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A Look at Proper Breathing and Side Stitches While Running

It is something most of us do without thinking, yet never are we more aware of it than when we are running, cramping up, stressed out, singing, yelling or swimming.

Often underestimated, breathing plays a critical role in allowing us to maintain optimal health by delivering oxygen to various cells within our body while at the same time removing unwanted waste (mainly in the form of carbon dioxide). The oxygen we breathe in also plays a key role in cellular respiration, which is the process our cells use to retrieve energy stored in carbohydrates, fats and proteins, thus aiding in the proper function of our circulatory system [source]. Learning to employ proper breathing techniques may further aid us not only as we participate in sporting events but also when we have to deal with stressful situations or crises in our lives.

While the importance of breathing is something that spans countless areas, this particular article will focus on breathing as it pertains to runners.

How do I breathe? Why is it important?

The more oxygen you breathe into your body, the more nourishment your cells get. Without the proper amount of oxygen, your cells become deprived and weakened, leading to improper metabolism and dealing a major blow to your immunity, while increasing your likelihood of becoming more susceptible to illness and (in extreme cases) death.  Sufficiently oxygenated blood translates into the ability to think more clearly, make better decisions and exercise more efficiently.

As someone who is trying to achieve the maximum performance potential out of your running, you want those cells to have as much oxygen as possible. Therefore, it is important to make sure that when you breathe in, you are doing so through both your mouth as well as your nose. This will send more oxygen into your bloodstream, providing your cells with the nutrients that they need.

8 Benefits of better breathing

  1. Reduces respiratory difficulties, thus possibly lessening your dependence on inhalers, etc.
  2. Improves blood circulation
  3. Increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout your body, particularly your brain as well as muscles and bones
  4. Improves digestion
  5. Reduces swelling in your body (aka: edema) because fluid is actually released each time you breathe!
  6. Increases ability to recover faster from stress
  7. Relieves and reduces occurrences of muscle spasms as well as tension
  8. Gives you more energy!

Breathing and Side Stitches

Another word for a side stitch is a muscle spasm; and as you may have already guessed, muscle spasms are typically brought about by problems related directly to breathing. Humorously, it is also breathing that relieves side stitches. In order to relieve a side stitch, slow down whatever it is you are doing and focus on taking FULL, DEEP BREATHS. You may also want to slowly rotate your upper body in a circle, beginning at the hip socket. This will help relax and stretch out the muscles surrounding your diaphragm and abdomen . You should avoid shallow breathing or short breaths at all costs.

To prevent side stitches, you can try one or any of the following:

  • Focus on breathing more deeply while running (or performing whatever exercise you may be doing).
  • Avoid eating anything immediately before exercising. For runners, this may vary, but try to give yourself at least 2-3 hours inbetween eating and going for a run/workout.
  • Drink more fluids. The majority of your body is comprised of water. Keep this in mind and stay hydrated; if you’re thirsty, it’s too late.
  • Stretch. As much as most of us hate stretching, it is an important part of injury prevention. Spend at least 15 minutes before and no less than 10 minutes afterwards.

Exercises to try for better breathing

“No Breaths”

No Breaths is an exercise that I used to do in high school. It simply consists of holding your breath and running as fast as you can until you can no longer hold your breath. This exercise was typically done in combination with barefoot running on a grass field, the point being that you work on your lung capacity as well as your running form.

“Breathing Retraining”

  • Position yourself on your back with knees bent.
  • Place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest.
  • Relax your abs and inhale slowly through your nose. You should feel your abs expand as your diaphragm contracts.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth while pursing your lips (like whistling). You should feel your abs tighten.
  • Repeat. For each inhalation, your exhalations should be twice as long [source].

“Cadence Running”

When I was in the police academy, one of the things that we would often do was cadence running. This simply involved jogging along to a rhythm provided by someone in our academy calling out a string of words (sort of like a song) which we would then have to repeat. Part of the point was to keep all of us running on the same foot (sort of like marching), but part of it also helped us with our breathing.

You don’t have to be in the military or in the police academy to practice a little cadence running. For many runners, it’s as simple as using an Mp3 player. However, I recommend simply paying attention to your body while you are running. Find a comfortable running rhythm and then time your breaths in and out according to the steps you are taking. For example, you might run 4 steps while taking a deep breath in; and then on your next four steps, you would breathe out. This video does an awesome job explaining breathing techniques in this regard.

Deeper breathing for deeper benefits

To sum up, breathing is an extremely valuable (if not significant) part of any runner’s regimen. If you ever feel your breathing becoming shallow or if you experience extreme difficulty breathing while running, slow down and take it easy. Think about your running form. Are you carrying your arms too high? Are you slapping your feet because you’re tired? Are you feeling winded because you decided to down that bag of Cheetos right before practice? Are you stressed because of a personal issue?

Once you’ve sorted it out, relax, take a deep breath and press on.

 Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself. – Carla Melucci Ardito




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