Let’s review the anatomy of a breath. Photograph: Sta-gur Karlsson/Getty Images/Vetta
Good running is about more than just leg muscles: those that power your breath can be just as important. A physiotherapist explains how good posture will help you get more from your running.
We all know it's important to focus on your skeletal muscles when it comes to training; but it's easy to forget that running is also about the muscles that power your breath. Great running is achieved when you can efficiently pump oxygenated blood around your body and expel waste products quickly. Good lung capacity equals deeper breaths, efficient oxygen transfer and, ultimately, improved running performance, and your posture has a direct impact on your ability to do this well.
Let's review the anatomy of a breath: a dome-shaped muscle called the diaphragm sits under your ribs and powers your inspiration and expiration " a bit like a plunger elevating and depressing to inflate and deflate the lungs. Other muscles assist the diaphragm; the muscles between your ribs (called the intercostals) open and close the ribcage, and the scalene muscles elevate the ribcage; all working together to enhance your breath. You breathe in, the diaphragm pushes down, creating space for the lungs to fill, the intercostals help to expand and compress the ribs as the lungs fill and empty. Lovely oxygenated blood pumps around your body to those hardworking muscles, powering you along the pavement. So, the bigger the lungs, the better the breath, right? Not quite.
In order for the lungs to inflate fully, the ribcage needs to be upright and "open". If you slump and the ribcage sits forward, and "closed", it follows that the lungs don't have adequate room to expand, and the diaphragm and other breathing muscles must work harder. Now extrapolate this into your run "... legs pumping, eyes watching the pavement whizz by, shoulder blades slowly rounding forward as you begin to fatigue; the breath gets harder, and shallow, and a sharp pain starts in your side.
Good news though: you can change this. The muscles that support the ribcage are voluntary " which means you can control and train them to hold your ribcage in the right place. Little lungs can perform just as well as the big "uns. So when your mum told you to stand up straight when you were younger, she was right. Research has shown that slumped posture has a direct negative impact on lung capacity, so it's worth your while to train good posture to get a better breath.
As a physiotherapist, people often come to me with shoulder, neck and thorax pain related to their running, often the result of poor technique " not in their legs, but in their shoulders and upper back. So you want to breathe better? Let's talk about some simple ways you can achieve this.
Improve your scapula stabiliser endurance
Simple exercises on the mat and using a theraband are perfect for improving posture. Try bent over rows with high reps of about 15-20. Focus on good neck and ribcage alignment, and deep steady breathing during the movement. Posture holds lying on your stomach are hard work and, with the pressure of the floor against your chest, create some resistance, further training your postural and respiratory muscles.
Improve the flexibility of your spine
Keeping the joints around the ribcage and spine flexible makes it easier for your muscles to hold you in a good position. Simple rotation stretches of the thorax (especially before and after a run) are like little injections of lubricant into your joints. Try the open book stretch and gentle lumbar rotations.
Improve your core strength
The core muscles attach to the bottom of the ribcage, helping to stabilise it while you run. Try functional core exercises that involve the upper body, like the mountain climbers and thread the needle. Focus on deep, steady breathing to really work those respiratory muscles.
As with any new skill, achieving good posture takes time, practice and a good instructor. Poor breathing as a result of poor posture has far reaching effects into mood, energy and the neck and shoulders. The great news is simple exercises will go a long way to improving lung capacity, and your run.
Elise Lenssen is a physiotherapist and the director of Project Posture.