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Breathing with a Purpose: Breathing Techniques for Endurance Athletes

Cross-country running is definitely a sport that relies on endurance. When talking about athletics, endurance refers to the capacity of the body to continually perform during exercise. For example, someone who can continuously run for 10 miles has more running endurance than someone who gets tired after 2 miles. Having better endurance does not necessarily mean that you can sprint faster than someone, but simply means that your muscles and cardiovascular system hold up longer while under physical strain. Some individuals may have better running endurance than others because of training regimen, genetics, or physique. Additionally, endurance athletes who know how to breath in a specific way that increases oxygen uptake by muscles often find that they have improved endurance.

Breathing is obviously something that all of us need to do in order to live. Most people don’t it much more thought than “in-out-in-out-in-out, etc.”. If you are a cross-country runner, it is wise to give breathing some more attention. Breathing provides the oxygen that muscles require when they are working hard. When you take short breaths and don’t fully inhale, your lungs are not expanding to their fullest capacity. Therefore not providing your body with the premium amount of oxygen. During cross-country running, your muscles need a lot of oxygen because they are working continuously for a longer amount of time than most other sports. Therefore, it is important to practice diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing”, daily.

Your diaphragm is the primary muscle involved in breathing. It is dome shaped and expands along the underside of your ribs. When you inhale, it extends DOWNWARD towards your belly. When you exhale, it contracts UPWARD back towards the center of your ribcage. Here is a video highlighting the diaphragm as the primary breathing muscle:

You can imagine the trajectory of the diaphragm during shallow breaths and deep breaths. It will presumably descend further down into the stomach during a deep breath where more air is being inhaled, than during a shallow breath with less air inhalation. This is where the term “belly breathing” originates. You are essentially expanding your diaphragm as far into your belly as possible in order to provide your muscles with the utmost amount of oxygen.

Here is a simple way to practice belly breathing (provided by Runner’s World):

  1. Lie down on your back.

  2. Keep your upper chest and shoulders still. 

  3. Focus on raising your belly as you inhale.

  4. Lower your belly as you exhale.

  5. Inhale and exhale through both your nose and mouth.

An additional drill that can be performed before a race, practice, or at any point throughout the day (provided by Greenfield Fitness Systems):

  1. Imagine your lungs as a tire around your entire body, surrounding the front, back and sides of your torso (in this case, a spare tire is a good thing).

  2. Utilizing the breathing pattern discussed above, draw in a steady breath to the count of three.

  3. Hold the breath for a three count, but try to stay as relaxed as possible while holding the breath. Think of it as being “suspended” in your body, and not “held”.

  4. Now, breathe out, deeply and slowly from the stomach, to the count of five.

  5. Wait for a three count.

  6. Repeat the entire pattern 3-5 times.

For extensive information on rhythmic and diaphragmatic breathing, see here:

For additional breathing drills, see here:

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