Breathing, your diaphragm and strength training

Is it your legs or lungs that give out first when you are running?

It used to be a combination for me, but lately it’s swayed towards my lungs. I find that my legs feel as though they could run forever (obviously not if I’m sprinting) but my lungs just can’t suck enough air in. On a run the other day I recalled how Mo Farah’s face looked at the end of the Great North Run…mouth wide open, gulping in air as he pushed his body to the limit seeking that first place finish. You could see him desperately trying to get more air in, breathing heavily – his body trying to push the oxygen around to feed the muscles. Now, while I can’t sprint like Mo, I can, on a very much lower level, relate with the way I imagine his body is feeling as he pushes in the race.

I’m aware that to get stronger I need to train the muscles in my body. It goes without saying that if you want to be quicker, you need to be stronger. It doesn’t matter whether or not you do any strength conditioning as part of your training. The fact is that running alone will get you stronger, faster, more efficient and better. However, there will be a plateau at some point. For some people that level is what they want to achieve. Brilliant. Any activity is better than none and I have nothing but admiration for everyone who puts in effort to better themselves.

So what’s my point? Well, to return to my original thought that provoked this blog, the traditional line of thinking is that running is a sport which uses your legs. And it is. But you also use your arms, your torso (think core muscles), and very importantly you have to breathe.

How do you breathe?

It’s all to do with pressure and the movement of muscles, including your diaphragm. I’m not going to go into the actual mechanisms of it, the twinterneb is full of information you can find for yourself if you’re interested. The key is that you use a muscle to breathe – your diaphragm.

So as you sit there reading this, have you ever thought about training your diaphragm?

I reckon the answer is “no”. You might also be thinking “how do I do that” or “I had never thought of that” or even, “why would I do that” (I hope I answered that last question in the previous paragraph).

For me, it’s an ongoing project. I have very mild asthma. It doesn’t really affect me (anymore). But I do wonder if it is an underlying reason why my breathing is sometimes quite erratic, or takes a significant amount of time to settle down when I’m running. I’ve been told that some of the issues to do with my potential-less-than-efficient breathing is because I might not exhale properly. Apparently a common issue for asthmatics.

So what am I doing about this?

Three things.

1. I’m learning to breathe out against resistance. And having fun doing it because the best way to do this if you don’t swim twice a day (and therefore have the handy opportunity to practice breathing out underwater) is to blow up balloons. (oh, and they make a fabulous sound as you let them go without tying them up!).

2. I’m learning to breathe in against resistance (and use the correct muscles to do so). I’m using a Powerbreathe tool/instrument and breathe in through the mouthpiece…the way the device works means that I have to (i.e. my diaphragm has to) work harder to suck in air. It has an incremental sliding scale of difficulty and I’m still mastering the basic/easy level.

3. I’m belly breathing regularly. Not breathing by lifting my shoulders and using my shoulder/neck muscles. I’m engaging my diaphragm and using it as we all did properly when we were children. It takes conscious effort and I find it best to practice when I’m not concentrating on anything else. This links in with my first learning point, where I use my diaphragm to push air out, instead of just using air in my mouth.


Now, you might question why I’m training my diaphragm on the exhalation phase of breathing. Well. During normal quiet breathing (when we’re not exerting our cardiovascular system) the diaphragm just relaxes and air is naturally pushed out. But, start running, push your body a little, and that system needs some help. The faster or more efficiently you can breathe out, the quicker you’ll be getting more oxygen in. That’s explaining it very simply, but I hope you get the idea.

Think about your core muscles a little too. I reckon most people when asked which are their core muscles would say they are your abdominals. Well you’d be right. Specifically, this includes your transversus abdominus, internal and external obliques and rectus abdominus. But that’s mostly focused on the muscles at the front of the body, and we do not exist in just one dimension. Also included in your main core muscles are the multifidus (deep spinal muscles that stabilise the joints), erector spinae (a complex muscle group that spans the entire spine), your pelvic floor (working to maintain intra-abdominal pressure) and….your diaphragm.

So why am I explaining this? Mainly because I want you to be aware that breathing well, breathing better, isn’t just about how your diaphragm is working. It’s linked to core function and stability. I’m hoping that by becoming better at breathing and improving my core muscle conditioning I will be able to push a little harder on runs before I get to the point that my breathing is laboured. It will never get easier…I just hope to get more efficient and stronger, and therefore fatigue at a later point.



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