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Breathing & Relaxation for Endurance Athletes by Ben Greenfield

Posted Apr 18 2009 11:02pm


It happens to most runners - that dreaded heart rate spike during what was
supposed to be a long, slow effort. You' ve reigned in your speed, you' ve
kept hydrated and cool, you' ve even switched your running tunes from raucous
Van Halen to relaxing Mozart, just to keep that adrenaline rush at bay. But
now your heart rate is racing and you¹ve strayed outside your recommended
heart rate"zones" for your training session.

So what went wrong?

While running can do wonders for the cardiovascular system, it can also
cause involved muscle groups to dramatically tighten. And this often
includes vital inspiratory and expiratory muscles surrounding the ribcage,
as well as the upper back, shoulders, and neck. So while a tight or
non-relaxed running posture might result in a trip to your massage therapist
for a post-run rubdown, it will also invariably result in short and shallow
breathing. To compound the problem, most runners have not been taught how to
properly breathe in any activity, including running. In such a scenario,
this "tight torso/shallow breathing" causes limited air intake and results
in less oxygen availability for working muscles, which means the heart has
to pump more of your subpar-oxgyenated blood at a faster rate in order for
you to maintain your seemingly relaxed pace.

And Voila - you' re now working at 90-95% of maximum intensity, when your
running program tells you to be at 70-75%.


So rather than focuses on deep, diaphragmatic breathing, relaxed head, neck
and shoulders, and loose arms, many runners will simply stop and walk. When
the heart rate comes back down, they begin running again, and eventually
repeat the cycle. This not only ignores the root of the problem, but it
turns what was supposed to be a purely aerobic run into an interval session,
which trains the aerobic/anaerobic systems to work like a roller coaster.
SureŠintervals should be a basic part of any training program, but not a
part of a long endurance training session!

What' s the solution to the problem? Endurance athletes, and especially
runners, need to intensely focus on breathing and relaxation drills, then
apply these drill concepts to their long run. Before giving you three key
breathing drills, it is necessary to discuss how to actually breathe. Even
if you' ve previously learned about diaphragmatic breathing, I encourage you
to read this section anyways, just as a review.

Most people breathe with their chest rather than their belly. This kind of
breathing just isn' t effective, because you are limiting the volume of air
you can move into your body. Think of it like breathing through a straw. Not
very effective, right? While you sit and read this article, try the
following breathing technique. Sitting cross-legged and humming is optional..


When inhaling fully through your nose (preferably) or mouth, you should
loosen your stomach muscles so that it feels like your stomach is moving
outward when you breathe in (really, it' s just your diaphragm expanding).
When exhaling through your nose, you should allow your bellybutton to move
in towards your spine, so that it feels like your stomach is moving inward
when you breathe out (this is just your diaphragm contracting. Do you feel
more air coming into your lungs? You may even feel your heart rate slowing
down as the blood becomes more saturated with oxygen.

OK, here¹s Drill #1: 3-In-5-Out. If you' re an endurance athlete who
struggles with the heart rate spiking problem, begin to incorporate this
drill at least three different times during the day (i.e. on the elevator,
in the shower, before your run). As you breathe, attempt to "hear" your
breath. It should almost sound like a roaring ocean.

Imagine your lungs as a tire around your entire body, surrounding the front,
back and sides of your torso (in this case, a spare tire is a good thing).

Utilizing the breathing pattern discussed above, draw in a steady breath to
the count of three.

Hold the breath for a three count, but try to stay as relaxed as possible
while holding the breath. Think of it as being "suspended" in your body, and
not "held".

Now, breathe out, deeply and slowly from the stomach, to the count of five.

Wait for a three count.

Repeat the entire pattern 3-5  times.

For the following Drill #2: Leg Raises, just focus on completing it once at
some point during the day. I suggest completing it in the morning as part of
a stretching routine.

Lie down on a flat, somewhat solid surface (i.e., not a bed). During the
entire drill, try not the let your low back "arch" off the ground. This may
require forcefully keeping the bellybutton pressed down.

