We’re all likely to have had to interrupt our training at one time or other because an unpleasant stabbing sensation in our chest has made breathing an absolute torture with every step. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent among beginners and occasional joggers, and is usually due to breathing the wrong way, or at least doing it not exactly right. But what can we actually do to avoid getting a stitch and how does a deliberate approach to breathing in and out affect your general running performance?
The lungs are the natural tank of the body’s engine
Our bodies need oxygen if we are to give running or other sports our all. After all, oxygen pretty much serves as the body’s gaseous fuel, allowing its engine to get properly running. As such, we might picture our lungs as a tank that needs to be topped up regularly. Lung volume varies between three and six litres, depending on the person’s sex, height and weight. Endurance athletes and top runners sometimes have a lung capacity that is far above the average. And no wonder, as you need as large a lung capacity as possible to absorb enough oxygen. Air itself contains only about 20% oxygen; it consists largely of nitrogen.
People who have recently taken up running often get out of breath quickly, as they are not using their available lung capacity efficiently enough. This is mostly due to an incorrect breathing technique, which means that the body is almost continuously under-supplied and therefore constantly pushed to its limit, at least in terms of oxygen supply. For the most part, we only use the upper part of our chest to breathe in and out, leaving a large portion of our available lung capacity unused. What’s more, such breathing tends to be unconscious and inefficient. By contrast, deep abdominal breathing requires much more attention, with the positive side effect that air stays in the lungs for longer, allowing more oxygen to be absorbed. In order to practise conscious breathing, try lying on the floor at home, with a hand on your stomach. Breathe in and out as deeply as possible, so that your hand goes as far up and down as you can manage.
A catch-all solution for stitches – does such a thing exist?
If you’re looking for a solution to stitches, you’ll come across plenty of different recommendations and breathing techniques. From breathing in for two paces and out for three paces to breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, people have all sorts of fixes. Ultimately, however, you’ll have to find the way of using your lung volume to the max that works best for you. In addition to targeted abdominal and diaphragmatic breathing, such techniques also include breathing out powerfully and fully, which ensures that air that has already been used is removed from the lungs in the form of carbon dioxide, creating space for new oxygen. This is a process that becomes increasingly important as you step up the intensity of your training, when you can no longer guarantee that breathing through your nose will be sufficient.
Distance runners in particular should go at a slow pace in order to hone their own breathing techniques. This allows your senses to focus more on correct breathing, without losing your rhythm. The ability to hold a conversation with your running partner is a good indication that you’re going at the right pace. If you can no longer carry on chatting during a gentle training session, that’s a sign that you’re definitely doing something wrong. You’ll also need to practise deliberately breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. In other words, everyone should not only identify which breathing technique works best for them, but also know how to actually put this into practice, so that your engine doesn’t start to stutter next time you’re attempting a final spurt.