Breath Based Training – A Different Approach to Distance Training [ARTICLE]

Breath Based Training – A Different Approach to 

Distance Training

By: Sean Severson

Originally Published in Techniques Magazine

Provided by: USTFCCCA

Dave Miller Photo


For the past eight years, our cross country teams at Grove City College, an NCAA DIII school in western Pennsylvania, which competes in the Presidents' Athletic Conference, have been using breathing-based training. My background in athletic training partly led me to BBT. I envisioned the many different injuries, illnesses and negative psychological effects that time-based training can have on cross country runners, so I chose to stay away from it.

I compartmentalized the different areas of cross country, determining what was critical and what was not. I decided the things that were critical were the things runners did 100 percent of the time, so our program spends almost all its teaching and training time focusing on the things runners do all the time, like stepping and breathing. Runners take steps and runners breathe. I am not sure a person could find two more reoccurring aspects of distance running that we have some control over. Therefore, we put everything we have into our steps and our breaths, which means that dozens of auxiliary issues take a backseat. Knowing what kind of paces everyone should be running for their recovery, long, cool-down, etc. runs, was something I decided was not important enough to spend any time on. So, I came up with a system that fit my coaching philosophy and, I believe, stumbled onto something better than traditional training programs.

BBT is simply using our breathing pat-terns to determine our training intensity. Our workouts are pretty standard (Long Runs, Lactate Threshold Runs, VO2 Max Repeats, etc.), with the exception that we use breathing patterns instead of time to determine our intensity. BBT's basic format is an eight-step breathing pattern (4 steps exhale/4 steps inhale) for recovery runs, a six-step pattern (3 steps exhale/3 steps inhale) for threshold runs, and either a five-step (3 steps exhale/2 steps inhale) or four-step (2 steps exhale/2 steps inhale) pattern for VO2 max workouts, with breathing always trumping pace.

We focus on breathing rhythmically and on the duration of our exhales. The duration of our exhales has a direct negative correlation to our effort. The harder we are working, the shorter our exhales become. This is why we will use a 4/4 breathing guideline for our recovery runs and a 2/2 breathing guideline for our VO2 Max workouts. An eight-step breathing patterns allows for a significantly longer duration exhale than a four-step pattern does. It is important to understand that we do not take a quick inhale or exhale every (X) steps. Rather, we continue an inhale or exhale over the course of (X) steps.

Because rhythmic breathing is connected to cadence, we check the athletes' stride frequency on the first day of fall practice. We want all of our runners to be as near as possible to 180 steps per minute. We recheck spm a few more times over the next two weeks, so we know where we are all at and if we have any outliers (runners either below 170 or above 190 spm). Our guidelines of Recovery = 4/4, Threshold = 3/3, VO2 max = 3/2 & 2/2 are what we use for people with about 180 spm. Out of our 40 runners, we will usually have several outliers at the beginning of every season. For these people, we still use BBT, but we adjust their program and either add a step or take a step away to each breath depending on if they are high or low.

The duration of the exhale is the most important component of BBT, so for people above 190 spm we will adjust their breathing guidelines until we get their stride frequency under 190. We will use 4/3 instead of 3/3, 3/3 instead of 3/2, 3/2 instead of 2/2, and 2/2 instead of 2/1. For the people with stride frequencies in the 160s, we will drop them a step and make them run at 3/2 instead of 3/3, 2/2 instead of 3/2 and 2/1 instead of 2/2, while working on increasing their turnover.

Ultimately, we do not leave an outlier in the 160s or 190s spm. The adjusted breathing patterns are only temporary and for the opening workouts to make sure they are exhaling for long enough, pacing themselves and will still be standing at the end of the season. But none of that will get them to their potential if you do not get their stride fixed. That underachieving stride or turnover will add up to more time lost than what the protection of the breathing program can gain for them. We protect them with the added or subtracted step until we make the necessary progress with their stride.

We look at why they are not optimizing their stride and work towards getting closer to a stride frequency of 180. We will get a few of our outliers into the 175-185 spm range before the season ends and the rest we will get to where we need before the end of the next season. Once they get between 170 and 190 spm, I have them use our standard BBT rates just like everyone else. These runners make huge improvements, because they not only are they becoming better breathers, but also they are developing a more efficient stride.

