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Balanced Breathing: Part 1

Your breath is a powerful tool for your running.

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Sage Rountree
Sage Rountree

Your breath is a powerful tool for your running.

Written by: Sage Rountree

Your breath can have a profound effect on your nervous system. Consider the admonition to take a deep breath when you are upset—this has a basis in physiology, as deep belly breathing can help you relax. Long exhalations stimulate your vagal nerve, engaging your parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system dominates, the relaxation response kicks in and your blood pressure, heart rate, and level of anxiety fall. Conversely, when the sympathetic nervous system is in charge, you’re primed for fight for flight, with adrenaline levels, heart rate, and muscle tension all higher.

The key is to be able to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Together, they comprise the autonomic nervous system. As its name implies, the autonomic nervous system is not directly open to conscious influence. But regulating your breath can have a direct effect on the autonomic nervous system, bringing it into balance by boosting the parasympathetic nervous system. This is useful not just in intense situations you’ll find yourself in while running—just before a race, or deep into a tough set of intervals—but also in day-to-day life.

In this and my next column, we’ll look at ways the breath can bring the body into balance. The first step is to get to know how your breath moves in your body. It takes some simple observation. Get into a position that feels comfortable—sit tall in your chair, or lie down on the couch, bed, or floor. Close your eyes if you like. Start to feel where your breath is moving in your body. While the air is entering through your nostrils, you’ll find that there is an action toward the opposite end of your torso, as your diaphragm drops down over the organs in your abdomen and expands your belly forward and up. As your lungs inflate, feel how the breath fills your ribcage. And at the top of inhalation, you’ll find that your collarbone lifts. These actions are reversed on exhalation. Even while your breath is leaving by moving up and out, the action of exhalation is a sinking and settling back in toward center.

Spend a few minutes feeling the balance between the action of inhalation and the action of exhalation. Then let go of conscious control of your breath and see how you feel. Calmer? More focused? Even an exercise as simple as feeling the way the breath moves in your body can be very powerful.

Your next step is to take this sense of observation out on your next run. How is your breath moving at your various paces? Can you keep the inhalation and exhalation full and balanced even when you need to breathe through your mouth? Observing your breath will keep you focused in the moment, step by step, and that’s the sign of a good runner.

For more on breathing, watch this video:

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Sage Rountree, Runner’s World’s yoga expert, is author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Pocket Guide to Yoga. In addition to teaching yoga workshops nationwide, she is an active coach with certifications from USA Triathlon and the RRCA.