How does breathing actually work? What is the diaphragm and what does it do? What are belly breathing & rhythmic breathing? How do they help you run?
After a long running life I landed in a Pilates class. I was strong but couldn't do some of the exercises. Next, I'm in a Bikram Yoga class. Again, I was strong, (not too flexible) but the breathing exercises right at the beginning of the class killed me big time.
My breathing on the runs following these sessions was random, hectic and confused. In Bikram they taught me to breath in and out through the nose, in Pilates in through the nose, out through the mouth. What do I do now?
I was panicking. It was time to investigate. And rule number one is never to stop breathing, even when panicking; keep bringing that oxygen to the body.
Breathing means getting air in and out of the lungs. This activity is a movement in the thoracic and abdominal cavity. The thoracic cavity contains the heart and lungs and the abdominal contains the stomach, liver, pancreas, small and large intestines, kidneys, to mention just a few.
Both of the cavities are mobile - they change shape. If we're talking breathing, the abdominal cavity changes shape but not volume, but in the context of eating for example, it changes shape AND volume. When we eat or drink the volume increases, and naturally causes the decrease of the thoracic cavity - hence the heavy breathing after a big heavy meal. The thoracic cavity changes shape and volume.
The relationship between the volume and pressure is the following: when volume increases, the pressure decreases and vice versa. Because air flows into the areas with lower pressure, increasing the volume of thoracic cavity will reduce the pressure and let the air flow in. This is an inhalation. Exhalation is a reversal of this process.
It is important to understand that when breathing, the thoracic cavity changes shape 3-dimensionally; that is from top to bottom, from front to back and from side to side. A thoracic shape change causes abdominal shape change. These two are linked together and one shape change cannot happen without the other. It is why the state of the abdominals influences the quality of the breathing and vice versa, the quality of the breathing influences the health of the abdominals.
The main muscle causing these 3-dimensional shape changes is the diaphragm. It separates the two cavities and has a shape of a parachute. The organs it encloses and supports are shaping it into an asymmetric muscle; the right side is pushed higher by the liver and the heart pushes down the left side.
The diaphragm is attached to the body in three main areas: the bottom of the sternum, the base of the ribcage and the front of the lower spine. The majority of the muscle originates on flexible tissue of the costal cartilage. From their origins the muscular fibres rise upwards to the horizontal top of the muscle (which is flat) and insert into it. This is the diaphragm's main tendon and it does not contract.
The movement of the diaphragm causes the shape changes of the cavities and in this way affects the movements of the organs the cavities contain.
The muscular fibres of the diaphragm are aligned vertically in the body and this is how they move: up-down. When these vertical muscular fibers contract they pull its insertion and origins towards each other - the main horizontal tendon and the base of the rib cage - and this is the main cause of the shape changes in the two cavities when we breathe.
When the central tendon is stable and the ribs are moving, the contraction of diaphragm will cause the expansion of the rib cage. This is called chest breathing. When the base of the ribcage is stable and the central tendon is mobile - the belly bulges. This is what we call belly breathing. Both, chest and belly breathing use the diaphragm. The difference is the effectiveness of its use.
The diaphragm is not the only muscle involved in breathing; there are other accessory muscles. But if you want to strengthen the diaphragm, take a look at this article: Breathing Exercises for Runners: The Diaphragm »
How do you find out if you are a belly or a chest breather? Easy! Lie down on your back bending your knees. Put your right hand on your belly and left hand on the chest. Keep breathing and watch your hands. If you breathe into your belly, your belly-hand should be moving up and down and the chest-hand should be relatively still. To see this more clearly go for a short faster run prior to the test.
So you have just found out you're a chest breather. No worries. To practice belly-breathing stay in the same position on the floor, and put both hands over your belly as if you were wrapping it. Keeping your shoulders and chest still, concentrate on raising your belly when inhaling and lower it when exhaling. Leave your mouth relaxed, half open and breathe using it, as well as your nose. As you breathe in you should be creating a little gap between the hands; breathing out the gap disappears. As you're breathing in, you should feel your abdominals expanding.
Apart from getting in less oxygen by chest breathing the shoulders also get tense and move up and down. When running, this is wasted energy that could have been saved.
According to a research, during running, when your foot hits the ground, the force of impact is up to three times your body weight. The strain from the impact is most intense when the foot hits the ground on exhale. During exhale, the diaphragm and the surrounding muscles that work with it relax causing less stability in the core. Always landing on the same foot at the beginning of exhalations will put lots of stress on one side of the body. It will get more tired and prone to injury.
So what you want is to land on the right and left foot at the beginning of exhale alternately. To achieve this use an odd-even breathing pattern to match the footstrike with inhale-exhale. This way you spread the impact stress equally over both sides of the body. This is called rhythmic breathing.
The 3:2 pattern is a good start: Inhale for three steps and exhale for two. When you feel confident that you have the 3:2 pattern down, take it for a walk. Inhale for three steps, exhale for two, inhale for three steps, exhale for two. Finally, of course, try out your rhythmic breathing on a run - inhaling for three footstrikes and exhaling for two. A few key points: Inhale and exhale smoothly and continuously through both your nose and mouth at the same time. If it seems difficult to inhale over the full three strides, either inhale more gradually or pick up your pace. And lastly, do not listen to music while learning to breathe rhythmically. The beats of the music will confuse the heck out of you.
You can experiment with a variety of breathing patterns (2-2, 3-3, 2-1, 1-2,¦) lying down on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Leaving your mouth open, face relaxed, use both mouth and nose for belly breathing. It is not necessary, but you can put your hands on your belly to ensure you are belly breathing. When you are set up, inhale for 2, exhale for 2 (if you are doing the 2-2 pattern). The breathing should be relaxed and continuous. Alternate the patterns and when you feel comfortable with this type of breathing, try adding foot taps. This will give you a feel of harmonizing inhale and exhale with the foot strike.
Being comfortable with rhythmic breathing reduces the chances of an injury, and opens up many possibilities in the running life. Different surface, different speeds - you will adapt to things much easier when you know your breathing.
When we are in a group and one of us starts to panic or gets upset, their breathing changes and the rest of us are prone to sync to their breathing rhythm. In a situation like this, concentrate on your own breath, taking long deep breaths.