A few weeks ago I started coaching workouts at Athleta on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s been so much fun, and has become one of the things I look forward to the most each week. Last night, while talking to one of the runners in the group, I realized that although I’m generally a quiet person, when it comes to running I have a lot to say. In fact, I probably have a bit too much to say. I just want people to love running, and to me, part of loving it is understanding it. So in an effort to get more people to love running as much as I do (and to shut up for a little bit and stop talking people’s ears off), I thought I’d start a series with tips, workout ideas, answers to common running questions, and all sorts of other things that falls into the category of stuff-I-want-to-share-with-you-without-overwhelming-you-with-too-much-information-all-at-once. Ladies and gentlemen (or, honestly, probably just ladies and ladies…or maybe just a lady or two), I give you Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Running.
Part I: Breathing
Breathing while running is hands down the thing I get questions about most often, so what better place to start? In our day-to-day lives, breathing isn’t something that we think about all that much. Air comes in, air goes out, and as long as the process continues, we get on with our lives quiet happily. That, I think, is one of the reasons why breathing is such an issue for new runners. All of a sudden, breathing isn’t this comfortable, obvious, involuntary thing. Instead, it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It requires thought and concentration. When you start out running, breathing basically sucks (no pun intended). But it doesn’t have to. And once you get comfortable with your breathing, it can become an incredibly powerful tool.
I’m going to break breathing down into three steps.
- Think about it. The first step in all of this is to make your breathing a conscious act. Spend time getting a sense of how you breathe–through your mouth? your nose? Deeply? Shallowly? Quickly? Slowly? From the lungs, or from the diaphragm, or even from your belly? These are things you want to know about your breathing, and possibly things you’ve not thought much about. How long is each one of your breaths? And are your inhale and exhale of equal length, or is one longer than the other? All these things are different for every runner, so you have to figure out what works for you. Once you get an idea of how your body naturally breathes, you’re in a better position to work with your breath while running. Find a rhythm that works for you. You can keep track of it by counting your breaths, making up a little song or mantra that helps you to keep your breathing even, or time your breath to your stride. I’m a fan of the latter, and fall very quickly and comfortably into a pattern of inhaling for two steps, and exhaling for two. Finding your own rhythm and concentrating on it until it becomes second nature may feel silly, but it will make your running life so much easier.
- Keep it open. You need room to breathe comfortably, and you get that room by maintaining good posture throughout your run. The shoulders should be relaxed, down, and back. The chest should be open. The spine should be straight. No slouching! At the same time, though, you don’t want to focus so hard on keeping your upper body straight that you get stiff. As my meditation teachers frequently say, you should be upright, but not uptight. If you feel yourself tensing up, take a few deep breaths. You can stay loose by breathing correctly, and you can breathe correctly by staying loose. It’s synergy.
- Choose the right breath for now. This one comes from Sage Rountree, who is one of my favorite yoga instructors. She uses the concept of finding the right breath all the time in her yoga teaching, and I think it fits running really well, too. Don’t force your breathing; be aware of it, but let it be determined by what’s going on in the moment. There are a ton of factors that can affect your breathing–you might be tired, wired, congested, who knows?–and paying attention to what feels best and then working with that instead of trying to force things in a direction they don’t want to go makes a huge difference in your running.
Like I said before, learning to breathe and work with your breath can be really powerful. Finding the pattern that feels right and being able to adjust it to meet whatever needs you have on any given run can change how far, how fast, and how often you’re able to run. But that’s a whole post unto itself. For now, just focus on finding your rhythm.