In my early
days as a runner, I, like most, didn’t give any thought to my breathing. But
after dealing with several injuries, I went digging into physiology research to
find a solution to my predicament. Eventually I came across an article called
“Breath Play,” by Ian Jackson, a coach and distance runner, which related
breathing cycles with running cadence. Later I found a study by Dennis Bramble,
Ph.D., and David Carrier, Ph.D., of the University of Utah, explaining that the
greatest impact stress of running occurs when one’s footstrike coincides with
the beginning of an exhalation. This means that if you begin to exhale every
time your left foot hits the ground, the left side of your body will
continually suffer the greatest running stress.
most frequent injury was to my left hip flexor. So I began to think: What if I
could create a pattern that coordinated footstrike and breathing such that I
would land alternately on my left foot and then right foot at the beginning of
every exhale? Perhaps I could finally get healthy. It was worth a try.
a pattern of rhythmic breathing and began using it between my junior and senior
years of college. I also trained for and ran my first marathon the winter
before graduating and finished in a respectable 2:52:45.
to work on a rhythmic breathing method of running while pursuing my master’s
degree in physical education and exercise physiology, during which time I
trained for my second marathon. I honed in on a the three-step method for
faster running during that second marathon and ran an incredibly even 2:33:29.
Now I knew I could manage my effort through rhythmic breathing with a great
deal of success. Since then, I’ve taught this method to the many runners I’ve
coached over the years. It can work for you, too.
What Is Rhythmic Breathing?
breathing can play a key role in keeping you injury-free, as it has for me. But
to understand how that can happen, first consider some of the stresses of
running. When your foot hits the ground, the force of impact equals two to
three times your body weight, and as research by Utah’s Bramble and Carrier
showed, the impact stress is greatest when your foot strikes the ground at the
beginning of an exhalation. This is because when you exhale, your diaphragm and
the muscles associated with the diaphragm relax, creating less stability in your
core. Less stability at the time of greatest impact makes a perfect storm for
landing on the same foot at the beginning of exhalation compounds the problem:
It causes one side of your body to continuously absorb the greatest impact force
of running, which causes it to become increasingly worn down and vulnerable to
injury. Rhythmic breathing, on the other hand, coordinates footstrike with
inhalation and exhalation in an odd/even pattern so that you will land
alternately on your right and left foot at the beginning of every exhalation.
This way, the impact stress of running will be shared equally across both sides
of your body.
would be if you loaded a backpack down with books and then slung it over your
right shoulder. With all this weight on one side of your body, you’d be forced
to compensate physically, placing more stress on one side. But if you were to
slip that same heavy backpack over both shoulders, the load would be
distributed evenly. You’d put your body in a position to better manage that
stress, and your back would stay healthy.
to reason that if one side of the body relentlessly endures the greater impact
stress, that side will become worn down and vulnerable to injury. Rhythmic
breathing allows a slight rest to both sides of the body from the greatest
immediate impact stress of running. But there’s more to it than a pattern of
footstrikes, exhales, and inhales that keeps you injury-free. Rhythmic
breathing also focuses your attention on your breath patterns and opens the way
for it to become the source of how you train and race.
The Breathing Benefits of Rhythmic
to breathing has a long history in Eastern philosophy. Dennis Lewis, a longtime
student of Taoism and other Eastern philosophies, teaches breathing and leads
workshops at venues including the Esalen Institute and The Kripalu Center for
Yoga and Health. In his book, The Tao of Natural Breathing, Lewis shares the
following Taoist belief: “To breathe fully is to live fully, to manifest the
full range of power of our inborn potential for vitality in everything that we
sense, feel, think, and do.”
Hinduism, yoga teaches pranayama—breath work. Prana means breath as a
life-giving force: The work of breathing draws life-giving force into the body.
And that work is accomplished through diaphragmatic breathing, or belly
breathing, which means that as you inhale, you contract the diaphragm fully to
allow maximum volume in the thoracic (chest) cavity for maximum expansion of
the lungs and maximum intake of air. Rhythmic breathing does the same thing,
drawing the breath—the life force—into the body through controlled, focused
diaphragmatic breathing. Through rhythmic running we breathe fully and, as the
Taoist would say, realize our vitality.
breathing also creates a pathway to a deep centeredness. Practitioners of every
style of yoga, martial arts, relaxation, and meditation use breath work to
connect mind, body, and spirit. In the martial arts, this inner connection and
centeredness allows more immediate and precise control of the physical body.
can be accomplished in running through rhythmic breathing. You achieve
centeredness first by focusing your mind on fitting your breathing to an
optimal footstrike pattern. Then your awareness of breathing links mind and
body and creates a smooth pathway to gauging the effort of running. Rhythmic
breathing helps you feel your running, and that ability to feel your running
allows you immediate and precise control.
teaches that controlling your breathing can help you control your body and
quiet your mind. When we allow ourselves to become distracted by trying to
match our running effort to a pace we’ve defined with numbers on a watch, we
break that mind/body connection. We open up a gap where stress and tension can
enter. And we create a disturbance in the flow of running that hinders our
success and enjoyment. Rhythmic breathing is calming, and awareness of
breathing draws your focus toward calm. It allows you to remain as relaxed as
possible, quieting any stress in the body that could inhibit performance. And
if you should feel a twinge of tension or discomfort, you can mentally “push”
it out of the body as you exhale.
moderate or long runs, rhythmic breathing allows you to slide easily into an
effort and pace at which everything glides on autopilot. Your breathing is
comfortable, your cadence is smooth and even, and the rhythm of both combines
for that “harmonious vibration with nature.”
How to Breathe While Running
learning the rhythmic patterns that will take your running to a new level, you
must first become a belly breather, that is, learn to breathe from your
diaphragm. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward, while
muscles in your chest contract to expand your rib cage, which increases the
volume in your chest cavity and draws air into your lungs. Working your
diaphragm to its fullest potential allows your lungs to expand to their
greatest volume and fill with the largest amount of air, which of course you
need for your running. The more air you inhale, the more oxygen is available to
be transferred through your circulatory system to your working muscles. Many
people underuse their diaphragm, relying too much on their chest muscles and
therefore taking in less oxygen, which is so important to energy production.
The other downside of breathing from your chest is that these muscles (the
intercostals) are smaller and will fatigue more quickly than your diaphragm
will. To rely less on your chest muscles to breathe, you’ll want to train
yourself to breathe from your belly, that is, with your diaphragm. Practice
belly breathing both lying down and sitting or standing, since you should be
breathing diaphragmatically at all times—whether you’re running, sleeping,
eating, or reading a book. Here’s how to learn the technique:
Lie down on
upper chest and shoulders still.
raising your belly as you inhale.
belly as you exhale.
exhale through both your nose and mouth.
Establish a Pattern
runners develop a 2:2 pattern of breathing, meaning they inhale for two
footstrikes and exhale for two footstrikes. Some breathe in for three steps and
exhale for three steps. Both have the same result—your exhale is always on the
same side. Breathing patterns that extend the inhale will shift the point of
exhalation alternately from left to right or from right to left, from one side
of the body to the other. The singular point of all rhythmic breathing patterns
is this: Exhale on alternate footstrikes as you run. You never want to
continually exhale on the same foot.
rhythmic breathing patterns I recommend call for a longer inhale than exhale.
Why the longer inhale? Your diaphragm and other breathing muscles contract
during inhalation, which brings stability to your core. These same muscles
relax during exhalation, decreasing stability. With the goal of injury
prevention in mind, it’s best to hit the ground more often when your body is at
its most stable—during inhalation.
with a 5-count or 3:2 pattern of rhythmic breathing, which will apply to most
of your running. Inhale for three steps and exhale for two. Practice first on
1. Lie on
your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
2. Place a
hand on your belly and make sure that you are belly breathing.
through your nose and your mouth.
to the count of 3 and exhale to the count of 2. You might count it this way:
“in-2-3,” “out-2,” “in-2-3,” “out-2,” and so forth.
Concentrate on a continuous breath as you inhale over the 3 counts and a
continuous breath as you exhale.
6. Once you
become comfortable with the inhale/exhale pattern, add foot taps to mimic
EXHALE ON ALTERNATE FOOTSTRIKES AS YOU RUN. YOU
NEVER WANT TO CONTINUALLY EXHALE ON THE SAME FOOT.
feel confident that you have the 3:2 pattern down, take it for a walk. Inhale
for three steps, exhale for two, inhale for three steps, exhale for two.
Finally, of course, try out your rhythmic breathing on a run—inhaling for three
footstrikes and exhaling for two.
A few key
points: Inhale and exhale smoothly and continuously through both your nose and
mouth at the same time. If it seems difficult to inhale over the full three
strides, either inhale more gradually or pick up your pace. And lastly, do not
listen to music while learning to breathe rhythmically. The beats of the music
will confuse the heck out of you.
