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January 29, 2024 7 min read

Embarking on a journey of improved running performance goes beyond just choosing the right shoes or perfecting your stride. One often overlooked yet critical aspect is mastering the art of breath control. The way you breathe while running can significantly impact your stamina, endurance, and overall enjoyment of the sport.

Whether you're a seasoned marathoner or a novice hitting the pavement, understanding and honing your breathing techniques can unlock the door to enhanced performance and a more fulfilling running experience.

Join us on a breath-focused exploration that aims to empower you with the knowledge and skills needed to optimize your respiratory rhythm, prevent fatigue, and take your running endeavors to new heights.

The Lungs, Breathing, and Running

Lungs Inhale and Exhale

Running activates two of the most important organs of your body—the heart and the lungs. According to the American Lung Association, when you breathe, your lungs bring oxygen into your body. Carbon dioxide then reacts with the hemoglobin in your red blood cells to trigger the release of oxygen for energizing the working muscles.

This leaves carbon dioxide as a waste product that is transported back to the lungs to be removed from the body when you exhale. The heart pumps the oxygen-rich blood to the muscles to provide the energy you need for running. When blood carbon dioxide is low, the bond between hemoglobin and oxygen increases, compromising your body’s ability to access the oxygen in the air you breathe.

During running, your muscles work harder and use more oxygen, while your body produces more carbon dioxide.

When your body is at rest, you breathe approximately 15 times per minute to produce about 12 liters of air. However, when you are running, lung capacity becomes an issue because there is an increased demand for oxygen for energy production. Now, your body requires about 40 to 60 breaths to provide 100 liters of air to meet the demand to run faster or longer.

Your heart also has to work much harder to speed up blood circulation to the muscles that need the oxygen and energy to keep your stride.

This video shows the role of your heart rate and blood pressure in proper breathing.

Reasons for Initial Breathing Difficulty

Your body needs some time to adjust to the increased physical activity. During the initial moments of running, your respiratory system might take a moment to catch up with the heightened demand for oxygen, depending on your fitness level.

Athlete short of breath

— Oxygen Demand: As you start running, your body demands more oxygen, and your respiratory system has to work harder to supply it.

— Heart Rate: Running increases your heart rate to pump more blood, delivering oxygen to your muscles.

— Inexperience: If you're not accustomed to running or have an inefficient breathing technique, you may find it harder to take in enough air. Shallow breathing is one example.

— Air Quality: Poor air quality, high humidity, or extreme temperatures can also affect your breathing while running.

— Bronchoconstriction: The increased oxygen demand may trigger bronchoconstriction in susceptible individuals. The narrowed airways make it more difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs, leading to symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.

It is always good to work with a running coach, but if you consistently experience difficulty breathing while running, it's important to consult a healthcare professional.

Breathing Methods for Different Running Paces

Easy Running

Controlling your breathing while running at different paces is essential for optimizing performance and maintaining stamina. Should you practice mouth breathing nose breathing, or both? Different breathing methods can be employed based on the intensity of your run. Here are some methods to control breathing at various paces:

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing (Low-Intensity Running)

— Technique

Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your diaphragm and rib cage to expand and your belly to rise.

Exhale fully through your mouth, allowing your belly to fall.

This technique promotes deep breaths, maximizing oxygen intake. It's effective for easy runs with low-intensity or warm-up runs.

2. Rhythmic Breathing (Moderate-Intensity Running)

— Technique

Coordinate your breathing with your strides. For example, use a 2:2 rhythm—inhale for two strides, exhale for two strides.

Some runners say syncing your breath with your running rhythm helps maintain a steady flow of oxygen, enhancing efficiency for faster pace running. They recommend adjusting the rhythm based on your comfort and intensity.

However, research has also suggested that thinking too much about running and breathing can lead to decreased efficiency in running mechanics.

3. Nasal Breathing (Steady-State Running)

— Technique

Breathe in and out through your nose.

Nasal breathing helps filter and humidify the air, and it can be beneficial for steady-state running at a moderate pace. However, it may not provide sufficient oxygen for high-intensity efforts.

Sprinting

4. Deep Belly Breathing (Interval or Sprinting)

— Technique

Take deep breaths into your belly, and exhale forcefully.

This technique helps maximize oxygen intake during short bursts of high-intensity runs and even strength training. Focus on quick, forceful exhales during intense efforts.

Downhill Running

5. Breath Holding (Downhill Running)

— Technique

Inhale deeply before descending, then exhale slowly and steadily during the descent.

Holding your breath during downhill running can help stabilize your core and prevent excessive impact on the diaphragm.

6. Pursed Lip Breathing (Recovery)

— Technique

Inhale through your nose for two counts, then exhale through pursed lips for four counts.

Pursed lip breathing can aid in relaxation and recovery, helping to slow down your breathing rate after an intense effort.

