Breathing is a natural act of the human body.
In fact, we take up to 17,000 to 23,000 breaths a day, and it’s been the case since the moment of birth.
So, if practice makes perfect, then by now we should all be “masterful breathers.”
But here is the sad truth.
It may sound surprising, but most runners—especially beginners—do not know how to breathe.
They’re, by no means, masters at the art of respiration, which is a shame because proper breathing when running can do wonders for performance and training enjoyment.
Learning To Breathe Deep
To breathe properly when running (or exercising), you need to breathe deeply into your abdomen, not just your chest.
That’s what’s known as belly breathing.
Breathing this way while running can completely change your training for the best as it improves heart rate, increases oxygenation, boosts stamina, etc
However, when it comes to down to it, talking about the importance of belly breathing is easy for me; teaching you how to do it right is where the challenge begins.
This is especially the case if deep breathing is a foreign concept to you.
That said, I’m confident that after reading this article, you’ll have all the tools you need to learn how to master deep breathing during your workouts.
Sounds pretty good, right?
Then let’s get going…
The Complete Runner’s Guide To Deep Breathing
Deep breathing goes by many names.
You might have heard referred to as abdominal breathing, belly breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, etc.
I’m going to be using these terms interchangeably throughout this article (though technically, they stand for different things, but that’s another subject for another day).
In essence, belly breathing is a breathing technique that engages the diaphragm. It consists of breathing deeply into the abdomen, so your body takes in a full supply of oxygen.
What’s The Diaphragm?
The diaphragm is the dome-shaped sheet of muscle located at the bottom of the ribcage that divides the chest from the abdomen. See picture.
This muscle is mainly responsible for respiratory function.
As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts, in conjunction with the intercostal muscles, and drops downward, pressing against your abdominal organs, which forces your abdomen to expand as your lungs fill with air.
On the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, along with the intercostal muscles, contracting upward back against the lungs and toward the center of the ribcage, helping to drive air (expel carbon dioxide) of the lungs.
For more on this process, here is a video highlighting the diaphragm as the main breathing muscle.
The Fallacy of Chest Breathing
Most runners breathe with their “chest”—what’s colloquially known as shallow breathing—rather than their “belly.”
In fact, most tend to be shallow breathers, driving their chests in and out as they breathe in less oxygen than needed, and expel out less carbon dioxide than they should.
This inefficient form of breathing can lead to fatigue, lethargy, breathlessness, etc.
Think of chest breathing like trying to breathe through a straw. Not the most effective thing to do, right?
Deep Breathing can Be Learned
If the above made you feel confused, then don’t.
You don’t need to become an expert on human anatomy—surely I’m not—to learn how to breathe from the diaphragm.
In fact, although it often lies dormant, deep breathing is an inborn skill that can be learned with practice. It’s not, by any means, limited to a select few.
The benefits of Belly Breathing
Before I get into the technicalities of deep breathing, let’s first look at some of the benefits it has to offer.
These should be enough reasons to convince you to make belly breathing a part of your everyday life—not just when exercising.
In essence, deep breathing helps in:
- Lowering your blood pressure
- Relaxing tense muscles
- Reducing stress
- Treating conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD)
- Dealing with cardiovascular issues
- Improving blood flow
- Increasing energy level
- Lowering blood sugar levels
- Increasing the release of serotonin
- Increasing the secretion of growth hormone
- Improving posture
- Reducing inflammation
- Detoxifying the body
I can go on and on about the many ways deep breathing can benefit your fitness, health, and overall well-being levels.
But you get the big picture. And sometimes that’s all you need.
How to Practice?
So how can I make it work for me? You might ask.
Well, the short answer is practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. There is no way around that.
But how do you practice?
Well, here is the long answer in the form of an exercise.
Note: Just as a heads up, the breathing exercise described below is similar to the breath work in traditional yoga practice. So, if you have done any yoga in the past, this exercise will be a breeze. If not, just pay attention and take it slow.
The Classic Deep Breathing Exercise
First, find a comfortable, quiet place where you know you won’t be disturbed. You can perform this exercise while sitting cross-legged, or lying comfortably on your back. Just make sure your back straight, and core engaged.
Next, close your eyes, then put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, just below your ribs.
Now, take a slow, deep breath through the nose. Imagine that you’re sucking in all the air in the room.
Focus on breathing slowly and deeply until you feel your stomach rise, then fall drastically than your chest.
On the inhale, the hand resting on your belly should rise higher than the one on the chest. This makes sure that the diaphragm is drawing in the air into the bases of your lungs.
Last up, exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips. Make sure to pull your belly in toward your spine, emptying your lungs of as much air as possible.
You should not feel like you’re forcing your belly inward by clenching your core muscles. Allow for smooth movement and air flow.
When belly breathing is done right, you should feel and see your belly moving in and out without moving the hand resting on your chest.
That’s it. This is the basic principle of deep breathing.
Chest Breathing Vs. Belly Breathing Test
This can help you get a sense of the difference between using your chest or belly to breathe.
Here is how
Alternate between normal and deep breaths for a few minutes. Focus on how you feel when breathing as you usually do and when you engage your diaphragm while breathing deeply.
For most people, chest breathing often feels contracted and limited, whereas deep breathing is “open” and relaxing.
Practice this exercise (along with the below exercises) at least twice a day or just before your workout as a part of the warm-up.
You can also deep breathe whenever you’re stressed out or feel like the world is too much to handle.
Make it Regular
Sure, belly breathing may feel awkward at first, but thanks to the consistency it will eventually become second nature.
So, when you mastered diaphragmatic breathing while lying down, start to slowly introduce it to your runs, preferably during low-to-moderate intensity training.
That said, do not go full breathing mode the moment you start running.
Instead, jog slowly for a few minutes or so. Then, once you feel warmed up, start engaging your belly and core muscles the way you did in the previous exercise.
Your goal here is the same. You want to breathe in as deeply as possible, feeling the belly contract and expand. Then get the air out in a relaxed and controlled manner.
After practicing deep breathing a few times while running at a low to moderate intensity, increase your training intensity.
Doing so places more physical duress on your respiratory system, but it’s worth the effort.
Practice Rhythmic Breathing
You can also try matching your breathing to your running cadence. For most of my runs—speedwork being the exception—I typically breathe in for three strides then breathe out for two—what’s known as rhythmic breathing.
And what I found is, breathing this way makes it much easier for me to take deep, nasal, breaths, then fully exhale through the mouth. It also makes me more aware of my breathing.
That said, do what works best for you.
“Open” Your Chest
Proper technique, especially upper body form, is another ingredient in efficient deep breathing.
In essence, run tall with a slight forward lean. Keep your chest out, back flat, and shoulders relaxed. Avoid hunching over, even when ascending a hill.
Check these posts for more on proper running form.
Also, consider adding a couple of core workout routines to your training program to help strengthen your abdominal and lower back muscles so you can maintain proper posture for extended periods of time.
Think Pilates as they also help build up breathing muscles strength and endurance
Further Deep Breathing Exercises
Here are more breathing exercises to help you better “activate” your diaphragm. These can help you further expand your belly breathing skills.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique