I have always been fascinated by how the human body moves. And I have at times paid attention to how someone else moves more so than how I move. Coach’s curse I guess.

For the most part when I watch athletes perform – whether in training or racing (form in one predicts form in the other), I no longer look for form in the obvious sense.

What I look for when I observe athletes is not how textbook they look; I don’t so much care about their perfect symmetry of movement, I care more about one thing: how they are breathing.

If someone is slouched  over their bike and rocking from side to side then it’s pretty obvious that their form has diminished and they are struggling to maintain. That is usually the end of a steady decline – that last stages of a demise that really could have been avoided. To an extent.

We say it time and time again that this is a sport of attrition. Not necessarily between you and everyone else racing but you and yourself; it’s about minimising the damage and delaying the undeniably inevitable. There isn’t a separation of the mental physical here because they interrelate with one another as the body searches for “balance”.

So with that game of attrition, comes the need to stay in control of the situation – your body, being the ultimate machine that it is, is well-equipped to of this. It’s that symbiotic control over all of your systems that allows you stay in “form” and continue to maintain this under duress.

The rocking body on the bike, the hunched shoulders on the run or the twisted swim stroke are all tell-tale signs of form slipping under this duress, and yes some of these are trainable, or at least  a level of form can be developed through specific conditioning here.

But what is ultimately happening – before the obvious signs – is a body under demand that is greater than the ability to maintain. The demands become too great on the muscles and the body begins to struggle to efficiently remove Co2 in time to replace with oxygen. It is many spinning plates and if one plate spins too fast while another begins to slow then things begin to fall apart very quickly.

The more you breathe the more C02 you produce. The more inefficiently you breathe, the less efficient you are at clearing Co2 and getting oxygen into the bloodstream. Starve those working muscles long-enough, without reprieve, and the brain will send the signals to start slowing down.

What you experience, or display, is a highly inefficient breathing pattern that is either two fast or slow to maintain maximum output of C02 and maximum input of oxygen.

So when I am looking at athletes perform and watching their breathe rate, I can see – with a degree of accuracy – who is going well, and who is starting to crack. The tell-the signs are there for sure.

Earlier this year as KM and I rode alongside the front of the AG race, I watched closely as to who was in control of their breathing and who wasn’t. The guys that hit the podium all ran with great efficiency – optimal breathing and optimal stride rates – not necessarily “perfect” posture.

The guys that faded in the latter parts of the marathon, all started the first 15km’s or so with very uneven and irregular breathing patterns and you could see this affecting not only their ability to maintain efficient running but also speed. Things got worse, not better. And that’s not to say that the guys running well weren’t breathing hard – of course they were. But they were doing so more efficiently than the others.

Breathing is often overlooked as a Trainable aspect of endurance conditioning. It is easy to get caught up on cleverly designed program’s, graphs data, and neglect to focus on the mechanics that re actually driving the body.

Athletes of ALL abilities need to pay attention to what their body is doing. Not just the guys at the front-end – in fact it could be argued that it is even more vital for constant  feedback for “slower” athletes  as they do not have the same conditioning as faster athletes.

All athletes, however, have the ability to consciously monitor their environment and subsequently make adjustments to suit what they are trying to do.

This really means listening to the body. It’s a bit hard to “hear” your heart rate when swimming riding or running, and constantly looking at a screen or display is a huge distraction, but you can pay very close attention to your breathe rate.

Is it rhythmic. Is it “one-sided”. Is it at a level that I can sustain whilst holding this effort?
This is the constant feedback that you should be asking of yourself and it is something that we encourage our athletes to be; intuitive.

The feedback on your watch is great for retrospective  feedback and comparison, but the it is nowhere near as vital as the direct feedback that your breathing can provide you, as inefficiencies here provide the precursors for slowing down later on.

You can condition your ability to breathe regular and efficient patterns under all forms of duress – from easy, warm up efforts, all the way through to all out maximum exertions.

Why?

To hold greater form under greater duress of course.

Breathing super efficiently when under little strain isn’t all that hard, but is also not a given.  breathing efficiently (meeting the demands of the body) when running at race pace is hard and takes dedicated focus in training to master.

Start with awareness, listen to the body and get a measure on what happens when you are in each stage of your efforts. Use that reflective process to then establish a rhythm that suits your effort.

Obviously there are other areas that play a role in your ability to race at your desired effort, but don’t ignore the need for efficient breathing.

To get an idea of how you can do this check out Friday Fat Black Episode #26  for some great information on the science of breathing form Dr. Andrew Sellers. There’s also another blog from a few months back.

Coach Pete