The research for this article mainly comes from Alison McConnell's excellent book "Breathe Strong Perform Better", I throughly recommend buying it
We all breathe. Breathing is something we do and rarely, if ever think about. This article will not only cover how we breathe but how to get better at it! Yep, I want you to be able to breathe better. So take a deep breath (haha! ed.) and settle in.
What happens when we breathe?
We supply oxygen to the body. A better answer would be the removal of the by-product of exercise, carbon dioxide as a primary objective, the secondary is the supply of oxygen.
How do we breathe?
The breathing system is made up of the structures that guide air into the lungs; the nose mouth and airways, the lungs themselves and the structures that surround the lungs, your rib cage.
The right lung has three lobes, the left only two as the heart needs to nestle between the left lobes. Airways guide air from outside world into lungs, these airways branch a total of 23 times and end in air sacs, called alveoli, where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place.
•Air enters through nose and mouth
•Travels into throat
•Through the glottis and down trachea
•Air then travels into the right and left bronchi
•Through the branching structure of remaining airways to alveoli.
Alveoli are a collection of air sacs which are surrounded by dense network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries.
We breathe by sucking air in then blowing air out.
When we think of breathing training, most people will think that they need to train their lungs, make them bigger and increase their volume. However, lungs do not respond to training (Wagner, 2005). Breathing is a lot more than just the lungs, it is a complete and complex system that delivers oxygen and removes carbon dioxide.
There are a number of muscles used during breathing.
Breathing pump muscles
All muscles that are attached to the rib cage have the potential to generate a breathing action.
To generate the breath, the breathing pump muscles must produce a pressure differential between the atmosphere outside the body and the inside of the lungs. Broadly speaking, the inspiratory muscles pull inward to compress the thorax. The size and speed of pressure differential that the muscle contractions generate determine how large the breath is and how fast air moves in and out of lungs.
Inspiratory muscles - the principle muscle in inspiration is the diaphragm, a domed sheet of muscle. When the diaphragm contracts, the dome flattens, and moves down into the abdominal cavity. This increases the volume of the thoracic cavity, creating a negative pressure that is proportional to the extent of it's movement, and thus to force contraction.
Expiratory muscles - the principle muscles of expiration are those that form the muscular corset of the abdominal wall. Your abs, both the "6-pack" and 3 internal muscles. When these muscles contract, they pull the lower rib margins downward, and compress the abdominal compartment, raising the internal pressure. This pushes the diaphragm upward into the thoracic cavity, inducing an increase in pressure and expiration.
Upper Airway Muscles - the relevant upper airway muscles are those which control the vocal cords. During breathing, the cords need to part in order to let unobstructed air flow the larynx.
Breathing and your core muscle are inextricably linked
Core stability - maintains stability of trunk
Postural Control - actions that maintain balance in response to destabilising forces acting on the body
These nonrespiratroy roles of the trunk muscles are often brought into conflict with the muscles' role in breathing, as there is a degree of overlap with the muscles function. We need to limit the functional conflict so that the body is able to breathe efficiently yet the core doesn't destabilise and cause injury. At the end of the day, the breathing functions will take precedent over the stabilising functions of the muscles.
At rest, the average adult will breathe 10-15 times a minute. During exercise this will rise to 40-50 times.
Running and Breathing
As a runner there are unique challenges to face when breathing. When we run our diaphragm and other breathing muscles are subjected to competing demands for postural control, core stability and breathing. Our organs move up and down when we run, due to gravity and momentum. The diaphragm as it contracts, moves into a compartment full of organs The diaphragm could either be assisted or impeded by these moving organs. There is thus a need to synchronise breathing and stride cadence in order to optimise these interactions. During a moderate-intensity exercise the breath cycle should be completed on every other footfall of the same leg
Land on right leg -- inhalation starts
Land on left leg -- continue to inhale
Land on right leg -- exhalation starts
Land on left leg -- exhalation continues
A faster running cadence may necessitate a different pattern by synchrony through movement should be maintained
By synchronising breathing and running cadence you minimise the competition between stabilising and breathing functions on the breathing muscles.
To sum up:
• We use a number of muscles to breathe, and many of these muscles are used to help with core stability and postural control.
• When we fatigue, our body will favour the breathing function of the muscle over the stability function of the muscle
• Poor core stability and postural control will lead to inefficient running and injuries.
The big question then, is how to improve breathing muscles? Muscles will respond to training by improving their strength, speed of contraction, power output and endurance. Studies have shown the rationale for specific Expiratory Muscle Training (EMT) is much less than the rationale for Inspiratory Muscle Training (IMT), so the focus on training should be on the inward breath.
Resistance Breathing Muscle Training on Endurance Performance
2 studies have been done of the influence n resistance breathing muscle training on endurance performance for runners. One by Johnson, Edwards & Cooke,2007 and another by Ewards, Wellls & Butterly, 2008. The first test was done over a 3.8minute intensity and there was a performance change of 4% over 4 weeks. The second test was over 5,000 metres, again over 4 weeks, and a 2% performance change was noted.
IMT will improve a runners ability to maintain a deeper, slower breathing pattern. It will also enhance the efficiency of respiratory and locamator coupling, enhance core stability and improve postural control.
