If Anders Ericsson’s research, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, is accurate; that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to Master that thing, then I am a Master runner. And yet, I feel younger than ever in my running and finally feel that I am on an upward trajectory in achievement and downward path in my race times. After having run for more than half my life, I learn every day I practice and each time I race. More than ever, I am still a student of the sport. My only regret is that I wish I had been as reflective when I was young and resilient, but know that the best can still shine through as we age. It just might take some different stimuli to bring it forth. I resolve to continue to learn as I share my experiences.
No matter how much training time is committed, real performance improvement arises from a number of factors. Sometimes it is the intangibles — a weird combination of factors difficult to diagnose — that propel us towards performance improvements. And sometimes it is by supplementing our sport with known, yet often neglected, supporting exercises and investigations that we can go beyond what we once believed was possible. Our breathing, that thing we take for granted that we know how to do, as automatic as it is, can always be improved.
Due to years of wearing tight clothing, poor posture, weak abdominal muscles and breath holding, we tend to breathe in our upper chests, making our diaphragm and our breath weaker. This is especially true when excited, anxious, stressed… like during the morning of or in the final stages of a marathon. Most of us are not even aware of how we are breathing on a daily basis. This winter, I ran a marathon and found that towards miles 16, 17, 18, when I stopped focusing on how alone I was, on the pain that was to come and on the endless miles that were still before me and instead focused on my breathing and the lightness of my footsteps, my breathing eased and I actually picked up my pace. By refocusing on my inhalations and exhalations, making them diaphragmatic, and lifting my knees from my core, the running became effortless. My last few miles were some of the fastest of my race.
With a little practice, anyone can make deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing a habit. Breathing deeply into the lower part of the lungs, as opposed to chest breathing can help increase blood oxygenation and healing and can assist with relaxation and better mental focus. Here’s an exercise to practice that will teach you to strengthen diaphragmatic breathing.
Lying down, with your head and shoulders supported on a pillow or bolster, place hands on ribs with thumbs on the back ribs and fingers on front ribs. Breathing into the hands, especially trying to expand into the back body. Send the breath deeper, into the belly, watch and feel it expand. First send the breath to the ribs, feeling your hands expand, then into the lower belly, feeling and watching it expand. On the exhale, contact the lower belly and then feel your hands fall back together and towards the earth as the diaphragm works in pushing air from the lungs. Work hard to feel the lungs in the back of the body expand. Exhale the air out and then repeat. Fill from the top all the way down, slowly, into the lower belly and then empty from the bottom up. Do ten cycles and then repeat for 3 sets total. Continue each cycle focusing on not just resting your hands on your ribcage, but provide a bit of resistance to the lung expansion. If you like, you can use a light weight (gradually progress from 1-10 pounds of a flexible weight like a sandbag) to provide that same resistance. Once you commit to this exercise several times a week, diaphragmatic breathing will become habitual.
Julie Bergfeld is a “Master” master’s runner who lives and trains in St. Louis, Missouri. Bergfeld has run more than 20 marathons and two 50K races. She is also a Certified Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga Teacher.