Have you ever found yourself struggling with a “side stitch” while running? A feeling that appears after running the first few miles of your first 10k?  Or maybe when out on a hard training run or cycle you notice your heart rate is running high and you can’t seem to gain control over it.

The way we breathe has much to do with our heart rate response and our ability to relax while we exercise. The pain in your side is typically resolved once you’ve adjusted your breathing patterns. Of course, there is a limit to how much control we have over our breathing however, there are a few simple tricks that we can employ to -- in many instances -- put us back in control of our efforts.

To help you improve your breathing, here are a few exercises to try:

Breathing Exercise 1

Let’s begin with a simple exercise (you will need your heart rate monitor for this drill).

Step 1 - Get your heart racing

Run, cycle or do anything that will get your heart rate up to about 80% of your maximum heart rate. Try and sustain this intensity for 1 minute or more -- just long enough to cause your recovery to be challenged.

Step 2 - Slow down

Start walking or reduce tension on the bike and roll your legs. Keep track of how long it takes for your heart rate to recover.

Step 3 - Breathe deeply

Repeat the exercise, but this time (while in the recovery phase) focus on taking deep exhalations, not inhalations. What is commonly noted is that within the first few times you exhale your heart rate will plummet as much as 5 beats per minute (bpm) and your overall recovery, if you keep breathing this way, will be much shorter.

Step 4 - Increase your heart rate

Perform some steady state work -- run on a treadmill, on a road, trail, or wherever terrain you prefer – Again, focus on your exhale vs. your inhale during the breathing cycle.  You should notice that your heart rate drops by as much as 5-7 bpm even though you have not reduced the work.

The reason this happens is that as we exhale we effectively release CO2 from our body, along with the heat and metabolic waste from we created during exercise.

Our central nervous system regulates heart rate relative to demand, once the respiration cycle has cleared away the combusted energy, heat and metabolic waste, our heart rate will slow down.

Breathing Exercise 2

Let’s take the preceding breathing exercise a step further.

Step 1 - Examine how you breathe

Take a deep breath, notice; did you fill your chest or your belly?  It’s a mystery to me why we breathe into our chests. Somewhere along our evolution from child to adult we’ve shifted our breathing patterns. Watch a baby as they sleep, they breathe into their bellies, which is far more effective than chest breathing.

When we breathe into our chests, our diaphragm the membrane-like muscle that separates our heart and lungs from our visceral organs (the organs that are included inside the gut, or abdomen) pulls upward and actually reduces the amount of air our lungs can draw in.

When we breathe “diaphragmatically” (down into our bellies) we not only expand our lungs (making room for about 25% more volume), we also receive an eccentric contraction. Much like bouncing on a trampoline, the evacuation phase as we exhale occurs with greater ejection force autonomically. In other words, we are simply capable of delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the working body while being able to liberate the heat and waste from the energy combusted.

Step 2 - Breathe through your belly

Try lying on your back with your hand on your belly and practice breathing deeply into your hand followed by relaxation. Watch how your belly retracts as your diaphragm rebounds up into your chest. This is actually a great exercise to try while running or cycling.

Once you’ve mastered the preceding techniques, you’ll quickly learn that you are able to perform more work at less cost!

By Richard Diaz, Owner of Diaz Human Performance  and host of the Natural Running Network podcast.
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