And so, just a few days after the workshop, I came across this article at Women's Running discussing tips for breathing better during running. While it's great that people are realizing the importance of breathing well during activity, I've got a few tweaks to the tips.
1. Rib Mobility
During normal quiet breathing, the diaphragm does 95% of the work on inhalation. Exhalation is passive due to the elastic recoil of the lungs and intercostal (rib) muscles. This means that at rest, we should really only see the lower parts of the ribs expand depicted in the second image below:
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Snow Angels - courtesy of our friends at Breathing Works. Breathe into your belly as your raise your hands up over your head. Breathe out as you circle your arms around. Breathing in as you stretch your arms overhead helps to stretch out tight abdominal muscles.
Now that you have loosened up those ribs, it's time to start breathing into them, using the star of the show, the diaphragm. There are a couple of ways that you can learn how to breathe using your diaphragm:
- Beach Pose: Lie on your back with a pillow under your knees. Bring your arms behind your head, just like you were relaxing on the beach. Place a small weight, like a wheat bag on your tummy. Breathe in through your nose and feel your belly rise under the weight. Exhale through your nose without effort; that is, let the air fall out rather than push the air out.
- Poolside Pose: Lie on your stomach, head supported on your hands. Feel your stomach in contact with the ground. Breathe in gently through your nose and feel your body expand as your breath pushes your stomach into the ground. The exhale should feel as if you are simply deflating, the weight of your body squeezing the air out.
- Theraband Breathing: tie a piece of light elastic around your lower ribs. Sit upright on your sit bones (not slouched back on your tailbone). Breathe in through your nose and feel the elastic expand in all directions. Allow the exhale to simply be the recoil of your ribs and lungs.
There is a lot of advice regarding synchronizing breathing to steps during activity. Most of it involves inhaling for two steps and exhaling for two steps. My experience, and that of my colleagues, has been that this type of breathing leads to "breath stacking." Breath stacking occurs when an exhale is incomplete before the next inhale starts. This leads to air gets trapping in the lungs. Try this for yourself: breathe in a normal breath, but then exhale only 75%, then breathe in a normal breath and breathe out only 75%. The next breath is going to feel very restricted, shallow or even panicked. Is this something you notice during activity? If so, you may be breath stacking too. To help eliminate this problem, try "asynchronous" breathing:
- breathe in through your nose for two steps
- breathe out through your nose for three steps
- If you can't breathe out through your nose, try breathing through "pursed-lips" - like a silent whistle
- If a 2/3 ratio feels too fast, you can play around with a rhythm that works for you, maybe 3/4 or even 4/5
- You may need to slow your pace down at first until this feels comfortable
- Try placing your hands on your belly while walking and using the breathing rhythms to encourage a diaphragm breathing pattern
Work on these three tips for a few weeks and see what happens to your breathing. Remember that changing a breathing pattern can sometimes take months - the body likes to keep doing what it's been doing, whether it's a good thing or not! Breathing well is also not an easy task if you have had dysfunctional breathing patterns, so if you are having difficulty establishing relaxed breathing, let alone comfortable breathing patterns during activity, be sure to see a health professional with experience in treating breathing pattern disorders.