Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Born to Run" is Mistaken About How a Good Runner Breathes

       Christopher McDougall's hugely popular book, Born to Run, tells a very entertaining story.  McDougall is a dazzling writer, at least in the arena of gonzo journalism.  But as a long-distance runner, it seems that when he wrote his book, he was something of a newbie.  Nothing wrong with that, but when someone attempts to explain a complex process to hundreds of thousands of others who include many other relative newbies, there are some risks.
       Like getting it quite wrong about how a good runner breathes.
       Late in the book (pp. 222-223 in the paperback edition), in his unquestionably fascinating discussion of the Running Man theory of human evolution (the theory that we can trace our origins to the long-distance-running "persistence-hunting" hominids who used their evolving endurance to chase down much faster but more quickly tiring animals), McDougal tells the story of how several pioneering scientists used anatomical information to confirm that early humans were basically runners, not walkers.
       Two of the key scientists in this pathbreaking work were Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah and Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University.  McDougall writes that at one point in the research, Bramble made a key discovery--that one reason humans could run for longer than the animals they chased was that unlike other mammals, humans had the anatomical capability to take more than one breath per stride.  Bramble discovered that the anatomy of big cats, for example, "limited cheetahs to just one breath per stride."  He notes that Bramble "was surprised to find that all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath" . . . and that he and his graduate student David Carrier, the originator of the theory, could find only one exception: us humans.
       Human runners, McDougall concludes, "are free to pant to our heart's contents."  Take as many breaths per stride as you want.
       The first time I read this, I didn't notice anything amiss.  It sounded logical--more oxygen, more aerobic capacity.  But a few days later, I was out for a run and thought about Bramble's purported observation and realized something was wrong.   Rather than taking two or three breaths per stride, as McDougall suggested we do, I was doing just the opposite--taking two or three or more strides per breath. 
       I tried without success to contact Dr. Bramble to see if he'd really said that, and then sent the following e-mail to Dr. Lieberman, who heads the Institute of Human Evolution at Harvard, where the Running Man theory has been intensively investigated.

Dr. Lieberman,
       I wanted to get in touch with Dennis Bramble to ask a question regarding a mention, in the
popular book Born to Run, of his comment that humans are distinguished by a capaity to take multiple breaths per stride.   I wasn't able to reach him by email, and wonder if you can give me a correct email address or forward my question--or perhaps offer your own answer.
       I've made a lifelong study of running, and the passage in Born to Run struck me as curious, because in my experience the most common pattern of breathing is just the opposite of what Dr. Bramble is quoted as saying: Instead of two or more breaths per stride, I normally take two or more strides per breath.  A typical pattern, for example, might be IN, OUT, OUT, OUT (left, right, left, right), but since the three "outs" are actually a single exhalation in three little pumps in rhythm with the steps, it's really one cycle of inhalation/exhalation (or "breath") for four steps. . . . But if I try taking two breaths for one stride, I'm like a dog panting after a sprint--hyperventilating--and can't sustain it.  My question for Dr. Bramble and/or you is:  Was there a misunderstanding in the writing of this passage?
The next day, Lieberman replied:

Dennis is retired and hard to reach . . . .
        In any event, I think I can definitely answer your question.  McDougall obviously misquoted Dennis.  Good runners do exactly as you describe and take a breath about every 2 strides (although sometimes 3), rarely 1.

     I'm not writing this post now to cause any grief for McDougall, who has done the world a great service by inspiring a lot of people to get off their underexercised butts.  But I also wouldn't want to see a lot of people misguided.  How a good runner breathes will vary with the heat and humidity of the day, how fast he or she is going, whether it's uphill or downhill, and other factors, but should be comfortable and not cause hyperventilating.  In my own running, the pattern may vary from minute to minute.  And the patterns are often as complex as a musical score.  (I have found myself wondering if the breathing patterns of running might be one of the origins of chanting or singing).
     I invite experienced runners to send descriptions (below or via email to of some of the patterns of breathing you use under different conditions.  Count each inhale/exhale cycle as a breath and each step you take (left or right) as a stride.
     In my next post, I'll detail some of the most common breathing techniques of experienced runners, both my own and those of others I hear from.


Brett Weir said...

I never count breaths per stride, but have been forced by the force of my exhalations to notice that my breathing while running at my top speed is never more rapid than one breath for every two steps.

For example, at the end of my run tonight--and before reading your excellent post--I finished my run with some 30-second pick-ups. Breathing pattern was the same throughout--left foot landed, Scott breathed.

Try running a set of 200s and breathing more frequently than that. It won't work. Of course McDougall will never either do that simple experiment, or acknowledge his error.

Casseday said...

Very interesting. Certainly something I've not given much thought to, but most certainly will explore. Thanks for the insight Ed!

Wyatt Hornsby said...

Ed: On my run this morning I'm pretty sure I was taking 3-4 strides per breath--doing about 7:30 pace, which is semi-easy for me. I live at 6,100 feet in Colorado, so at sea level I might be taking even more strides per breath...or maybe not.


Jonathan Beverly said...

I can't imaging that anyone takes more then one breath per stride. I usually take 4 strides per breath, and then up it to 2 when working hard, such as during a hard interval or the later stages of a race. Even one breath per stride feels like panting. Good catch, Ed.

GZ said...


For what it is worth, and taking this in a different direction a bit, I know of one runner who specifically chose to use the breath per stride technique in the upper stretches of the Pikes Peak Ascent. Worked for him pretty well as he won it 8 times.

I tried it a few times on very hard hill efforts and frankly I couldn't manage it, nor did I feel it gave me an advantage. He swore it help keep him better oxygenated. Kind of hard to argue with his results but not for everyone.

jandjhass said...

You should re-read that section of the book. It state, "But the human runners we tested never went one to one. They could pick from a number of different ratio's, and generally perfer two to one." This passage indicates a 2 steps / 1 breath ratio is the perfered method.

Ed Ayres said...

jandjhass, the quote is Bramble's, and of course he meant two steps to one breath. But the way McDougall describes the research, it's quite clear that he misinterpreted Bramble and thought it meant multiple breaths per step.


John Butler said...

So - if McDougall got it reversed, is the multiple strides per breath an evolutionary breakthrough? If he got it wrong, call it a mixup - but if it's something significant evolutionarily, then it's still intriguing.

lee woo said...

Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken. See the link below for more info.


karl said...

Well, you just read him wrong. Nothing wrong in doing so.