Most runners rush through a few quick stretches at the end of a workout without giving too much attention to breathing and technique. Many apply the same strategy they do to their cardio session and think that the harder and deeper they stretch, the better their flexibility will ultimately be. Unfortunately, this strategy usually results in breath holding and a greater chance of injury.
Proper breathing while stretching relaxes the body, increases circulation, and helps get rid of lactic acid build-up. Essentially it can fast track recovery and flexibility.
The role of breathing
Breathing isn’t just about sucking in oxygen. Correct breathing allows for the exchange of essential gases for efficient energy production, and it also helps the body and mind relax by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax).
Dysfunctional breathing and holding the breath disrupts the essential levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide and triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight), and increase muscle tension; the exact opposite of what stretching is trying to achieve.
By concentrating on breathing, you’ll begin to increase body awareness, relax the muscles and it allows you to ease into a new range of motion.
How to breathe whilst stretching
Focus on slow and diaphragmatic breathing when stretching.
The diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for breathing. It’s a thin dome-shaped muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. The muscle attaches at the lower rib cage at the sides, the sternum at the front and the spine at the back.
Each time you inhale, the diaphragm contracts, pressing down on your internal organs and blood vessels to allow the lungs to expand and fill with air. The belly should gently rise to make room for the organs that have been compressed.
When you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and lifts, the lungs empty and contract and the belly falls.
- To begin the stretch, inhale slowly through the nose, allowing your belly to rise and your lung cavity to expand. Try to keep the upper chest still and the shoulders relaxed.
- Exhale slowly out the nose as you deepen into the stretch. The belly will fall and the rib cage will contract.
- Try to make the exhale longer than the inhale.
- Closing the eyes can help eliminate distractions and focus your attention on your breathing.
Whilst the aim is to breathe deeply into the belly, it doesn’t need to be a big breath. The reality is that muscles don’t need an abundance of oxygen to stretch, they simply need the regular and slow rhythm of diaphragmatic breathing to relax and feel safe enough to stretch.
Hold each stretch for 30sec or more ensuring a regular slow and deep breath.
Want to learn more about stretching and improving your flexibility and mobility? Download my e-book ‘Stretching & Yoga – A guide for the everyday athlete’