For years, coaches and trainers have been telling clients and athletes to stand up tall to catch their breath, even suggesting they put their hands overhead. Our natural inclination is to bend at the waist with our hands on our knees as we huff and puff after a tough run, a position often seen as “weak” or “lazy” by coaches.
But fear not: New research suggests a bent-over position actually helps you recover faster between intense bouts of exercise when compared to an upright position. Runners rejoice!
A study published by the American College of Sports Medicine looked at two different recovery postures — standing upright with hands on head and bent over with hands on knees. Twenty-four female college soccer players performed two different bouts of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and researchers examined the differences in heart rate, carbon dioxide volume and tidal volume immediately after the workout and 3 minutes later. The study found the bent-over position resulted in all three measures returning to normal faster, indicating quicker recovery.
“Stand up tall! There’s no air down there!” Many cold-hearted coaches running track workouts, football practices and conditioning sessions have been heard shouting something like that. But understanding how the body consumes oxygen and uses it during exercise helps clear up the recovery controversy.
Your diaphragm is a large muscle located in your thoracic cavity, and it is responsible for helping you get air in and out of your lungs. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and drops down, making more room in the thoracic cavity for the lungs to expand. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and rises, allowing air to leave the lungs.
So, what does standing up or bending over have to do with the diaphragm? Quite a bit, actually. The diaphragm attaches to your sternum (the bone in the middle of your chest) and inserts into the lower part of your spine. Not by coincidence, the alignment of your ribcage and spine plays a crucial role in your ability to breathe.
Your diaphragm doesn’t act alone. Your core muscles and your intercostals (the muscles between your ribs) help keep the ribcage and pelvis stacked on top of each other in what’s called a zone of apposition. When your ribs and pelvis sit atop one another like the top and bottom of a soup can, you can breathe at your best. However, if you arch your back and pull your chest up excessively (like during the hands-on-head recovery position), your ribs and pelvis move further apart and your zone of apposition is reduced, making it harder to breathe.
A bent-over position keeps the ribs and pelvis stacked, similar to a plank. Putting your hands on your knees expands your upper back and spreads your shoulder blades apart, giving your lungs room to expand and take in air. On the other hand, standing up tall and pinching your shoulder blades closes down this space, which leaves you gasping to no avail.
Besides using a bent-over recovery position, runners can employ warmup exercises that focus on proper breathing mechanics and core-strengthening movements that keep the ribs and pelvis aligned.
Give these exercises a try:
90/90 Hip Lift
This move teaches you to stack your ribs and pelvis while breathing deeply. By lying down, you can focus on pushing your lower back into the floor so your abs can assist with each breath. Perform 5 deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
If you didn’t already believe bending over helps you breathe better, this drill seals the deal. By rounding your entire back like a rainbow, your ribs, pelvis and shoulder blades are in the ideal position to help your lungs expand and take in air. At the height of cat pose, perform five deep breaths, imagining the space between your shoulder blades is a balloon inflating toward the sky.
How you breathe during core exercises matters. The simple side plank teaches you to maintain proper alignment from head to toe, and rather than holding it for time, try holding a side plank for five full breaths per side, taking 6–8 seconds to fully exhale as if blowing up a balloon. If your hips sag toward the floor, you feel like a fish out of water and won’t be able to fully exhale.
Remember all that stuff earlier about your diaphragm, ribcage and pelvis? It may sound complicated, but simply crawling with good technique ties it all together. Bear crawls teach you to sync multiple sections of your body, much like what needs to happen to maintain proper breathing while running. Make sure to take these slow and steady, exhaling fully on each rep. Having a hard time with these? Place an object like a water bottle or cell phone on your lower back and try to complete 10 reps per side without letting it fall to the floor.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.