New Ways to Breathe Easier
While Karp says most runners at a fast pace follow a regular rhythm of two to four steps per breath, Coates advocates a different system. He recommends an uneven pattern, so you're inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two, or, for faster runs, inhaling for two and exhaling for one. (When to switch between the patterns depends on your rate of perceived exertion, which he goes into great detail about in Running on Air.)
Why? He says that the greatest impact occurs when your foot hits the ground at the beginning of an exhale. And the exhalation is when your core is at its least stable. Think about it: "While you're inhaling, your diaphragm is contracting, and when it's contracting, the core area is very sturdy." So if you have an even breath/foot strike pattern, you're always hitting the ground on the same foot at the moment when your core is more supple and you're a less stable unit. That could be an invitation for injury, Coates says.
Get started by taking a slow run with the three-in/two-out pattern. Get familiar with what pace you're going when you're at a low rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Then step it up and check your pace and RPE at higher efforts. When you learn how they correspond, you'll have a complete toolbox. You can then pull out the right tool (pace) for the right job (what you want to accomplish on your run that day).
Not a Big GulpDon't mistake rhythmic breathing for an attempt to gulp bigger breaths. Interestingly, deep breaths aren't a (fast) runner's friend, Karp explains. A regular inhalation will bring oxygen into the lungs and blood. When you exercise and get out of breath, the trouble isn't that you don't have enough oxygen, it's that it doesn't get delivered to the muscles quickly enough—a problem that improving your fitness or slowing your pace will help resolve.
"It's fruitless to take deeper breaths in an attempt to get in more oxygen when you're running," explains Karp.
In fact, deep breaths might even work against you.
"The extra muscle action of the breathing muscles that's necessary for a larger inspiration may take away some of the oxygen needed by the leg muscles," Karp says.
Breathing already costs your body plenty: During moderate running, your breathing muscles use up about 3 to 6 percent of total oxygen consumption, he explains. Go all out and usage is upwards of about 10 percent—even as much as 13 to 15 percent in some athletes. So while you don't want to take choppy breaths, exaggerating deep ones isn't the ticket, either.
Managing your breathing isn't something you force onto your running like a stiff shoe. It's a way to get more in tune with it. Understanding how your breathing responds at different paces helps you harness your body's natural power and stick to your goals. And it can make the difference between your feeling like you're working hard when you need to instead of feeling like you're completely sucking wind.
"Controlling your breathing won't necessarily make you a better runner," Coates says. "But it can help you run better."
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