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More than one way to inhale and exhale…
Linda Marsa
LA Times Staff Writer

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Some marathoners rely on a breathing pattern, one that corresponds to their footsteps, to give them an edge during competition. Others use yoga-inspired exercises or a hypnotic inhalation and exhalation. Whatever the breathing technique, someone somewhere swears by it.

Although there's no consensus on the best approach, both coaches and veteran marathoners say breathing the right way can help runners avoid cramps or prevent them from getting winded early in the race.

Athletes are always trying to get into "the zone -- that peak state where everything clicks," says Bill Lockton, a 54-year-old Santa Monica ultra-marathoner. He, for one, breathes deeply through his nose, instead of his mouth.

Initially, it was difficult, he says, because he felt as if he were suffocating. Gradually, however, as the practice became more natural, he felt energized and his performance improved. "This did that for me -- and changed running from a chore into a breathing meditation," he says.

Ian Jackson, a Dallas-based fitness consultant and inventor of a technique called BreathPlay, prefers a specific pattern to his exhalations. Most people fall into a 2-2 breathing pattern, in which they inhale while stepping left foot, right foot, then exhale while stepping left foot, right foot. But Jackson says that when the same foot hits the pavement each time upon exhaling, it puts extra stress on that side and strains the ankles, knees and hips. Altering your stride, by inhaling for three steps and exhaling for three steps, he says, "will automatically balance each side of the body and prevent one-sided injuries."

Veteran marathoner Sharlene Wills relies on a yoga trick to help her breathe. "I put my thumb and third finger together to make a circle," says the West Los Angeles woman. "Somehow, that relaxes my body, and I can take deeper breaths."

On race day, concentrating on breathing can help runners get into a comfortable rhythm and avoid an adrenaline-fueled start, which can trigger hyperventilation and the dreaded "runner's stitch," some coaches say. And during the race, make sure your breathing doesn't become too shallow, they add.

"It's easy to get sucked up in the enthusiasm of the race, and run the fastest mile you've ever run in your life and pay for it later," says Conrad Earnest, a research director at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. "Controlling your breathing can help you relax and not expend extra energy."

Pat Connelly, the official training coach for the Los Angeles Marathon, recommends that runners do the following every half-mile: "Open up the lungs by taking 2 to 3 deep breaths -- really force air into the lungs, and spread out the rib cage. At the same time, drop down the arms and really shake them out."

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