As runners, we’re used to focusing on our breath to gauge our effort. But, becoming aware of your breath can have benefits beyond better performance and effort evaluation. While breathwork has been practiced around the world for centuries, it’s popularity on this side of the globe is ramping up as mental-health awareness and the benefits of stress reduction are becoming part of regular self-care routines.
When it comes to breathwork and its benefit to runners, it matters more what we do in between training sessions for performance. It’s a lot like the resting side of training – we know we need lots of it in order to heal our bodies and be able to continue running with the same vigor. As active people living in the western world, it’s hard to turn off our brains and sit still. We habitually pick up our phones whenever there’s a moment of silence and turn on the TV to relax and unwind. It makes sense then, that a practice based on focusing on the breath while sitting in silence would make us a little uncomfortable. But to runners, being uncomfortable is the norm.
A regular breathwork practice can reduce blood pressure, strengthen the cardio-respiratory connection, and decrease stress by kicking the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) into gear, ultimately overriding the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) that often runs our lives, according to a 2016 study on how breathwork affects the cardiovascular system. A daily practice (even of just 3 to 10 minutes a day) can bring results. The more you practice this breathwork, your body will start to transform, as will your training; A lower overall heart rate with increased lung capacity will allow you to run farther without hitting a wall;
There are three styles of breathwork, all of varying difficulty, that runners can start with.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class or been told to breathe deeply in and out through your nose, then you’ve (likely) already been introduced to ujjayi breath. This is a safe and simple practice for anyone to use and can be practiced anywhere at any time – all you have to do is extend the length of your inhales and exhales through the nose, and breathe deeply into the diaphragm. Aim to have equal length inhale and exhale – it helps to count it out when you first begin. Choose whatever length of breath suits your lung capacity. You can always extend or shorten the length of the breath as needed.
Once you have the hang of breathing equally in and out through the nose, the next step is to create some resistance in the throat by pushing the tongue towards the back of the throat. Constricting the back of the throat will create an ocean-like sound with the breath that is an added calming effect of this breath.
Practice this breath anytime you feel stress, tension, or want added calm. For a daily practice, start with three minutes of mindful ujjayi breathing, adding time whenever you feel ready to dive deeper into your practice.
The second style of breath is Equal Ratio Breath, which is another simple and accessible breathwork practice. You can do this breath basically anywhere – at work, on the trail, at home. And all breaths are taken through the nose.
Equal Ratio Breath
Note: If you are pregnant, avoid the holds, and stick to equal inhales and exhales.
To begin, inhale for a count of five.
At the top of the inhale, hold for a count of five.
Exhale for a count of five.
At the bottom of the breath, hold for a count of five.
Repeat the cycle 10-20 times, as needed.
You can increase the duration of the count as your lung capacity increases, or if you have a higher lung capacity.
The second style is called Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati). This is a more intermediate style compared to Ujjayi and Equal Ratio breath. It is a cleansing breath that helps to remove toxins from the body and reduce stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). This breath has a forceful exhale through the nose, with an immediate, passive inhale through the nose (you barely have to think about it). As you exhale, snap the belly inwards, like you’re pulling your belly button back toward your spine.
Breath of Fire
Note: Do not do this practice if you are pregnant.
This is a more intermediate breathwork style that trains the body to use the diaphragm and abdominal muscles while breathing, according to a 2020 study from the International Journal of Yoga, which allows for greater depth of breath and increased oxygen into the body.
This breath is best practiced in a seated position.
To begin, sit up tall and take a deep breath in and out.
Then breath in ¾ of the way.
On the exhale, pull the belly and diaphragm in, and release on the inhale.
Repeat the inhale and exhale 20-30 times. Take a deep inhale and exhale to cleanse at the end. Sit with your eyes closed for a minute and then repeat again. Complete the full cycle 2-3 times.
Please note, this breathwork can sometimes cause dizziness. If you feel any lightheadedness, return back to a regular breathing pattern.
If you are new to breathwork, start by practicing the Equal Ratio breath 4-7 times a week for a couple of weeks, and then start to incorporate Breath of Fire into your practice 2-3 times a week. For sequencing, start with Equal Ratio and then move to Breath of Fire. Bonus: it’s always nice to sit in stillness and silent meditation for a few minutes afterward to let your body and mind recalibrate.
Meaghan Archer is an ultrarunner, certified breathwork and meditation guide and life coach.