Breathing exercises have changed the way Malia Chipouras, a freshman at Boulder High School in Colorado, competes. “After I started using them, I learned how to be calm and rid myself of the nerves before a race,” she says.
Chipouras uses different styles of breathing to calm down, as well as get psyched up, some of which she’s learned from Melody Fairchild, coach of the Boulder Mountain Warriors youth running team. Chipouras finds these techniques useful not only for her running but also “in my everyday life to help me be a better student and a better human.”
At University of Idaho, Travis Floeck, cross-country and track coach, asks his distance athletes to practice daily diaphragmatic breathing. This style of intentional, expansive breathing focuses on the diaphragm—a dome-shaped muscle wrapped around a tendon that sits below the lungs, segmenting the torso cavity. It’s essential for all breathing, that autonomic process that keeps us alive. But the diaphragm may be one of the most important but oft-overlooked muscles for runners.
Floeck has been working with athletic trainer Ross Dexter, Ph.D., now at Southern Oregon University, to train runners in this technique. Dexter uses it to assess athletes and care for injuries. “The diaphragm is amazing,” he says.
It affects pressure within the abdomen, contracting downward with inhales and relaxing upward with exhales. It separates your chest’s heart and lungs from abdominal organs, but is connected to your ribs, lower back, and sternum—linking body parts from the pelvic floor to the floor of your mouth. Nerves run through it, too, and it affects the nervous system. Floeck and Dexter, coauthors of the forthcoming book Start with the Core, use diaphragmatic breathing to encourage relaxation, mindfulness, body awareness, running posture, effective strength training, and even speed. It stabilizes the spine and core and puts our hips in the correct position, which ensures we’re using our glutes as our primary movers.
While many activities promote conscious breathwork (tai chi, yoga, meditation, for example), there’s no standard for “diaphragmatic,” “deep,” or “belly” breathing. But research shows promise as treatment for lung issues, anxiety, stress, and even recovery for athletes.
Dexter says it’s easy to mess up breathing with bad habits or ill-advised breathing patterns. Take, for example, sucking in your stomach to look slimmer. This constricts your breathing and limits you to shallow breaths.
The good news is, unless you have a serious lung issue, trying intentional, deeper breathing is a low-risk, no-cost practice with copious potential benefits. Try the following routine in the morning, before bed, or after your run, at least once a day. Progress to practicing this sitting upright and integrating it into movements like planks and running.
Daily Diaphragmatic Breathing Practice: 5-10 Minutes
- Lie on your back, either on a bed, the floor, or the ground.
- Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground.
- Place one hand on your belly, below your ribs, and another on your chest near your heart.
- Breathe normally for a moment, not changing anything, just paying attention, before slowing down an deepening your breath.
- Inhale slowly through your nose.
- Exhale slowly through your nose or mouth.
- Notice the movement. Can you feel your belly rise and fall first?
- Do your ribs expand to the sides and back?