If you use the breathing program you must know your runner's stride frequency and keep tabs on their improvements with it. When they get their stride frequency into the 170 -190 range, we give them the same guidelines that the rest of the team gets. Don't give up on their stride or turnover. We keep after them until they get near 180 spm, and often times the improvements in their stride length and frequency gain us faster times than any kinds of workouts I can provide.

I chose my method of training because I believe the pros outweigh the cons. Some of the benefits of BBT are a reduction of illness, injury, burnout and staleness, a more relaxed running state, an improved ability in delaying lactic acid buildup, more effective recovery days, optimized stride length and frequency, the opportunity to run your best at the end of the season and an increase in your ability to get air in and out of your lungs efficiently, a benefit unique to BBT. In how many other forms of training does the method of monitoring intensity itself give an added benefit? In heart rate training, the perk is becoming really good at checking heart rates. With TBT the perk is smoother pronation of whichever wrist is wearing the watch. But in BBT the "perk" is developing stronger primary and auxiliary breathing muscles. The runner actually becomes a stronger breather, which in turn makes them an even better runner. How many of us can say our method of monitoring intensity actually physically improves the athletes' running ability?

Many coaches use some form of time-based training, which usually uses pace prediction charts to give their runners a certain per-mile pace for their workouts and races. I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I do not believe in using pace prediction charts for cross country. There are just too many variables for me to feel confident that the paces given to the runners are accurate or conservative enough. What if we are training on a course that is more difficult than the one we did our baseline test on? How much time do the hills and turns and obstacles add? What if it were cool, dry and the grass was short when we ran our baseline time trial? Then it is hot, humid and the grass is long when we do our workout. Do you adjust your goal times? If so, how much? I do not know and am not comfortable risking the athlete's health by guessing.

Hydration status, mental fatigue, oncoming injury, recovering from injury, temperature, humidity, rain, snow, mud, wind, hills, falling down, caffeine, gains from improvement, etc.; all of these things and more are variables that can change from the baseline test to the actual workout. BBT takes all of these things into account and just requires each runner to run at the proper effort and intensity called for. And if it is more humid or the grass is longer or the runner is getting sick, he will probably run slower. However, he will be less likely to get injured, because BBT will protect him. Basically, BBT asks us to focus on what we can control and not to force the training. TBT runners often try to do things that their bodies are not capable of doing in certain conditions. BBT does not ask you to do anything you are not capable of doing.

That means there may be a time when a runner is still recovering from a previous race and their 3/3 is slower than normal during a threshold workout. If that is the case, we accept it. It is just slower that day, but we are still working at the correct intensity and getting better in that area of fitness. We do not force the training and make ourselves race the workout just to hit a predicted time. If we are doing a threshold workout, we just tell the runners to run 3/3 with wind and without it, on right turns and left turns, in long grass and short grass, if they are tired or fresh, if it is raining or snowing, etc. Wherever that 3/3 puts us, it puts us.

BBT makes for better workouts. By focusing on the breathing patterns and keeping a long duration exhale, you can delay the buildup of lactic acid. If the only thing you are focused on is hitting a certain time and you are not paying attention to your breathing, you will eventually pay for it. Even if you can hit your goal times, without rhythmic breathing you will accumulate unnecessary lactic acid.

The avoidance of accumulating unnecessary lactic acid also comes into play on recovery days. Remember that the duration of our exhales is the critical factor; it is what allows us to expel enough carbon dioxide to keep running at our desired pace. In theory, a runner can unknowingly accumulate more lactic acid on their "easy" days than they do on a more difficult day if they use proper breathing patterns for their "hard" workout and no rhythmic breathing for their recovery runs. Running is very social and some runners can talk for an entire recovery run. I believe that such a runner is not getting the full benefit from the day of recovery, because they are not emptying their lungs of carbon dioxide the way a 5-step, 4-step, or even a 3-step exhale can. I want my runners to have fun and be social on their recovery runs, but I also want them to recover. I advise them to talk when they want to talk, but then breathe when it is their turn to listen and their partner's turn to talk.

Not only does BBT protect runners from burnout, it also allows for "breakouts." We do not emphasize times, because they can put unneeded stress and pressure on our runners. They also can limit their performance. We have had many runners who ran faster than they thought possible, because they did not bind themselves to the barrier of a specific time. If a runner's current PR is a 17:20, but he is capable of running a 16:40, yet his goal is breaking 17:00, he may become a slave to the idea of breaking 17:00 and never reach his full potential. Times and places are benchmarks to be used by us, not for us to be used by them. What if our best effort isn't fast enough? Will we be failures? If we idolize that specific time it does. But if we humble ourselves and just focus on what we can control (like our steps and breathing) we will have peace of mind and self-satisfactiontion in knowing we tried to become the best we were capable of becoming. Why hold a runner to a predetermined workout time based on a race they ran in the past? With BBT the runner is allowed to reach his potential in every workout and is not bound to previous expectations. BBT opens the door for "breakouts."

