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The other day as I ran on the treadmill I watched my reflection in the gym windows. With each step of my right foot, my right shoulder dipped a little. Seems natural, right? Except I didn’t notice the same dip of my left shoulder when I landed with my left foot. I started wondering if I had some sort of leg length discrepancy or other imbalance that made me impact heavily on the right side. Then I read the new book Running on Air by Budd Coates and Claire Kowalchik. The authors explained that when a runner’s foot hits the ground, the force of impact is two to three times the runner’s body weight. Research shows that that impact stress is greatest when the footstrike takes place as the runner starts to exhale. Many runners breathe in a 3-3 or 2-2 pattern, breathing in for a count of 3 and out for a count of 3, which means that the exhalation coincides with the footstrike of the same foot, over and over again. For me and many other runners, that happens to be the right foot. No wonder the impact appeared greater on my right side!

In Runner’s World Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter, the authors recommend a 3-2 breathing pattern, switching to a 2-1 as the runner’s effort increases. This rhythmic breathing method distributes the footstrike impact of exhalation evenly between the left foot and the right foot, and helps the runner achieve stability and centeredness. The hope is that that then leads to a reduced risk of injury.

With the above explanation, you’ve gotten the core premise of the book and you could go out on your next easy or moderate run and practice the 3-2 pattern, inhaling for a count of three steps and exhaling for a count of 2. Who should buy the book then? Runners of all levels and abilities can benefit from reading the entire text, but I want to highlight a few groups in particular who might get the most out of it:

  • Beginning runners who haven’t “gotten over the hump” — who feel like every run leaves them out of breath and disappointed with their performance.
  • Runners with asthma.
  • Intermediate to advanced runners who have hit a plateau or gotten tired of focusing on pace on a GPS watch or heart rate on a heart rate monitor. Rhythmic breathing provides immediate feedback without the need for any fancy technology. It allows you to make every run a “success” no matter your pace or distance, because you’ve run for the prescribed length of time at the prescribed Rhythmic Breathing Effort.

The book guides the reader through some belly breathing exercises to work the diaphragm to its potential and allow the lungs to fill to their largest volume of air. It lays out several beginning, intermediate and advanced running plans for race distances from 5K to the full marathon. (As I said above, the plans are based on time and effort, not pace and distance. It also follows a 14-day training cycle. I can tell you that as I’ve trained for my second marathon with a pace-based training plan, I’ve been a little frustrated and disappointed when I couldn’t hit the pace for a particular run. So while it would take a leap of faith for me to follow a Running on Air plan based on Rhythmic Breathing Effort, I’m intrigued by the idea).

The book also has chapters on hill running, racing, strength training and stretching. While I found those chapters valuable, the real gold nugget of the book remains the 3-2 and 2-1 breathing pattern and the explanations of how to incorporate those patterns into your running. I’ve given it a try on several training runs. I can do it but it still takes a lot of mental concentration and focus on my footstrikes to do it. I can see how rhythmic breathing would easily become more natural over time, and it could help a runner achieve a meditative state on a run. For now, I will use the breathing method to check in with myself during a run, to alternate the footstrike occasionally, and to give myself a boost of oxygen as my effort increases.

Have you read Running on Air? Do you focus on your breathing when you run?

Disclosure: I received an advance digital copy of this book for review. I did not receive other compensation. If you want to buy the book through the Amazon links in this post at no additional cost to you, that would net me a whole 50 cents or so, which I would gladly accept but I can promise you that’s not enough to bribe me into writing an overly positive review. That would take like $100. Kidding.

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