Run Efficiency Part 2: Breathing

Pretty important as a human just being. But if your breathing is all out of whack while running, you can feel uncomfortable, incompetent and demotivated. We’re not going to talk about how much you need to breathe (your body will decide that for you, based on effort) but more so the timing of it. This harps back to Run Efficiency Part 1: Cadence in a significant way.

Before we dive into the importance of the timing and rhythm of your breath, I’ve got some good – or perhaps bad – news. If you can read this, you were meant to run… humans just evolved that way. So often I’ve heard friends, colleagues, even some athletes say something along the lines of: “I went for a run, but I was completely puffed-out after just 500m and simply had to stop… I’m no good at running!”. You don’t have to look very hard to find science supporting the fact that we respond incredibly well to random bouts of long, slow exercise… especially running. As a species that walks upright our bones and muscles are designed to run… so unless you’re seriously injured in some way you have no excuse. Soz. Think hunter gatherers; If you sprint out of the house in your brand new running shoes, with zero warm-up, preparation, or plan… yes indeed you will very soon become puffed-out. We all would.

“I just wasn’t built for running!”
“Slow down you numpty, you’ll be fine. And by the way… yes you were.”

I don’t need to remind you of the few nations that appear time and time again on the podium at distance running events, both on the track and on the road. You’re probably already picturing these fine specimens in your mind’s eye… they hail from countries where running is simply a part of everyday life: run to school, run home, run to work, run for supplies… and run FAR. Which means their bodies are fat-burning machines derived from both nature and nurture, because running long distances fast [likely in very minimal shoes if not bare feet] is not only counter-productive but also can’t be sustained.

I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah right, these girls and guys run SO fast!” and yes, 3mins/km pace for a marathon is a little spicy and probably faster than most of us can sprint but they don’t run that fast all the time. Which brings us to the nub of the issue: most of your run training for endurance events should be ‘long, slow distance’. For the numbers bods… let’s call it the 80/20 rule. If I were to send 10 people off on a two-hour long weekend run – while leaving their sports watches at home – this is what I would call “breathing on four” and everyone would do the exact same workout. And that is what Part 2 is all about – the ability to gauge your effort based on your breathing.

In my article Train to Time, Not Distance I explain that every workout should have two variables, and this example is no different: 2 hours, breathing on four. This is an approach taught to me by the great Tony Benson… synchronising your foot fall with your breathing. This can be a game changer for many athletes, who feel like they weren’t built to run, because your breathing is the key to comfort and thence efficiency. We’ll talk about body position in Part 3, but once your upper body is relaxed and you’re landing under the body your breath is the last piece of the jigsaw.

The synchronising part is not as easy as it sounds, but – like any new skill learnt as an adult – once you’re familiar with the drills and it just clicks, you’ll be asking yourself how on earth you ever ran without it. First of all, Tony goes way back in the world of running and has an incredibly distinguished CV. When he talked, I listened. The premise is that the time it takes an athlete to breath in or out is matched entirely with the time it takes to hit the ground a set number of times.


Let’s use the long slow distance example above… breathing on four. This is everyone’s’ aerobic run intensity and as discussed should make up about 80% of your run volume during the week depending on how close you are to an event. The rhythm of the feet hitting the ground counts out a number which in turn lengthens or shortens the time it takes to breathe in or out. “Breathing on four” means that in the time it takes to hit the ground four times (left-right-left-right), you will exhale, and the next four times (left-right-left-right), inhale. While you’re sitting there, try tapping a foot to the slow beat of 4… and give this example a try out loud if you can:

“IN… Two… Three… Four… OUT… Two… Three… Four…” And Repeat…

Once you’ve got the counting down pat, breathe in and out nice and loud while doing your utmost to stay in time with your tapping foot. Remember our metronome from Part 1? Not only does it keep our cadence at a nice high, efficient rhythm but the ‘accent beat’ we spoke about before now comes into its own. Because the recommended version is for musicians, a metronome that makes an audible distinction between the first beat versus the rest is a fantastic guide for our breathing patterns. Look above… and imagine the ‘IN and ‘OUT’ being a high pitched beep, followed by three beats tapped out with perhaps a clapping sound.

“BEEP clap clap clap BEEP clap clap clap…”

If I can briefly combine the issues of cadence and breathing: the challenge for athletes new to a quicker cadence is that of keeping the heart rate low while the foot fall is high… it’s just way too tempting to keep their natural stride [wave] length while speeding up the cadence which of course leads to fast running and an intensity that’s far from relaxed. As I have written, competent and efficient runners can do so while keeping their cadence around the same regardless of running fast or slow. Our metronome is the Holy Grail for this issue because you simply can’t argue with the electronic rhythm, and – when combined with using the beats to also programme our breathing – it keeps us totally honest.

The key here is that the breathing should inform the foot fall rhythm, not the other way around.

Putting this simply… running easy means breathing slow. Which means a high number such as 4, 5 or 6 strides per inhalation and the same per exhalation. If you think of that number relating to time, breathing on two would take half the time it takes to breathe on four. This means breathing in and out quicker, which means more oxygen, which means we can go faster.

With me?

When you start a run, stop at traffic lights, go up or down the pavement, or stop to chat to a mate (just kidding, you’d never do that… would you?!) the VERY FIRST THING you should be focusing on should be your breathing pattern. As above, if you’re on a long slow run… as soon as possible, the rhythm of “IN-2-3-4-OUT-2-3-4” should be imprinted to encourage relaxed and synchronised running. Now look… don’t misunderstand my counting in speech marks thinking the whole breath is exhaled on the count of one… It’s hard to write, but the intention is for the breath to leave the body gradually using all FOUR beats, not just a quick PUFF followed by holding your breath! And here’s another great thing about synchronicity: by exhaling as the feet hit the ground, the very nature of the action will force the air from the body so that no energy is used to push it out and the whole process can feel natural. The same goes for inhalation of course: there isn’t one big SUCK on the count of one followed by a wait… each beat should be a quarter of the inhalation.

So what about the other numbers?

If breathing on four is long slow distance, it’s also marathon pace for many people. Breathing on three is around half marathon pace, and breathing on two is 10km pace (“IN-TWO-OUT-TWO…”). Any event longer or shorter than that fills in any gaps, but “Steam Train Breathing” is saved for sprinters! Once we become comfortable with the process, we can start to play with the ‘gears’ we have available within each bracket or rhythm. In my run workshops, I get athletes to run while breathing on four for a few minutes before turning up the intensity and speed. My instruction is to maintain the breathing on a count of four “Until your body demands that you breathe more often” at which point you should switch to three, and then back again. The same game can be played with speeding up to a count of two, and then back again and so forth.

Athletes soon find that intensity can be turned up or down even within a set number of beats, which in basic terms is like a heart rate or pace zone – it has an upper and lower range rather than just one target number. Training in this way is also a great way to train athletes as to what each intensity zone feels and ‘sounds like’ just in case a sports watch should fail the day before or [heaven forbid!] on race day.

Give it a whirl… I’d love to hear how you go.



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