Runner's World (UK)
CAN YOU BREATHE YOURSELF FITTER?
Research suggests changing how we inhale and exhale could improve our running performance. Breathtaking development or a load of hot air?
W‘It’s like my body, mind and breath are working as a team’
HEN YOU to spot a fellow runner pounding along with their mouth clamped shut, hoovering oxygen through their nose, or even holding their breath for strides at a time, you may be catching a fascinating glimpse into the slightly weird world of breath optimisation.
With solid science replacing airy claims of efficacy, breath work is floating out of the yoga studio and the latest techniques promise to do more than soothe your mind after a tense Teams call. Change the way you breathe, so the theory goes, and you can optimise your fitness by improving your oxygen efficiency, boosting circulation and delaying muscle fatigue.
While techniques such as nasal breathing and hypoxic (altitude) training have been around for decades, they’ve largely been the preserve of elite athletes. But a growing body of research into the influence of breathing not just on athletic performance, but on everything from your concentration to your sleep, is raising interesting questions. So, can something as simple as the way you breathe really help you to a PB? And, for the average amateur runner, is it really worth it?
IN THE NOSE
Among those hoping to bring such techniques to everyday athletes is Harrogate-based personal trainer Georgie Lawlor. She was struggling with shoulder and neck pain during her runs, but after picking up a copy of The Oxygen Advantage, by hypoxictraining pioneer Patrick McKeown, she began to suspect her breathing patterns might be to blame. It was a realisation that changed her approach to exercise entirely. ‘It made me see that the way I was breathing before – taking these big gasps of air – was dysfunctional,’ she says. ‘I was really working against my body.’ She started breathing nasally during her runs and she’s since taken her training one step further, by adding breath-hold exercises to her routine. She credits both techniques with slashing five minutes off her 5K time; and she now has her sights set on a triathlon. ‘It’s like my body, mind and breath are working as a team,’ she adds.
So, how do nasal breathing and breath-holding work? Breath-holding stems from the same school of thought as hypoxic training, whereby oxygen is limited to mimic high-altitude conditions. ‘Hypoxic training is carried out in an environment relatively low in oxygen, meaning that less is available to both the lungs and working muscles,’ explains Professor John Dickinson, a respiratory physiologist who helps athletes with dysfunctional breathing. ‘This stresses the production of red blood cells, as well as the aerobic enzymes and mitochondria in the working muscles.’
The result? ‘Athletes have a higher red blood cell mass, which allows them to transport more oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and, therefore, produce more energy.’ The same is said to apply to breath-holding. Nasal breathing, meanwhile, is about the flow rate. ‘It promotes a slower filling of the lungs,’ says Dickinson. ‘This enables athletes to better activate their diaphragm, deliver oxygen to the blood and achieve an efficient deep breath. In turn, taking fewer breaths frees up energy for the rest of your body to use during exercise.’
That’s the theory, and there’s some promising data on both techniques. A 2018 study on runners, by Colorado State University Pueblo, US, found a 22 per cent decrease in breath frequency when they were breathing nasally, compared with when they were breathing through their mouths – a decrease that had no bearing on their oxygen consumption. This means their breathing was just as effective, while requiring less effort. Similarly, a 2020 review from the same university analysed studies on nasal breathing in moderate exercise and concluded that the technique puts less strain on – and could even strengthen – respiratory systems. As for breath-holding, a 2019 study on cyclists found the technique could increase the heart’s bloodpumping abilities, suggesting this type of training could lead to cardiac improvements.
Where hypoxic training is concerned, some UK athletes have embraced it, but it isn’t widely practised by our elite teams. Dickinson says the data isn’t strong enough to warrant incorporating the techniques into his own work, either. ‘Limiting oxygen supply by breath-holding may indeed provide short-term hypoxia and provide acute simulation of altitude,’ he says, adding that the method remains experimental and any lasting benefits would require daily exposure to a low-oxygen environment for several weeks. And, he points out that, as with all altitude training – be that simulated in your body or taking place 2,000m above sea level – not everyone responds in the same way.
