Most runners know that in order to get better, they need to train the major muscle groups that are activated during a run — the quads, the glutes, the hamstrings, the calves.
But few think about training the muscles that allow them to breathe — specifically the diaphragm, said Kristen Konkol, an associate teaching professor of exercise science at Syracuse University. And that may be putting runners at a disadvantage.
When runners are not efficiently using their diaphragms during exercise, they’re limiting how deeply they can inhale, which in turn limits how much oxygen is absorbed and delivered to their muscles. That ultimately affects how well those muscles function during exercise, said Nicole Hagobian, a running coach and professor of kinesiology at California Polytechnic State University.
While there is not a lot of research on how diaphragmatic (or “belly”) breathing directly improves running, the experts we spoke with agreed that at least in theory, it can help to increase your oxygen supply during exercise.
Here’s what we know about how diaphragmatic breathing can help your run and strategies for doing it properly.
What is the diaphragm and how does it help?
The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits under the lungs and looks like an upside down “U.” When you inhale, it contracts and flattens, creating a suction-like force (sort of like a syringe) that pulls air into the lungs, said Dr. Tianshi David Wu, an assistant professor of pulmonology at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Other muscles in the chest, neck and shoulders also work to bring in more air by pulling the chest up and expanding the upper and middle regions of the lungs when we inhale, Dr. Wu said.
Some people don’t use their diaphragms to their fullest potential, he said, which causes them to over-rely on these other muscles. When this happens, they don’t get air deep into the lungs, which limits how much oxygen they can absorb.
How does diaphragmatic breathing work?
Diaphragmatic breathing involves consciously using your diaphragm to take deep breaths by trying to inhale into your stomach, rather than into your chest, according to Dr. Konkol.
One way you can do it is to lie on your back with your hands on your stomach and take deep breaths in through your nose, consciously trying to force the air into your belly. As you do this, the hands on your stomach should rise. As you exhale your hands and belly should recede, Dr. Konkol said.
Dr. Hagobian teaches runners the technique by placing one hand on her belly and one on her chest and then taking quick, shallow breaths to demonstrate how the hand on her chest moves much more than the hand on her belly. She then takes a deep, diaphragmatic breath, pointing out how the hand on her belly is now the one moving more while the hand on her chest is mostly still.
To get the hang of this kind of breathing and to make it more second-nature, Dr. Konkol recommended practicing the technique for 15 to 20 minutes every day or every other day for a couple of weeks. “Similar to how we train our legs, we have to train our lungs,” she said.
Only a few small studies have directly looked into how diaphragmatic breathing affects exercise. In one study published in 2018, for instance, researchers found that participants with fatigued diaphragms could not exercise as intensely as usual. And a 2004 study found that using certain breathing techniques to train various muscles involved in respiration, including the diaphragm, helped cystic fibrosis patients take deeper breaths and work out more intensely on an exercise bike. A 2006 study found similar results in healthy adults.
How to use diaphragmatic breathing during a run
Joe Shayne, a long-distance running coach with TeamWRK, a running organization in Brooklyn, said that it can be difficult to learn an entirely new way of breathing. And pressuring yourself to do it right can cause you to tense up and make breathing deeply harder.
So he recommended practicing diaphragmatic breathing while you’re calm and relaxed.
He suggested practicing diaphragmatic breathing first while you’re either lying down, sitting or standing, and then trying to incorporate it into walks. Once diaphragmatic breathing starts to feel easy and natural on your walks, you can graduate to using it on longer or more vigorous walks, then to jogs and eventually to more intense runs, Mr. Shayne said.
The technique becomes more challenging to maintain as the length or intensity of the exercise increases, he said.
After you have the technique down, Dr. Hagobian and Mr. Shayne recommended figuring out a breathing pattern that works for you on runs. For example, Mr. Shayne likes to exhale every four steps. Dr. Hagobian, on the other hand, prefers to start by breathing in for three steps and out for two steps, and then breathing in for two steps and out for one step at faster paces.
Having a rhythm “helps you focus on your breathing technique and keeps it from becoming erratic,” Dr. Hagobian said.
As you get better at taking full diaphragmatic breaths, you should see subtle but noticeable changes to your runs, Dr. Konkol said.
You should require fewer breaths per minute and you may feel more energized — all because you’re getting better at supplying your body with the necessary oxygen.