Beginner Runners….Don’t forget to Breathe!


New runners who are committed to learning the task and eager to enjoy the reward of that infamous ‘runners high’ sometimes struggle with finding their breath. There is so much advice out there, good and bad, that it can leave someone feeling so confused or frustrated that they just give up on the task before they really get started.

Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, or should we breathe with mouth the whole time? Or maybe you’ve read to breathe in on every second step and out on every third? Or perhaps we could try to make grunting sounds as we exhale to warn the person ahead that we are coming and about to leave them in our dust!?  No matter the tip what I believe is that BREATHING IS A NATURAL PROCESS and shouldn’t have to be learned! We also shouldn’t have to THINK while we are running. Don’t we usually run in order to escape life’s over thinking nature?

My question is not HOW to breathe but rather WHY are we not able to breathe? Sometimes there is a physiological breathing problem you may have been born with such as asthma or allergies or cystic fibrosis or maybe you’ve suffered repeated infections and your lungs are a bit scarred down. Repeated coughing can be enough of a stressor to your muscles and leave you feeling tight all over. More often than not though the runners I see who are struggling to find their breath  simply have too much muscle tension in their necks, shoulders and torso that their bodies just aren’t able to give them what they are asking.

We are too STRESSED OUT!

We are like turtles hiding in their shells with our shoulders shrugged up to our ears! Daily life with work, school, kids, families all builds up tensions in our bodies both mentally and physically. Most beginner runners, and even some seasoned ones, have difficulty breathing because of stress and tension in the muscles responsible for proper breathing. Life can be difficult at times and sometimes our tension goes right to our shoulders. Don’t we carry the weight of the world on them?? Do you find it difficult if not impossible to RELAX!? Eliminating the tightness of these muscles can be tricky.

Trying to fit in exercise into our already packed schedules is near impossible so running is the best, fastest way to do it. Seems like a great idea until you get out there and realize that what looks so simple when you watch other people do it is actually quite the daunting task. Suddenly you feel like you’ve reached a new altitude, that somehow you are at the top of Mount Everest where oxygen levels are low and you are dizzy and sweating and gasping for air when it hits you……I’ve only gone to the end of the driveway!

Don’t quit yet! If we can alleviate some of that muscle tension and retrain your body how to breathe properly you’ll be able to find your breath naturally as you pick up your pace. Our bodies know what to do. We were born to run! Sometimes it just needs a little reminder. Below you will find some simple ways to help your breathing issues as it relates to muscular tension.

There are 2 major points I’d like to make about breathing based on my experiences in the movement industry. There are about a million other facts/theories you can learn about online. What I’d like to share with you are MY successes with runners and how we came up with ways to increase the movement of their rib cage expansion and trick the shoulders into letting go. You can either read through the boring (not to me!) Anatomy lesson here or SKIP to the end and watch the video! Ah, if I only I knew what you chose!! Ha. Enjoy either way.

  1. Breathing occurs primarily from the large muscle in the abdomen called the diaphragm and secondarily from the small muscles connecting the neck to the upper rib cage called the scalenes. Shallow breathers can get away with using the scalene muscles if they do not have much exertion during their day. These little guys get overworked and tighten up very quickly. You’ll see this in a typical office worker who sits at a desk most of the day. If you don’t train your diaphragm muscle to breathe deeply it will weaken and your breathing will become inefficient should you need more air.

“If you don’t use it you lose it”

       2. The other important  area required for breathing is the rib cage and thoracic spine (trunk). There are small muscles between the ribs that allow for the ribs to expand and separate on inhalation. There are also layers of longer muscles that connect the spine to the ribs. Tightness in any of these muscles can lead to difficulty in breathing on exertion. If your body is tight in these areas is doesn’t matter how well your diaphragm contracts you won’t be able to expand your lungs if the cage they are in is locked tight!

A 54 year old woman presented to me just the other day stating that she joined a beginners running group so that she could learn to run properly. Her hope was that someone there could help her to run without losing her breath and needing to stop. At first she did well with the 30 seconds of running and 2 minutes of walking but when the group jumped to 90 seconds of running followed with 2 minutes of walking she wasn’t able to recover quick enough. The exertion during the run made it hard for her to breathe so when she stopped she couldn’t regulate her heart rate or breath rate within the two minutes.

What we found was that during a deep breath she would greatly elevate her shoulders which told us she wasn’t pulling the air in by proper use of the diaphragm. She was using the smaller secondary muscles, the scalenes, to get the air in. Also, she had very limited range of motion in her mid spine and rib cage. It’s like trying to inflate a balloon that’s inside a glass jar. It can only expand to the size of the glass. Our lungs can only expand to the size of our rib cage expansion.

As shown in the video we gave her two simple exercises to do daily. First we gave her one to help shut down the scalene muscles so that the diaphragm was forced to work. We did that by having her carry an 8kg kettlebell in each hand while walking and breathing. This heavy weight was enough to depress her shoulders and allow the diaphragm to do the work. At first she had to walk in a very slow pace and take shallow breaths as her body fought the resistance in her depressed shoulders. The small scalene muscles weren’t strong enough to shrug and lift the weights she carried.Within just a few minutes she was able to pick up the pace and breathe a little deeper. Her homework for this was to do it often every day in order to create that muscle memory so that when she needed it she wouldn’t have to think about it.

Next we gave her a movement stretch to help open up all of the other muscles that attach to the rib cage in order to allow for greater expansion. This was performed in a doorway but can easily be performed against a wall too. The instructions are simple:

  1. Stand in a doorway and turn to one side holding onto the side molding
  2. Let one hand go and reach overhead in a side bend while allowing your hips to lean out way from your reaching hand
  3. Repeat with the other hand reaching overhead while bending to the side
  4. Turn to the opposite side of the doorway and repeat the overhead reaches on each side.
  5. After warming up the ribcage and spine with these movements repeat the pattern but stop within the stretch and take a deep breath and hold 5 seconds to allow the muscles in between the ribs to stretch.

As with all of the exercises you’ll see from me it is recommended to perform frequently throughout the day in order to create muscle memory and efficiency of movement. Your body will remember something if it is performed for just a few seconds multiple times per day rather than once per day for a longer time. More often is better than more time!

Here is a video clip to demonstrate these simple exercises. As with all activity please be sure you are cleared by your movement specialist to perform such task without injury.

Breathe on and don’t forget to inhale!

Dr. Donna Copertino