Legs and breathing are far more closely related than you think, for being able to breathe efficiently means that your legs will have the ability to stay the pace. Our lungs are basically surrounded by respiratory muscles, which pull out our lungs and push them down. Our diaphragms and intercostal muscles, the ones between your ribs, are always working to help us breathe. They are just the same as our quads, calves and hams, they can get tired and they can become damaged. Whilst we can develop our leg muscles, through strength training, we can also develop the muscles we use for breathing.
For instance, here is a good yoga exercise that strengthens the diaphragm and will improve your running posture – both of which will help you to run longer with less effort. It will also stretch your intercostal muscles, will relax your shoulders and help balance breathing between your left and right lungs. Try this two or three times a week before you run :
Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent and arms at your side.
Inhale and sweep your arms up outwardly so that your biceps are near your ears with your palms facing each other. Exhale and lower your arms back down. Do this six times, making sure you concentrate on breathing deeply. Remember, when breathing in, your stomach should expand as air is drawn into your lungs and your diaphragm pushes downwards. Make a conscious effort to draw your stomach back towards your spine when breathing out as this will rid the lungs of stale air.
By breathing more deeply and becoming more aware of your breathing will be enough to help your running. Also, coordinating your in and out breathing with your foot fall will develop a strong diaphragm and a regular running rhythm. For the moment we will be running with a 2 – 2 pattern – breathing in while stepping left, right and breathing out stepping left, right. When we have got used to this rhythm we will develop to 3 – 3 pattern – breathing in on R, L, R steps and out on L, R, L steps. We’ll then go on to 4 – 4. And, don’t forget, keep your mouth open – this will keep your face more relaxed making it easier for you to breathe deeply.
So now, we are breathing in a rhythm that coincides with our stride rate, we need to concentrate on the flection (bending) of our joints as we come into land. A pronounced flection of the knee, ankle and hip at the start of the stance will extend the stance time. Remember, we need to keep our feet off the ground, for the longer our feet are in contact with the ground, our rebound will decrease. By minimising the contact, we will be able to keep on the go for longer, and faster. So cadence does count – during your running, count the number of times your right foot strikes the ground in 20 seconds – aim for 30. Don’t worry, that works out at 180 steps per minute.
We should be running tall with an upright posture with just a slight forward lean from the feet, for this will ensure an efficient forward acceleration and reduce stress on the body.
TRY IT: Stand on the balls of your feet, just less than shoulder width apart and use your abdominal muscles to control your posture for 60 seconds while keeping your balance.
Increase your knee’s range of movement during the swing phase. With your knee more bent, you will be able to move faster for less effort and you’ll encourage a faster swing time and foot turnover.
TRY IT: Stand in the push off position with your left foot forward and your right, slightly back. Lift your right knee and do a high knee lift. Do this ten times with each knee.
If your arms swing across your chest, this will produce a similar torque in your legs. By creating an equal arm swing, you will make it easier for your legs to follow a straight line path. Keep a right angle between your fore and upper arms.
TRY IT: Imagine two labels, on your running top, on the side of your ribcage about two inches below your chest. Do 50m warm up sprints, focusing on drawing your shoulders back and swinging your arms back and forth to touch the labels.
Imagine a line between your feet when you run, you need each foot to land either side of that line. If they cross it, then you’ll be landing more on the outside of your foot. This leads to excessive pronation and will add stress to your tendons and muscles.
TRY IT: Find a line on a track or football pitch and run 100m reps keeping your feet either side of the line. It’ll feel like skating where you’re pushing off to the outside.
When your foot makes contact with the ground the pressure can be up to three times your body weight with a resulting impact shock on your lower limbs. Developing your quads is fundamental to minimising the shock.
TRY IT: Keeping your arms at your side, bend at the hips and knees to lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Take three seconds to lower, hold for two seconds and take three seconds to rise. Do three sets of ten reps.
This is from when your foot is flat on the ground to the point when your knee, hip and ankle are fully extended. By improving this you achieve a faster cadence.
TRY IT: Do six, 50m repeats, high hopping on alternate legs with a walk back in between. Make sure your leg leaves the ground fully extended to the ankle.
Whatever your shape, height, size or leg length, adopt these exercises and techniques and you’ll be running more fluently and with more rhythm. Your legs and arms will be co-ordinating to give you an economical flight. You will also have much less chance of becoming injured.