While fully inhaling, slowly raise the right leg as close to 90 degrees as
possible. Attempt to inhale slowly enough to where you can continue to
inhale for a count of three when the leg reaches 90 degrees.

After the three count, fully exhale while slowly lowering the leg.

Repeat the exercise with your left leg.

Now repeat the exercise with both legs.

Complete this entire sequence 3-5 times.

Finally, Drill #3: Runner' s Salutations incorporates some of the core
principles of Yoga. This is a perfect drill to do immediately prior to your
long run as part of your warm-up

Stand with your feet together and your arms at your side. Take a deep
breath. Bring arms up over your head with the palms together. Tilt your head
back, and look toward your thumbs, pressing your hips slightly forward.
Tighten your thighs and buttocks. Do not arch your back.

Exhale (remember the diaphragmatic breathing). Bend your knees slightly,
bringing your palms to the floor alongside your feet. Tuck your head into
your knees. Inhale. While maintaining this position, raise your head, look
up and lift your chest.

Exhale. Walk your legs back until your body is straight like a plank. Drop
down into a push-up position. If this is too difficult to hold, you can drop
into a modified knee push-up position.

Inhale. Push your torso off the ground with your arms, keep your legs and
feet on the ground (tops of the feet should be facing down) and raise your
head, looking up at the ceiling.

Exhale. Adjust your feet so that your toes are on the ground and pick the
butt towards the ceiling into a capital letter A position, pushing the heels
backwards and the palms forward.

Bend knees, and step forward to the second position listed above, then
inhale and stand into the first position.

Repeat this sequence three times before your next run. Eventually work up to
6-8 repetitions.

Now, after learning the 3 key breathing drills, focus on utilizing the same
pattern during your run. There is no magic breathing pattern that says you
must breathe in once every two strides, or twice every one stride. Just
breathe as naturally as possible, but be sure to utilize diaphragmatic
breathing. To put you in the proper breathing mood, it may be necessary to
precede your run with a 5-10 minute walk, in which you gradually increase
speed while focusing on deep and relaxed breathing from deep inside your
stomach. Although I recommend continuing to breathe through your nose, it
may be necessary to breathe through your mouth, depending on your unique
nasal and sinus profile (my nice way of saying that not everybody has big
nostrils like me). Finally, remember that the problem is two-fold. Now that
you' ve taken care of breathing, what about the upper body tightness in the
head, neck, shoulders, and jaw? The good news is that most of it will
naturally diminish as a proper breathing pattern takes precedent. However,
it may also be necessary to focus on the following relaxation drills,
especially during your long run:

The "Arm-Shake": Every 5 minutes, completely loosen the shoulders,
straighten the arms, and allow both arms to hang and wobble at your sides
for 30 seconds as you run monkey style.

The "Tongue-Press": After the Arm-Shake, press the tongue firmly against the
roof of the mouth and hold it there for 8-10 seconds. Then allow it to
relax, and as you do so, feel the tension released from your jaw and neck
muscles. Focus on maintaining this relaxed jaw until your next Tongue-Press..

The "Horizon-Glance": Pick a distant spot on the horizon and gaze at it for
8-10 seconds (don¹t trip over a sprinkler head). You should feel your
posture become more proud as the elastic recoil from the ground pushes you

Seem like too much information? It is quite a load. Gradually adopt these
breathing and relaxing drills into your program over the course of several
weeks, and it won¹t feel like such a drastic change. If you really want to
see positive physical changes, it will take profound mental commitment. But
once these habits become an integral part of your running program, you¹ll be
able to go on auto-pilot during those long runs and be confident that you
won' t stray into overexertion or overtraining. At least until that killer
hill at mile 9...

Whoisben Ben Greenfield is the Renaissance man of the sport of triathlon.

He' s a fast triathlete, a coach, a personal trainer, and much more more.

We recommend that you surf on over to, for more great training advice.

Ben will be coaching the Iron speed Triathlon Camp in Coeur D' Alene from Saturday, May 9 - Thursday, May 14, 2009. Camp info is HERE.

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