Kely Kuhn PT
How Breathing Better Can Take Your Core to the Next Level - Part 3: Advice for Runners
Now that we understand how the breathing system contributes to core stability in Part 1 and the basics of proper breathing form in Part 2, it's time to focus on adding breathing into our workouts and running. During running we do not necessarily need to be thinking about timing a proper breath cycle to every step - that would be too much to think about and create an awkward and overly mechanical run. However, we can add breathing into resistance training to allow the nervous system to learn the breathing strategy and have it available to use during a run. Also, during running, we can use strategies that create an optimal breathing environment.
During any exercise the first thing to do is to stack up the posture as discussed in part two. Get the ribs centered over the pelvis and keep the neck tall to the ceiling, allowing an efficient piston system as described in part 1. Inhale on the lowering of the weight and exhale on the lift. Now add in exercises that challenge the specific needs of running and incorporate breathing into those exercises. Running is a single leg activity so, while squatting is a great exercise, runners benefit most from managing their breathing during lunges and single leg activities such as a step down.
Lunging is a great activity because it mimics running form in that one leg is back and one leg is forward. But it can be tricky to start, so some runners may need to start from the bottom up with this exercise. Half kneeling is a great place to begin. Keeping a 90 degree angle at both knees and the legs about shoulder width apart, start with leaning forward slightly to get the ribs stacked over pelvis. Start with just breathing in this position, can you get a 360 degree breath with the ribs expanding all the way around? Can you feel the breath all the way down to the pelvis? You may need to just work in this position for a while.
Once you can get a good breath here then you can work on standing up and coming back down in this position. Go slow with this, start with a good solid inhale and then begin exhaling through the entire lift up. Breath in on the way down. Make sure you stay stacked up during the entire exercise and do not let the ribs flare up. You may need to take a breath in between sets to really slow it down and get the breathing right. As you get better you can move through the exercise with no breaks. Consider adding a balloon to really challenge your breathing.
Next we can advance this more by adding some thoracic, or upper back, rotation with an exercise I learned from Sarah Ellis Duval's PPCES course. This is especially important for runners who notice that their arms swing way out to the side instead of staying in tight. Getting good thoracic rotation can help transfer energy from our arm swing to the lower half of the body and aid running efficiency. If the left leg is the up leg, you can place the right hand on the outside of the left knee and press into it gently. The left hand is in, held up in the air. Exhale, then turn the upper body to the left while keeping the hips pointed forward and lift up from the ground. This can be very challenging at first but is a great exercise for runners. Once you have mastered breathing with bottom up lunges you can progress to a split squat, walking lunges or any other variety of lunging. Again, always staying stacked up and watching the breath throughout.
Single leg activities such as a one legged squat or step down are also important to work on landing and control for the leg. Breathing is just as important during this. As we lower down, many people will overly tilt the pelvis and flare the ribs and losing stability at the core. The glutes especially work hard to control the leg during landing, and decreased control from the core make it harder for the glutes to stabilize the leg. Step downs are a great exercise to improve this. To perform a step down we again need to be stacked up, ribs over pelvis and we need to keep that through the entire exercise. Then we can breathe in as we lower down, making sure to not let the knee drop in. Exhale on the way up.
You can start standing on the floor, lowering slightly on one leg and progress to a step. In the beginning go slow and really focus on the breath with each action. As you get better you can add some tempo work with a metronome starting at 30 beats per minute, letting the heel touch every time it beeps, still focusing on the breath. It's a great way to speed up breath work to accomadate running.
We can also work on tempo and breathing with marching. Starting slow at 30 bpm, timing the breath to lift one leg and lower it down as we exhale. Make sure to not lean back and flare the ribs as you lift the leg, stay leaned slightly forward. Slowing it down really works stability, but then we can gradually speed it up to add different challenges to the exercise.
During a run we may not be timing our breathing to every step but there are things we can do to help improve breathing with running. First is to stay stacked up, this means you should be slighltly leaned forward, ribs over pelvis. Many people may notice knee pain that is greatest running down hill, this is because they lean back more when running down hill and loose the abdominal stability. Focus on staying forward even when going down hill to combat this. This does not mean to slump forward, you should still focus on staying tall and elongating the neck to the sky, as if someone were pulling your hair up. The position of the neck influences the position of the glutes - when it is slumped forward the glutes tend to tuck and we cannot use them as efficiently. Staying upright also helps the breathing system function more efficiently. If your neck and shoulders hurt during a run, try focusing on pulling the neck tall to the sky.
Good thoracic rotation also helps our breathing system as mentioned before. Try warming up on a run with your hand locked behind your head and focus on rotating the upper back during the first few minutes of your run to get it warmed up.
If you have recently been injured and need some time away from running or are on a recovery day, an uphill walk with focus on over-emphasizing rotating the thoracic spine may look silly but is great for training that system. Check out this video from Julie Wiebe demonstrating rotating while walking up the hill.
We can also note the timing of the exhaling. Do you alway inhale when one foot hits and exhale when the other hits? This can contribute to some imbalances and can be improved with 3-2 breathing. Breathe in for 3 steps and out for 2. This allows you to exhale on opposite foot strikes. The best way to start this is to throw it into a marching drill as mentioned above. Once you have it down, you can do it with a fast walk and then progress to a few minutes with it during running and then stop. Just give your nervous system the experience of it and then just run without thinking about it.
Improving breathing strategies can be a great tool for performance and injury prevention or rehabilitation. It is also a very important tool for postpartum women who may leak during running. I hope you have enjoyed this series on breathing and will give some of the suggestions a try.
JulieWiebePT. (2013, May 28). Integrative Programming For Female Runners With Incontinence. YouTube. Retrieved December 3, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFv7Q2fidLI
(n.d.). Postpartum Corrective Exercise Specalist Course With Dr. Sarah Duvall. Dr. Sarah Ellis Duvall. Retrieved December 3, 2019, from https://www.coreexercisesolutions.com/postpartum-corrective-exercise-specialist/
This program, videos and content is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or injury. It is for educational purposes only. If you chose to try any of the exercises presented here do so at your own risk. Please consult a physician before you start any new program.
Not every exercise is safe for everybody. Correct execution of all exercises is imperative to prevent injury. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have any questions about your exercise execution or if an exercise is right for you.
You are responsible for yourself and will not hold Kelly Kuhn or Kelly Kuhn Physical Therapy liable for any injury or illness.