A Simple Breathing Trick That Can Help Anyone Run Faster (or Start Running)
One pandemic upside is that with gyms closed and lockdowns making us stir crazy, running outside experienced a boom. Now the downside: Many eager new pandemic runners ran into injuries. One study found, “27% to 70% of recreational and competitive distance runners sustain an overuse running injury during any 1-year period.”
Some fitness minds see stats like that and treat running like they might a loaded gun. I’m not one of them. Running is a beautiful exercise, at once meditative and exhausting, making it uniquely good for our minds and bodies. We just have to take certain steps to make sure we can run safely.
And there’s also an evolutionary reasons humans should run: The reason the human body is built the way it is — with arched feet, long leg tendons, sweat glands, and more — is because we evolved to slowly run down prey in the heat. We’d do what’s called persistence hunting: slowly but surely tracking and chasing down prey for miles upon miles until the animal toppled over from heat exhaustion. Then we’d spear or club it and have dinner.
Compared to other animals humans are only “good” at two physical tasks. We’re not strong, and we’re also shitty jumpers, jukers, lifters, and climbers. Researchers at Harvard told me that leaning into the exercises humans evolved to do well may be uniquely good for us. If you’re interested in what evolution can tell us about exercise and want to know more about the other exercise that’s uniquely good for us, check out my book, The Comfort Crisis (buying from this link supports local writing programs for underprivileged kids). To report that section, I embedded myself with a team of doctors from the Mayo Clinic have teamed up with Special Forces soldiers to try to bring this ancient-but-forgotten form of exercise to the masses.
When the pandemic hit, I, too, started running in the desert mountains behind my home often and have been increasing my mileage each week. To stay injury free, run faster with less effort, and also take my mind off how godawfully hot the Mojave Desert is, I’ve been practicing what’s called “rhythmic breathing.”
A few years ago I wrote a story for Women’s Health about why we should get rid of all of our tech (GPS and fitness trackers) and run by feel. The simplest, most impactful advice I took from that story came from Alec Blenis. He told me the easiest way to pace ourselves, prevent injury, and be more aware and relaxed on our runs is to use rhythmic breathing.
Works like this: Instead of taking two steps as we breath out and two as we breathe in (which is what most people naturally do), we tweak that rhythm to an odd-even or even-odd pattern. So, for example, three steps on the “in” breath, two steps on the “out” breath.
It’s best to alter this ratio based on our pace. If I’m doing a long and slow run, for example, I take five steps on the in breath, four on the out. For a moderate pace I’ll do four on the out, three on the in. Moderate-to-fast is three on the out, two on the in. If I’m cranking it’s two and one.
This patterning does three things:
It helps prevent injuries
Our bodies absorb the most impact on the first step of our exhale, which is why runners tend to develop injuries on just one side. An odd-even or even-odd breathing pattern alternates which side receives the stress, which can prevent imbalance issues. The technique helped fix a running-induced hip issue I was having.
It helps us find our perfect pace
When most people run, they pick some predetermined distance and run it as fast as possible. But there’s a ton of research that suggests not always running our fastest is, oddly enough, the key to becoming faster (and avoiding injury). It boosts our endurance, helps us recover, and allows us to rack up more miles over time. Rhythmic breathing acts like a governor that ensures we don’t go too hard.
Pick a ratio like four breaths out and three in or higher. The goal is to run as fast as we can while comfortably sustaining one of those patterns. If we can’t, that indicates we need to slow down. The method also adjusts our speed to account for the tougher uphills and easier downhills (something a GPS watch can’t do!).
It makes running a meditation — and easier
Running can suck. But by focusing on patterned breathing, we’re not obsessing over the aches in our legs, burning in our lungs, or — in my case lately — that the desert is 100+ degrees. We’re zoned in and not putting a negative valence on exercise. That allows us to take in the world and actually enjoy the sport. It makes running a moving meditation.