Now Go Faster
find that the 3:2 breathing pattern works well when you are running at an easy
to moderate effort, which should make up the majority of your running. Let’s
say, however, you are out for a comfortable five-miler and about midway, you
come upon a hill. Because your muscles are working harder, they need more
oxygen. Your brain also signals to your respiratory system that you need to
breathe faster and deeper. You reach a point running up the hill when you can
no longer comfortably inhale for three steps and exhale for two. It’s time to
then switch to a 3-count, or 2:1, rhythmic breathing pattern: Inhale for two
steps, exhale one, inhale two steps, exhale one. You’re breathing faster,
taking more breaths per minute, and this odd-numbered breathing pattern will
continue to alternate the exhale from left foot to right, dispersing the impact
stress of running equally across both sides of your body. Once you’ve crested
the hill and are running down the other side, you might continue in this 2:1
pattern until your effort and breathing have recovered and you slip back into
your 3:2 cadence.
begin breathing rhythmically, it’s a good idea to consciously monitor your
breathing patterns, although it’s not necessary to do so throughout your entire
run. Focus on your breathing when you start out, evaluate your breathing as
your effort changes—such as when you climb a hill—and then simply check in at
random intervals to make sure that you haven’t fallen into a 2:2 pattern. Over
time, the 3:2 and 2:1 rhythmic patterns will become automatic.
surprisingly, the 2:1 breathing pattern also comes into play during speed
training and racing. I originally began to use rhythmic breathing as a way to
run injury-free. When I realized it was working with easy and moderate runs, I
was afraid to break away from it during hard training workouts, and through
trial and error learned to follow a 5-count rhythmic breathing pattern during
an easy run or a long run and a 3-count rhythm for interval training and
racing. Rhythmic breathing allowed me to complete my last year of competitive
college running with moderate success. It would allow me to go on to qualify
for four Olympic Marathon Trials and to set a PR of 2:13:02 in the marathon.
next run, do some “breath play.” Start out in a 3:2 breathing pattern at a very
easy effort—your warmup. This is a comfortable pace at which you could converse
easily with a running partner. How does it feel? Notice the depth and rate of
your breathing. After 10 minutes, pick up your pace just a bit to an effort
that requires you to breathe noticeably deeper while you continue to run within
the 3:2 breathing pattern. You should still be able to talk with your running
buddy, but you’ll be glad for those periods in the conversation when you get to
just listen. Run at this pace for a few minutes and tune into your body, feel
your breathing—your lungs expanding, your belly rising.
Now pick up
your pace even further while holding the 3:2 breathing pattern. At this point,
you’ll be breathing about as deeply as you can, which makes the effort
uncomfortable. You are now experiencing a difficult rhythmic breathing effort.
And you’d rather not. So you convert to a 3-count, or 2:1, breathing
pattern—inhaling for two steps and exhaling for one. You’re taking more breaths
per minute, in a pattern that still distributes the impact stress equally
across both sides of your body. Notice that the effort of breathing becomes
comfortable again. You will be able to talk some. Running will feel comfortably
fast again. Spend a few minutes at this pace and effort, focusing on your
breathing and on your body.
increase your pace, forcing deeper breathing. You are running at a serious
level that does not allow you to talk. Up the pace again. You are breathing
about as deeply as you can, but the difference is that you are also breathing
about as fast as you can. And, of course, your pace is much quicker. You can’t
hold this effort for very long. It might feel like you have no place else to
go, but you do—to a pattern of 2-1-1-1, which allows you to breathe faster. You
switch to the following: Inhale for two steps, exhale for one, inhale for one,
exhale for one; inhale for two steps, exhale for one, inhale for one, exhale
for one; and so forth. This is the effort you will put forth for your kick at
the end of a race. Or you can use this to help you crest a steep hill during a
tested the 2-1-1-1 pattern, slow down, ease up, and allow your breathing to
return gradually to a comfortable 3:2. The more you use rhythmic breathing in
training and racing, the easier and more automatic it becomes.
As you use
rhythmic breathing in your training and racing and tune in to your breathing
efforts and paces, you will learn to run from within, in complete harmony with
your body. You will discover the natural rhythms of your running, which will
lead you to improved performances but also to experience the pure joy of
article was adapted from Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by
Breathing Smarter, by Budd Coates, M.S., and Claire Kowalchik (Rodale, 2013).
The book teaches how to use the principles and methods of rhythmic breathing
across all levels of effort and includes training plans for distances from 5K
to the marathon, as well as strength-training programs and stretching workouts.