Kelly O'Mara—When we head out for a run, there are plenty of things to think about: how our feet land, how we bend our arms, and how quick our stride rate is. But the one thing most runners don’t think about is how to breathe.
But, you should be.
“It’s another tool,” said Budd Coates, a longtime running coach, four-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and author of Running on Air, a training manual on breathing and running. Coates has developed a breathing technique that trains runners to breath in odd, as opposed to even, patterns — breathing in for three steps and out for two, for instance. “Breathing this way allows you to train more accurately and that allows you to run faster.”
If you headed out for a run right now, you’d most likely breathe irregularly. Studies have found that inexperienced runners typically have no pattern to their breathing, while experienced runners synchronize their breathing with their stride for efficiency and pacing. The most common among experienced runners is a 2-2 pattern, i.e. breathing in for two steps and out for two steps. This is the pattern that well-known coach Jack Daniels recommends, because he believes that it maximizes the intake of oxygen.
However, said Coates, breathing in a 2-2 (or 3-3) pattern means that you’re always exhaling and inhaling when the same foot lands. He cites a study by Dennis Bramble and David Carrier, of the University of Utah, that found when exhalation always falls on the same foot it’s more likely to lead to injury, because it puts constant stress on that side of the body.
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Bramble, however, says that while they may have theorized in a published article about a possible link, he never found any evidence to support the argument.
“I now think the idea rather improbable,” said Bramble.
But Coates believes that adjusting his breathing helped him combat injury. “I really was just trying to find a way to stay healthy,” said Coates, who tested a pattern to switch which side his exhalation lands on. Originally, he tried to inhale for four strides and out for three, but that was “really hard to do,” he said. Instead, he recommends that people adopt a 3-2 pattern (in and then out) when running easy and a 2-1 pattern when running faster.
Coates has been using his breathing technique for over 30 years and training people in it for 20 years. It has helped him get injured less, he believes, but “the biggest benefit is the ability to perceive exertion.”
One of the most useful things about having a set breathing pattern — whether 3-2 or 2-3 or 2-1 or even 2-2 — is that it puts you in tune with how hard you’re working. Coates has a scale he uses with his athletes where easy running correlates to an easy 3-2 breathing pattern, but eventually as they speed up the 3-2 pattern becomes impossible to maintain. At that point, they either have to switch to a 2-1 breathing pattern or slow down.
Other popular running models, such as Chi Running, also suggest an odd-numbered breathing pattern. But Bill Leach, a running coach who has served as head coach for DePaul University and the University of Montana, argues that athletes should actually be exhaling for three breaths and inhaling for two, the reverse of what Coates recommends.
“You want a disproportionate amount of time devoted to the out breath,” said Leach, because the atmospheric pressure is greater than the pressure in your lungs, which means you need to push the air out to let it rush back in.
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Coates disagrees and argues that theory has no support. He says that you should inhale longer because your diaphragm contracts when you inhale and makes your core more stable. “You want to be stable for a longer period of time than you’re unstable,” he said.
Your posture and arm swing are also directly related to breathing, said Leach, because poor posture minimizes the amount of air you can take in and the rate at which you swing your arms affects your stride rate. That can all be too much to worry about at one time, though, said Leach. “You have to think of them one at a time,” he said. Focusing on one small form or breathing issue can also help keep you in the moment during a race.”
Coates, Leach, and plenty of other running experts can agree on a few things about breathing. It’s important to learn to breathe from your diaphragm, instead of from your chest. Chest breathing is most likely to lead to hyperventilation, said Leach.
To practice breathing from your abdomen, lay on your back and breath deeply, said Coates. You can then work your way up to breathing in sync with counting in your head and then progress to walking, jogging, and running.
In his book, Eat and Run, Scott Jurek talks about slowly down his breathing, breathing from his abdomen, and breathing through his nose on easy runs, because it lowers your heart rate and brain activity. That can be exactly the opposite of what you want when running hard, however. When running hard, it’s necessary to breath more frequently and deeply.
“You want as much in and out as you can, as easily as possible,” said Coates.