A technique Dickinson is more optimistic about is called respiratory muscle training (RMT). ‘It’s like strength training for your breathing muscles,’ says Northumbria University PhD researcher James Manifield. In the same way that adding weight to a curl will build your biceps, adding resistance to a breath will help to strengthen your diaphragm. A portable device that looks a bit like an inhaler is used to force the inward breath through an adjustable orifice. This pressure calls upon the diaphragm to maintain a regular breathing pattern. ‘By breathing through resistance, you can increase the thickness of your diaphragm and make it stronger, and this can translate into improvements in exercise performance,’ says Manifield.
Indeed, one study found that runners who engaged in respiratory conditioning alongside their training saw greater improvements in their speed and endurance than those who didn’t receive RMT. Earlier studies have found RMT increases exercise capacity by up to 23 per cent in healthy adults; another saw improvements of •
‘Breathing efficiently leaves you with more energy’
up to five per cent in cyclists’ timed performances. All of which could amount to seconds shaved off your PB.
Beyond adopting a new technique, runners of all abilities could see an improvement by brushing up on the breathing basics. Studies show that many of us are shallow breathers, over-breathers or mouth-breathers, all of which could restrict movement of the ribcage and create a build-up of tension in the upper body and tightness in the chest. And while this may not hinder you when you’re sitting at your desk, it’s a different story when you begin to run.
The biggest mistake that Dickinson sees is when athletes want to maintain – or pick up – speed. ‘When you’re working harder, you don’t tell your heart to beat faster. It just knows that it needs to,’ he says, adding that the same is true of your breathing. He explains that your body is wired with neurons called chemoreceptors, which tell your muscles when they need to breathe more. What if you tried to override that by, say, taking some big mouth breaths when you’re about to run up a hill? ‘That’s going to limit where your ribcage can move, so your breathing becomes more effortful,’ says Dickinson.
Over-breathing can also trigger your respiratory metaboreflex, which is a survival mechanism that monitors how well your breathing muscles are working. If the muscles around your chest – your diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles – start to fatigue, your cells will send an involuntary signal for your body to redirect blood flow from your other muscles to this area, to keep your lungs pumping. One result: jelly legs.
So how should you be breathing during an intense workout? ‘If you’re in an interval session and you’ve got that 30 seconds’ or a minute’s rest, that’s the time to focus on getting those deeper nasal breaths,’ says Dickinson, which will encourage your natural breathing pattern. To master this, he recommends a technique he uses with his athletes – initiating a breath with a sideways movement, using a resistance band around their lower chests. ‘As you breathe in, hold a good posture and initiate the breath by moving your ribcage into the band,’ he says. ‘If you focus on a sideways movement and just keep expanding, you’ll promote the initiation of the breath from the lower ribcage – rather than with a shoulder movement, or jerking the chest upwards.’ You can then incorporate this method into warm-up stretches, yoga poses and, eventually, gentle exercise, until your body becomes fluent in its new breathing pattern.
For a simple exercise, it can deliver significant results – and it’s a firm favourite among some UK athletes. Jane Carré, athlete health lead and sports physiotherapist for British Swimming, describes the improvements it can have on athletes’ performance as ‘dramatic’. ‘Their efforts remain consistent from start to finish of their training sessions,’ she says. ‘That translates into races, so the end of their race becomes the strongest part of the event. Now, athletes who didn’t previously cope well with high-intensity training can compete at the highest level.’
As for those of us with more humble athletic ambitions? Both Manifield and Dickinson recommend basic breathpattern mastery before moving on to respiratory muscle training. ‘Some people accept that the breathlessness they experience when exercising is just their norm, and that they’ve reached the limit they can push themselves to in their workouts,’ says Dickinson.
But committing to these techniques, he explains, could improve your performance. However, those who are pregnant, or have cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure, should check with their GP before getting to work on their breath. ‘In some cases, it could be that you’re only breathing at 80 per cent of your capacity, so increasing that percentage by practising breathing exercises can have an enormous impact on your performance,’ says Dickinson. The results might take your breath away