that makes us question taking another step.

I was out running with a triathlete the other day and some light bulbs were going off in my head about her perceived exertion in aerobic training runs versus anaerobic runs.  During a 5km test run of mile repeats I listened to her start off breathing: in, two, three, four, out, two, three, four, and by the middle of the repeat her breathing became shallow and panicky. It dawned on me that she never fell into an anaerobic breathing pattern.  Instead, she stayed shallow, which in turn restricted oxygen to her muscles and then jacked up her heart rate which told her brain to slow down.  This is the perpetual pattern that many athletes face in their training and is often a breaking point in the mind.

In our daily lives while sitting at work in front of a computer or at home on the couch, we typically breathe shallow because we are unaware and very relaxed.  Once activity is introduced, learning to breathe with a deep diaphragmatic breath will condition the lungs and heart for endurance.  Take a moment and pay attention to how you are breathing just now as you read this article.  You are probably taking very short breaths in and out through your nose.  Now sit up tall, put your hands on your rib cage and take a deep breath in through your nose and let it out.  You probably felt your ribcage expand and your chest puff up.  Now, keep your hands on your ribcage and take a deep breath in through your nose, but don’t let your ribcage expand or chest puff up, but rather your abdomen ~ and then let out the breath through your mouth.  This time you should have felt your diaphragm engage with the breath in and the exhale released with force out.  This is diaphragmatic breathing.

When running at a low aerobic level, it is easy (for most) to remain in control of the breathing patterns.  The level of exertion is typically nice and relaxed.  When the pace picks up and we start recruiting more muscle, our breathing becomes labored as the need for oxygen to the muscles has increased.  This is the anaerobic threshold.  For most of us when this happens, our level of anxiety increases and it may put us in the beginning stages of hyperventilating if we don’t know how to control it.  At this point if we can’t calm the breathing back down we enter into an internal battle with our brain that is screaming for us to stop….and it usually wins and we end up walking.

Learning to run relaxed and to keep our minds composed during the change is a skill refined over time.  Think of your body as a train and it’s about to go up a hill.  The engine will be working really hard and thus needs coal (oxygen) to fuel the fire (muscles).  The better you are at diaphragmatic breathing, the more oxygen will travel to the muscles.  This will allow the train (your body) to not lose speed.

The bulk of our conditioning phase in running is done in the low aerobic zone.  As we enter into the strength and speed work phase our level of intensity must increase, pushing into the anaerobic zones (i.e. fartleks, hills, race pace, etc.). As beginner triathletes our mentality for the run portion of a race is just to run the whole leg and not walk.  As we progress over time completing a race is no longer the goal.  We want to race against the clock, our best times, for an age-group win, or for no other reason than to push ourselves as hard as we can!

During a race have you ever listened to those around you?  Are people talking, are they following a breathing pattern?  Are they relaxed? Are they labored?  Make a mental note to listen not only to the people in front or coming from behind but also to those going the opposite direction.  Have you listened to the pros go by? They are huffing it all the way!

* spelling is an inside joke….most of you know it ;)

Coach Anne Shawhan


  1. Thanks for the insight on breathing and running! Definitely something those of us that struggle with asthma deal with on a regular basis. It was a revelation the first time I hit that threshold and expected an asthma attack but was able to bring myself back under control and keep moving. I will think about my breathing from now on when that sensation hits. More articles please!

  2. Thanks Coach Canada for sharing your observations. I knew about diaphragmatic breathing, but reading your post helped me internalize it in a new way. I always thought that if I "huffed" I was going too hard. I figured huffing meant I was doing something wrong and embarrassing myself. I didn't know "real" runners huffed. Next time you assign a strength or speed work run, I'll stay relaxed and proudly huff my way through it.