Another benefit of BBT is that the rhythmic breathing has a calming effect to it and keeps the runners from tensing up and wasting excess energy. It also gives the runners something purposeful to do and focus on during their workouts, instead of worrying about their time, place or other things out of their control. Think about the psychological benefits of this training. It leads to less dread, anxiety and burnout. Knowing that you must hit a certain time can be stressful. Focusing on what you can control, obeying the breathing guidelines, and just letting your times fall where they may takes a lot of pressure off and make the experience more enjoyable. Our retention rates are evidence of it. We have graduated 31 seniors in the past two years, which is very good for a school our size.

BBT is a great way to set a standard and get everyone on the same page. For example, I can simply say, "Today is a 3/3 day for everyone," and after practice the 10th runner and the top runner can both know that they worked as hard as the other. With BBT, the top runners do not look down at the runners that are running two minutes slower, because that is where their 75 percent or 80 percent or whatever the prescribed intensity for that day, puts them. No. 10 is working just as hard as No. 1, he is just slower. BBT fosters an atmosphere of mutual respect and admiration. For many runners, the social aspect of being on a team can be every bit as rewarding as the competitive aspect. I have seen first-hand the positive team-building and social influence BBT can have.

However, as with any program, part of the coach's challenge is getting the athletes to buy into what you are trying to do. Our former runners and upperclassmen recognize the value of BBT. But some freshmen struggle with it, because it is new for them. Inevitably, it is new for every runner I coach, which means I have to teach it to and get every single runner to buy into it. For some it comes easy, but a few do struggle with it. It may take a few weeks, but we believe so much in BBT that we are willing to go through those growing pains. Once they do buy in and make it their own, the sky is the limit.

Another thing a BBT coach must emphasize and work on is the 3/2 (three steps exhale to two steps inhale) breathing pattern. Some runners initially aren't very skilled at this breathing pattern. Most do fine with 4/4, 3/3 and 2/2, but many struggle with 3/2 and can only hold a decent 3/2 pace for a brief period before they need to go 2/2. Our freshmen often struggle with 3/2, so we drill 3/2 a lot early in the season. Coincidently, this works fine for us and our upperclassmen, because it is during the early part of the season when we use 3/2 in our VO2 Max workouts.

We have had significant success using BBT with our cross country teams at Grove City College. In the past decade we have won 16 conference championships, had an Olympic Trials Qualifier, three NCAA All-Americans, 12 National Qualifiers and 131 All-PAC Runners. But more important than those facts is the reality that our runners are allowed to reach their potential and have a fun and positive experience with BBT.

In addition to all of the benefits and improvements the athletes receive from BBT, we use it because we believe it is the simplest and most time-efficient way to train a large group of athletes. I coach 40 runners by myself. I always have great student-managers and captains, but I am the only coach. I am also a full-time assistant professor, an advisor and the assistant men's basketball coach, as well as a husband and a father. Trying to predict what our runners' goal paces should be for a specific workout, on a specific course, with a specific temperature, humidity, fatigue level, etc. is something I do not have time for and probably would not be very good at. I think BBT would be great for any cross country coach, but particularly for someone that is either new to cross country, is coaching beginning runners, has a wide range of ability levels on their team or has a too many runners for the number of coaches on staff.

BBT does not need to be used exclusively by beginning coaches or by people coaching beginning runners. We get great results from it in every range of ability level we see, including our absolute best athletes. In the past decade we have had at least six female runners run 6k times between 21:30 - 22:10. None of those runners ran a faster correlating 5k time prior to college, and in some cases, were almost two minutes slower than their 6k pace in high school. BBT certainly didn't keep our best runners from reaching their potential, and I do not think it would keep other teams' best runners from reaching theirs.

Sean Severson is the Head Men's and Women's Cross Country Coach at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania The GCC women's team has won the Presidents' Athletic Conference title in each of his eight years and the men have won six conference crowns in that span.

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14 Sep 2016

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