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Take a Deep Breath

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Maybe it's because running is so quantifiable, but most runners I know love "magic bullets." We want to improve -- it's why we run in the first place -- and we'll typically try anything (within reason) that might help us run more miles or faster times. Also, many of us become injured at one point or another. We loathe injuries, because they usually mean we have to stop running. So most of us will grasp at any straw to cure them -- or better yet, prevent them from plaguing us in the first place. We switch shoes, or put orthotics in them, or take them off entirely. We dunk ourselves in ice baths. We sleep in socks that peel our toes back like the pop-tops on old soda cans. We torture ourselves on foam rollers and Pilates "reformers." We gobble fish oil!

So how ironic that amid all the attention we pay to that stuff, the magic bullet may be the thing we think about least and perhaps even take for granted: how we breathe. Budd Coates, who cowrote Running on Air, certainly thinks so.

The senior director of health and fitness at Rodale, our parent company, Coates believes that synchronizing your breathing with your footfalls, and alternating which foot strikes the ground with every exhalation, will help you run better and avoid injuries. He told me about "rhythmic breathing" last summer, when I was in the running doldrums, battling hamstring and hip-flexor issues. I experimented with his 3:2 variation, inhaling for three strides and exhaling for two. Try it. It's hard to inhale for a full three count. Once I got it down, though, I realized how much more oxygen I was taking in -- undeniably a good thing.

Over time, I also saw how the meditative rhythm of matching my breaths to my strides took me out of my own head and "into the zone" more quickly and consistently. And yes, my injuries subsided. Whether that was my breathing or all the other things I was doing (massage therapy, foam roller, etc.) is hard to say. I do know that I used Coates' technique to finish the Marine Corps Marathon in October, on very little training. At the more serious end of the spectrum, Kathleen Jobes, an RW colleague who's training to break 17 minutes in the 5K, says rhythmic breathing has improved her pacing. "It's reined me in," she says. "I was going out too fast, running too hard, too often. Now I'm not hurting myself, and I'm training harder than ever."

If you're dubious of magic bullets, multiple studies have shown that breath-training improves endurance and that exhaling on alternate left-right footstrikes helps reduce injuries. And Coates' cred is clear. He ran in four Olympic marathon trials, from 1984 to 1996, and holds a PR of 2:13. In April 2011, he ran 2:47 in Boston, joining a rarefied club of those with sub-three-hour marathons in five straight decades. He has coached thousands of runners, from beginners to advanced. He has a degree in exercise physiology, a restlessly innovative mind, and a passion for getting people running and helping them stay healthy.

Coates isn't saying you've been breathing wrong all this time. But if you try his method, there's a good chance you'll learn to breathe better. I don't buy into snake-oil shortcuts (or condone using PEDs). But I like the possibility that magic bullets exist, and searching for them leads me to try lots of different things, often at the same time. What I've learned is this: Everything in my life is better when I run. Whatever helps me do that is all the magic I need.

David Willey, Editor-in-Chief
@DWilleyRW

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