Hopefully I have explained how breathing works, why breathing is more than just getting air in and out and how breathing training is important.
The training responses of breathing and limb muscles are incredible similar, and the three principles that are used are the principles of overload, specificity and reversibility.
Overload Principle - to obtain a training response, muscle fibres myst be overloaded
Specificity Principle - the nature of a training response depends on the type of stimulus delivered
Training for Endurance - this requires low-load high frequency contractions.
Effect of Lung Volume - The deficiency principle applies to the range of motion during training. If you train by not using all your lung volume, the effect will only apply to the lung volume used.
Reversibility - the phenomenon of "use it or loose it" applies to breathing muscles, stop the training and the benefits will disappear over time
In response to this you need to perform Maintance - there is no need to lose any of the gains achieved in training.
How do you train?
What we need to do is essentially get the breathing muscles lifting weights. However, in our case the weight is going to be resistance to airflow via a mouthpiece.
The most effective method of this is by doing inspiratory pressure threshold loading. To generate airflow, you must overcome the pressure load and lift open the pressurised inspiratory valve. The device currently being tested by the running supplement is the POWERbreathe K5, however POWERbreathe offer a number of devices, all of which are incredibly portable and range in price from £30 to £450.
To start with, we need to start to develop an efficient breathing technique. To do this you need to get back in touch with your diaphragm, as it is the most important breathing muscle.
This training can be done without using any IMT trainer.
To start with, you need to be lying on your back, this makes it easier to use activate the diaphragm. Place your palms on your ribs so your hands are almost touching. If the diaphragm is being used effectively, you should be able to see and feel the ribs moving sideways and forward as you inhale, and the abdomen will bulge forwards.
Exhalation should just be relaxed, with no muscle activity.
Your breathing rate for this should be no more than 12 breaths per minute, being reduced to 6 over time.
Each day, you should complete 4 minutes of diaphragm breathing.
Once you have done this lying on your back, the progression is to do it standing up.
After you have mastered diaphragm breathing standing up, the next step is to wrap a wide elastic exercise band around the lower rib cage. The band intensifies the sensation of working the diaphragm.
Once this has been mastered, try breathing with your eyes closed, during the 4 minute sets, try 2minutes with visual feedback, and 2 without.
This process isn't essential to complete before IMT training, however it is a part of your training that shouldn't be overlooked and can be started immediately. it will make your breathing more efficient. Once you have mastered
Training with an IMT.
For running, the best position is to be standing up when training, as this mimics the running posture.
Training should be done twice a day during the building phase, and the sessions should be separated by a minimum of 6 hours.
Training should be done to failure, ideally at 30 breaths. Failure is defined in IMT training as "when it is impossible to achieve a satisfying breath".
Finding the correct load is probably the most difficult thing to achieve with any IMT device All POWERbreathe devices allow you to set the weight of the training manually, however, the new K series, this will automatically set your training load based on your first few breaths with the device. If you aren't fortunate enough to be using a K5 with the breathe link software, you will want to keep an IMT diary, with the load you used, and the amount of reps achieved.
Warm Up and Cool Down
You can use the IMT device as a warm-up and cool-down device.
Warm Up- 30 breaths at approximately 80% of max, can be done twice
Cool Down - 60 breath at love level load.
After about 4 weeks of IMT, start to perform your training immediately after a whole-body workout.
After a 6 week block, there are minimal improvements to be made, so you will then want to move to a maintenance schedule. When you are maintaining, you can train once every other day. A good session would be to do an IMT session after a run, as this will add a degree of specificity.
If you were to stop training all together, research has shown that you will loose about 1/3 of he improvement in strength during a 9 week period. However, during the next 9 weeks no further decrease in levels occur (Romer &McConnell, 2003)
After you have done your base training and perhaps in a maintenance schedule for a while, runners should look to Develop Breathe Control and do some specific Training
To develop breathing control, you can do this on the run. From earlier you will remember than most runners find a 2:1 stride to breath ratio to be the most comfortable, however on a steady run start to play with this ration, begin to extend it to 3:1 or even 4:1.
You should also undertake some running specific inspiratory muscle training, which involves using an IMT device but work on core and pelvic stability at the same time. For example, what you want to be doing is a plank, whilst using a IMT device to breathe with. see here for a few examples from Alison McConnell's website, and a complete list for exercises, including pictures, specific to runners is available in her book. This Functional Breathing Training Exercising is the next step in core and breathing training. By stressing the breathing and stabilising muscles at the same time, you are teaching them to perform both activities and not to prioritise the breathing over the stabilising. Your body will still prioritise the breathing function of the core muscles over their stabilisation function, however, if you can strengthen the core it will start to become proficient at both activities.
That is breathing, a pretty complex mechanism. However, the best thing is that you can make improvements to your breathing and get so much back from it.
•Monitor your breathing when you run, try and improve your breathing to stride tempo.
•Get in touch with your diaphragm by starting to breathe using it
•Invest in an Inspiratory Muscle Training, see our review on the K5 here
•Train with a POWERbreathe (or other IMT device) for 6 weeks
•Move to a maintenance schedule or start Function Breathing Training Exercises.