"Control your breathing!"
Your triathlon coach hollers at you as you're sucking wind on a hard effort. When you're pushing it, it might seem like you could achieve liftoff before you could regulate your breathing.
So exactly what are you supposed to be doing? Focus on the pattern of your breathing, some experts say, and you may unlock a whole new way of bringing your running under your control instead of just banging out the rest of the set and praying that you'll make it to the end.
"Controlling your breathing typically means being rhythmical about your breathing rather than huffing and puffing," says Jason Karp, Ph.D., author of Running for Women and Running a Marathon for Dummies.
Pros do it all the time. The more fit and experienced the runner, according to his and other research, the more they subconsciously coordinate their breathing and foot strike, he says.
What Controlling Your Breathing Does For You
There are reasons to aspire to this. Once you get this coordination going, it "allows you to feel your running, and that ability to feel your running allows you immediate and precise control," explains Budd Coates, coach and author of Running on Air.
Using breath to manage a workout is like driving a manual transmission car—you're in tune with the needs of your engine and can change gears accordingly to save fuel or to really put the throttle down.
That means you can nail the goal of every workout. It can give you an edge in triathlon racing, too, allowing you to perform more consistently and be more strategic about your surges, he says.
Less tangibly, meaningful attention to breath can bring you calm and focus, so you release stress that could interfere with great performance. You get on the other side of the drama that's building in your body and mind and can click into the sweet spot where your body and mind are working together and you're "separated from the physical labor of work," says Coates.
Moving from fast, choppy breaths to more rhythmic ones may also knock your rate of perceived exertion down a few pegs, he says. Where those breaths may have been feeding your brain "I'm fatigued" messages, smoothing them out could help short-circuit that thought. You might not be going faster, but you'll feel less like it's killing you.
Of course, breathing alone isn't going to take you from the mid-pack to the podium. The ability to tune into your breath, says Coates, "is a tool, like heart rate, for you to pay attention to. The difference between breathing and heart rate is that you can control your breathing."
So how do you do it?