Saturday, January 18, 2014

Breathing during a run: find your center and run from within

It was a glorious morning for a run today. Slightly cloudy with the temperature in the high fifties and just a slight breeze, the day beckoned for me to just run, freely and without any distractions. So I did.

In keeping with my recent epiphany, I once again eschewed any music in the run. Starting off from my house, I followed my usual route down some side streets to the local park, which has a lovely path past some athletic fields, a canal, and tennis courts. It was early, so there were only a few fellow runners and walkers on the path. But there was a large crowd forming on one field for the day's youth soccer games. As my run progressed, this proved to be a fun sidelight, as I enjoyed hearing the shouts of encouragement from parents to their children as the games began.

As to my run, I purposefully approached it with a gameplan of sorts (something I always do): I would run the first mile or so as a warm-up, then pick up my pace a little and run consistently for the next several miles, at which point I would just let loose and run wide open (this does not mean sprinting) until I tired or I needed to return home.

Coincidentally, it is almost exactly one mile from my house to the park. And my route through the park--a figure eight circuit--is also about one mile. Having a route like this is a good idea, for while apps like the Nike+ one I use can be set to indicate milestones in a run, this doesn't much matter if you are no longer using earphones--like me--and thus cannot hear such updates.

Anyway, I did the warm-up mile with ease, then increased my pace a little as I hit the park. My breathing was easy during the first mile. The change in pace required a little more exertion, of course, but as I did so, I made sure to keep my breathing consistent, to inhale and exhale evenly without panting. In doing so, I breathed from a point below my chest; I visualized it and allowed it to be pushed up towards my chest as I breathed in (and my chest expanded) and pulled back down towards my diaphragm as I breathed out.

Source: Yang's Martial Arts Association, Breathing Exercises for T'ai Chi
In the practice of T'ai Chi, breathing is one of the most critical issues. Practitioners spend a great deal of time learning to breath properly by doing various breathing exercises. What is most important here is understanding that the breathing must be natural, not forced, and that it be controlled from the abdomen. But necessarily, how we breathe must change, based on what we are doing. In meditation, breathing is quiet and slow. During any sort of activity, it becomes stronger and deeper. The key is to allow it to do so naturally.

Just as the first part of my run--the warm-up--is about loosening my muscles and getting them used to the motions of my running body, so too it is about transitioning my breathing to a proper state for a strong run. This transition is something you can feel happen; as you run, you may want to increase your breathing rate rapidly, but fight this urge. Again, breathe evenly and somewhat slowly as you start. Allow your body to dictate a slow but steady change in your breathing to help you reach a point of equilibrium, of harmony, within yourself.

I have learned that the time it takes to reach this point can vary from person to person, that it is important to not push yourself too hard in search of a faster pace. Instead, you must let it come naturally. If you do, you will find that your breathing mirrors your movements. And your ability to sustain your pace will increase, perhaps even dramatically.

Three miles in to my run, I was feeling great. And as planned, I simply allowed my body to take over, to find a new limit for my pace. In the end, I ran a little over seven miles and in so doing, set new personal bests for both one kilometer and ten kilometer (which is about 6.12 miles) distances.