Three; two; three; two; three; two. For every three steps you inhale. For every two you exhale. Up your pace and switch. Two; one. Inhale for two. Exhale for one. Want to really leg it? Then switch again. Two; one; one; one. Inhale for two; exhale; inhale; exhale.
This simple formula – outlined in Running on Air by Budd Coates & Claire Kowalchik – has transformed my running. It’s become easier and more pleasurable. I’ve ended my obsession with mileage. I’ve learned how to pace and push myself. And, fingers crossed, I’ve cut my injury risk.
Here are three lessons from Running on Air that might help you run better too:
Breathe better: Stop the press: breathing is bad for you. At least it is if you’re a runner and you’re doing it wrong, Coates argues convincingly. Turns out I’d been doing it wrong. More often than not, I exhaled when my left foot was striking the ground. Bad for two reasons, or so goes Coates’ theory: when you exhale the muscles in the diaphragm relax, destabilising the core and impairing the body’s ability to absorb impact; what’s more, studies have shown that the force of impact when a runner’s foot hits the ground, which can equal as much as three times body weight, is greatest at the point of exhalation. So, a perfect storm of increased impact and relaxed muscles for my poor old left side. Coates’ answer is simple: coordinate inhalation and exhalation in the odd/even pattern above. This means you alternate which foot hits the ground at the start of exhalation. Hey presto! You’ve halved the stress on your dominant exhalation side and cut your risk of injury.
Train smarter: That’s the theory done; now on to the practicalities. This book is hugely practical, with training plans for races of every distance from 5k up to marathon. They’re easily scalable to all fitness levels and, following a 14 day cycle, each plan contains a good mixture of long, tempo, moderate, easy and hill runs, with plenty of time for rest. Coates spells out how a mix of long and short, fast and slow runs can help build stamina and speed effectively. And, crucially, breathing rhythmically and using the copious guidance on stretching, preconditioning and strength training will lessen the chance of having to skip runs to deal with injury as the training progresses.
Forget about mileage: Time spent running is what counts when you’re training for a set distance, argues Coates, not distance travelled. In fact, a preoccupation with mileage is dangerous because it forces you to push through a given distance regardless of your own level of fitness or other factors such as the weather. Far better to set time based targets for steady runs and supplement with hill and interval training to build stamina and pace. Coates claims that by doing this the miles will come to you; as your fitness develops so will the pace you can sustain on a steady run. What’s more, I’ve found that by forgetting about distance and tuning my breathing into my pace, it’s much easier to hit that sweet spot where running becomes effortless and it feels like I can go forever. Cruising pace is the three-two pattern; hills and intervals are two-one and two-one-one-one. I’m in control. Running has suddenly gone a bit zen. I have Budd Coates to thank for that.