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Understand breathing and become a better runner.

By Erik Bies DPT, MS

Does your ability to breathe limit your capacity to run without stopping? If you’re running “aerobically,” this should not happen.

In an earlier post, I stated that Learning to run relaxed at any speed is the key to unlocking all that is positive about running. How do you run relaxed? The answer is in your breathing patterns and controlling your perception of effort.

Energy system physiology and a brain-based model of fatigue help to explain this point.  In the graph below, the inflection point where the curve steepens represents the ventilatory threshold (VT).  Although energy systems do not operate in isolation of the other, for simplicity just consider exercise below the VT as “aerobic exercise” and above it is “anaerobic exercise” .  So what is happening in the body when this threshold is crossed?  If your breathing becomes exponentially labored while running (above VT), it is a sign your body cannot exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) fast enough to keep up with the physiological demand of your run.  CO2 is an acidic byproduct of exercise, and acid negatively impacts the movement system’s ability to function optimally as homeostasis is altered.  Further, your brain perceives an altered homeostasis as threatening and will do what it can to reduce the threat according to the Central Governor Theory of exercise.  When you cross the VT while running, you will eventually be unable to continue unless you slow down or the demand of the terrain eases.

Ventilation (breathing) in relation to increasing workload

If you are a novice runner, it is possible you do not have the capacity yet to run without crossing your ventilatory threshold within just a few minutes even at slow paces, which is why breathing may limit your ability to run without stopping or walking.  Struggling to breathe is stressful.  Therefore, perceived effort will be high. Understand that the ability to extend a quality running effort develops with time spent practicing running on the edge of comfort, which means practicing how to breathe under control.  As your brain improves the ability to calculate a safe and sustainable pace at this edge of discomfort, your perceived effort will decrease and you will be able to run farther and faster without struggling to breathe.

Successful distance running and endurance programs develop the the capacity to sustain optimal movement quality and pace at this ventilatory edge between comfortable and uncomfortable.  Knowing your ventilatory threshold value is irrelevant.  You must learn to feel it!  Interval workouts, tempo runs, Fartleks (speedplay), hill repetitions et cetera are just ways to practice exercising in relation to your edge of comfort/discomfort.

Learning to control your breathing:  You likely won’t know you are running too fast until about 45-60sec into starting a bout of running.

Interval training may be easiest way to learn where your ventilatory threshold is.  Classic interval-style training is the act of running hard enough to cross over the ventilatory threshold followed by a recovery stand, walk, or jog. Think of it as hard-easy training. There are all sorts of ways to do it. Mentally, it is easier than sustained efforts because you anticipate a break.  You can also make the mistake of running too fast and get away with it because of the rest period.  For more of a challenge, try a hill repetition.  Hills are a great test.  Don’t just charge up the hill, though.  Let it come to you and see if you can still be in control of your breath after 45-60 seconds.

Sustained effort runs (tempo or threshold runs) near ventilatory threshold are more challenging particularly for new runners.  As I mentioned, a new runner may not have the physical capacity yet to run without crossing their ventilatory threshold in the first several minutes. Secondly, there is more cognitive strain (perceived effort) to sustain without a break.  THIS IS ENDURANCE TRAINING! I love sustained efforts particularly for the mental toughness aspect and gradual cognitive ease that comes with runs tightly oscillating near the ventilatory threshold.

Novice runners should not rush the process of this aerobic development. Consistently dragging down your pH by overloading it with acid on a regular basis through high intensity interval training can deteriorate fitness and make running less enjoyable.  Interval training enables this mistake more easily than sustained efforts.  There are no shortcuts without consequences like injury.  A wise runner, and healthy runner, recognizes when coordination or form failure begins to set in and adjust pace or stops.   If no amount of mental focus to maintain coordination can keep it, the work is done.  Just as there are oscillations in the run (i.e. hard-easy), there needs to be oscillations day-to-day. Each individual needs to find what works for them. 72 hours of recovery between harder efforts is a good rule of thumb, but there are no absolutes.  “If you are experiencing reduced speed or distance travelled per “hard” interval, STOP! You have had enough.” The same goes for consecutive days. “Slow down!” Even it means walking.

Stay tuned for the next post regarding breathing strategies while running.