7. Focus on Exhalation (Combatting Fatigue)

— Technique

Place more emphasis on a complete exhalation to expel carbon dioxide and prevent fatigue.

By ensuring effective carbon dioxide removal, you can delay the onset of fatigue and maintain a more comfortable breathing pattern.

It's important to experiment with these techniques during your training runs to find what works best for you. Adjust your breathing strategy based on the intensity of your run, your comfort, and any specific respiratory needs you may have. Consistent practice will help you develop a natural and effective breathing rhythm for different paces and running conditions.

How Can Proper Breathing Improve Running Performance?

Couple running

Understanding how to breathe properly while running is paramount for several reasons, each contributing to improved running form, enhanced performance, overall well-being, and the prevention of potential issues.

Here are some key reasons why knowing how to breathe while running is crucial:

  1. Optimized Oxygen Intake: Proper breathing techniques ensure that your body receives an optimal supply of oxygen. Enough oxygen is essential for the efficient production of energy through aerobic processes, which is crucial for sustained activities like running.

  2. Enhanced Endurance and Stamina: Efficient breathing helps improve your endurance and stamina by providing a consistent flow of oxygen to your muscles. This is particularly important during long-distance runs, where maintaining a steady pace is essential.

  3. Reduced Fatigue and Muscle Cramping: Correct breathing patterns can help delay the onset of fatigue and reduce the likelihood of muscle cramping. By delivering a sufficient oxygen supply, your muscles can perform more efficiently and recover more effectively during a run.

  4. Improved Posture and Core Engagement: Focusing on your breath encourages good posture and engages core muscles. This contributes to better running mechanics and helps prevent injuries related to poor form.

  5. Mental Focus and Relaxation: Conscious and controlled breathing can serve as a mindfulness tool. It helps maintain mental focus, reduces anxiety, and promotes a sense of relaxation during a run, enhancing the overall running experience.

  6. Prevention of Side Stitches: Proper breathing techniques can help prevent sharp pains on the sides of your body, often experienced during running. Consistent and rhythmic breathing reduces the strain on the diaphragm and minimizes the risk of these discomforts.

  7. Efficient Energy Utilization: Coordinating your breath with your running pace allows for a more controlled energy expenditure. This helps you maintain a steady effort level, preventing exhaustion and allowing for better overall energy management.

  8. Adaptability to Different Running Intensities: Knowing how to adjust your breathing to different running intensities—whether it's a sprint, a moderate jog, or a long-distance run—ensures that your respiratory system can meet the varied demands of your  stamina and endurance.

In summary, mastering the art of breathing while running is a fundamental skill that directly impacts respiratory muscle and physical performance, mental well-being, and the overall enjoyment of the sport. Developing and practicing effective breathing techniques is a valuable investment for runners at any level, contributing to a more successful and fulfilling running experience.

PRO TIP — Stay hydrated and maintain adequate electrolyte intake.

Regardless of how strong or fit you are, depriving your body of electrolytes will compromise the oxygen supply to your muscles.

Post-Race Breathing

Post Race Breathing

After a race or intense physical activity, your body undergoes various physiological changes, and your respiratory system plays a crucial role in recovery.

Here are some reasons why proper post-race breathing is important:

1. Oxygen Debt: During intense exercise, your body may accumulate an oxygen debt, meaning it needs to repay the oxygen used during the activity. Proper post-race breathing helps replenish oxygen levels in the body and assists in clearing metabolic byproducts.

2. Cooling Down: Controlled breathing is part of an effective cool-down routine. It helps bring your heart rate gradually back to its resting state and facilitates the transition from intense exercise to a more relaxed state.

3. Reducing Muscle Tension: Deep breathing can help relax and release tension in muscles. It promotes a better recovery by enhancing blood flow and nutrient delivery to the muscles.

4. Promoting Relaxation: Controlled breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. This helps reduce stress hormones and promotes a sense of relaxation and recovery.

5. Enhancing Mental Focus: Deep, rhythmic breathing can help clear your mind, reduce stress, and enhance mental focus. This is particularly important after a race when you might be fatigued.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) Breathing

To practice proper post-race breathing, consider taking slow, deep breaths, focusing on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.

Combine deep breathing with a focus on relaxing different muscle groups.

Inhale deeply, then as you exhale, consciously relax your muscles starting from your toes and working your way up to your head.

This technique can help release tension and promote overall relaxation.

This can be part of a broader cool-down routine that includes gentle stretching and hydration.

In a Nutshell

As you lace up your running shoes and hit the pavement on your next run, remember that your breath is a powerful ally. Cultivating a mindful connection to your breath, experimenting with various techniques, and integrating them into your training regimen can propel you toward achieving your running goals while promoting overall health and vitality. So, breathe deeply, run freely, and revel in the symbiotic dance of your breath and your stride.