You’ve just started running, and you’re already breathless. Is that normal, or could it be your poor breathing technique?
Your VO2 max and inter-muscular oxygen efficiency will increase as you become fitter. Breathing while running will become easier with time. But if you’re serious about running, you should learn proper breathing. You’ll likely be astounded by how much more enjoyable your run becomes!
Table of Contents
Benefits of Proper Breathing When Running
Proper running breathwork improves performance and keeps you from running out of breath. The heart rate naturally elevates during exercise. The heart pumps in response to breath; when we inhale, the heart slows down, and the body registers an increased level of carbon dioxide. This causes the nervous system to call for an uptick in breath rate to clear carbon dioxide. An exhale breath occurs.(1)
Heart Rate Variability
Naturally speeding up and slowing down the heart rate in response to oxygen and carbon dioxide.
When you breathe well, you increase your VO2 max. It’s the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in at any time. It measures energy efficiency and overall fitness.(2) You can affect our heart rate with your breath, both physically and emotionally.(3)
Breathing Creates Positive Emotions
Studies show that attentive breathing while running has no overall benefit to running economy, but it does increase positive emotions in runners, leading them to run stronger and longer!(4)
This blog post shares some of the most popular breathing exercises for running.
How To Breathe Properly While Running
Nose Breathing Versus Mouth Breathing
The most economical choice is to Inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth! While you may breathe quickly through your mouth during a sprint, it’s generally advisable to try breathing with your nose and mouth because inhaling through the mouth can lead to hyperventilation. Up to 40% of runners experience exercise-induced dyspnoea (hyperventilation during running)(5).
Breathing through the nose while running carries several positives. Some great reasons to breathe through your nose are:
- Your nasal microbiome cleans the air before it reaches your lungs.
- Nasal breathing during exercise may cause reduced BR, reduced hypocapnia, and increased nitric oxide production (which reduces oxygen flow).(6)
- Breathing through your nose has been shown to increase diaphragmatic function.(7)
- Studies report favorable performance effects from nasal breath, such as decreased respiratory exchange ratio, VO2 max, and increased running economy and time to exhaustion.(8, 9)
Say “No” to the Nose in 4th Gear
Once you jump into “higher gears” of sprinting, your body will automatically switch from nasal to mouth breathing. That’s okay! Most people can only maintain nasal breathing up to 85% VO2 max effort.(10)
Learning to breathe with your nose takes time. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes ten to twelve weeks of focused nasal breathing while running for it to feel comfortable and habitual.(11) Set a goal, and stick to it!
Belly Breathing Versus Chest Breathing
The benefits of abdominal breathing are extensive and scientifically supported. See our blog post about yoga breathing for more information on belly breathing benefits. Deep belly breathing is a much more efficient technique because it uses the entire capacity of the lungs. The air you breathe in also travels down to the lower portion of your lungs and stays there longer. This increases your oxygen uptake.
However, belly breathing requires a relaxed core, which is ill-advised (and nearly impossible) to do while running. At high intensities, diaphragmatic breathing will result in less cardiac output, as the diaphragm and assisting muscles fatigue.(12) Shallow chest breathing is also antithetical to increasing VO2 max. So, your job as the runner is to find a sweet spot between belly and chest breathing, where your lungs fill to their optimal capacity for the run.
We recommend practicing belly breathing as a warm-up, cool-down, or for respiratory health training.
How to Breathe With Your Belly
- Lie down on the floor or your sofa and place your hands or a light book on your stomach. Relax your stomach completely.
- Breathe in and out deeply and consciously. Watch the book rise when you breathe in and fall as you breathe out.
- Focus on trying to exhale all the air out of your lungs. Inhale very slowly and very deeply, without using your shoulders or neck. With a little practice, belly breathing will become automatic and feel completely natural.
Rhythmic breathing involves matching steps to breath. It’s a mindful running skill and a running breathing technique. The clinical name for rhythmic breathing is locomotor-respiratory coupling (LRC). LRC is proven energetically advantageous as a mediator of breath rate and running pace.(13)
There are many kinds of running and breathing rhythms. Ultimately, the best rhythm is the one that feels natural and sustainable to you. Here are a few techniques to try:
- For a lower intensity run, try breathing in for three steps and out for three steps (a 3:3 ratio). You might lengthen this to as much as 6:6. Many runners find that 4:4 feels best.
- You should only use a 2:2 breath when sprinting or interval training.
- 1:1 breath is the danger zone! Use it for 20 seconds to get you through a sprint.
These rates should only be used as a rule of thumb. They do not apply to every runner. The best way is to try out a few different breathing rhythms and find the one that feels most comfortable to you.
Trust Your Body
The human body is an incredible thing. And as much as you train your fitness and breathing, the body ultimately does what it needs to keep you moving. Most researchers find that during exercise, individuals intuitively select the breath rate that minimizes their metabolic effort.(14, 15, 16) During steady-state exercise, the respiratory system tunes the breath to maintain equal oxygen and carbon dioxide.(17) One researcher states, “Indeed, the respiratory system is remarkable in responding ‘just right’ to exercise in most scenarios.”
So, get out and run! Rejoice in your body’s ability to breathe through the effort. Work on calm breathwork in your runs and your life. Your breath will become more deep, natural, and efficient with time.