Learning how to breathe while running is of utmost importance.
Not only does it improve your athletic performance and endurance, it also makes your runs more fun.
In fact, proper breathing can make the difference between a great run and a disastrous session.
Whether you’re a new runner or have plenty of miles under your belt, if you want to take your breathing while running to the next level, this guide is for you.
*Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products I’d use myself and all opinions expressed here are our own.
How To Breathe While Running
There’s a lot to say about breathing as it relates to running, but the following four points will have the most impact on your training (and overall fitness and health levels) and will help you to run your best.
If you’re a beginner runner and find yourself getting out of breath, it’s usually a sign that you’re out of shape.
It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with your technique or lungs.
When it’s the case, all you need to do is to gradually run more over time, build your stamina, and make exercise a part of your lifestyle.
Over time, the constantly out-of-breath feeling will eventually subside.
That said, how fast you get there will depend on your training—specifically, your pace.
Enter The Right Pace
Early on, stick to the conversational pace—a pace in which you can hold a conversation, or recite the pledge of allegiance, without panting for air.
In fact, as a newcomer to running, most of your runs should be performed at this conversational and relaxed pace.
If you find it hard to talk, then you’re pushing it too hard.
Slow down and get your pace under control.
By controlling your exercise intensity, you’ll be able to regulate the rate at which you breathe.
That’s the best thing you can do as a beginner runner to have some sense of control over your breathing rate.
Breathe Deep While Running
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.
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.
Breathing this way while running can completely change your training for the best as it improves heart rate, increases oxygenation, boosts stamina, etc
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.
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
- Preventing side stitches
- 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
Rhythmic Breathing When Running
Rhythmic breathing is key for learning how to breathe while running.
Also known as locomotor-respiratory coupling in science jargon, or cadence breathing, rhythmic breathing consists of creating a rhythm between breathing and your running gait—the way in which you run.
More specifically, it describes the number of foot strikes you during the inhale compared to how many steps you take on the exhale.
So, for instance, if you take two steps while breathing in, and then one step on while breathing out, your cadence breathing pattern is 2:1.
In general, your exact ratio will depend on many factors.
These include training intensity, personal physiology, and personal preferences.
It Ain’t Easy
Since the method requires steady body coordination and breathing along with running movement, it’s a skill that’s hard to master.
That said, practice conquers all—and with it, you can master rhythmic breathing in just a few weeks of training.
The Benefits of Rhythmic Breathing
Rhythmic breathing can help in:
- Getting more oxygen to your working muscles, resulting in better performance.
- Improving your focus and mental game.
- Calming the mind—that’s why it’s a big part of most yoga practices.
- Reduce the workload placed on the respiratory system, improving respiratory efficiency.
- Improving running economy.
In short, cadence breathing can help run faster, longer, and with more efficiency.
But most notably, some experts suggest that timing your breaths with your foot strikes can help prevent injury.
Here are the details
To understand the mechanism behind the reduced injury risk, let’s first look at what happens to your body when running.
When running, your feet strike the ground with a force of impact two to three times your body weight—depending, mainly, on your running speed and training surface.
And according to research that looked at the relationship between breathing and foot strikes, the impact forces are the highest when the foot strike coincidences with the onset of the exhalation.
Why is this bad?
When you breathe out, the diaphragm, and the surrounding muscles, especially your chest muscles, relax, resulting in less stability in the core.
So, if you’re always landing on the same foot on each exhale, you’re constantly stressing the same side of your body, resulting in a higher risk of injury on that side, in theory at least.
As a result, to prevent this, you’d want to alternate landing on the right and left foot at the beginning of each exhale.
That way you can diffuse the impact shock more evenly over both sides of your body.
This is achieved by using an odd-even cadence breathing ratio to match the foot strike with inhale-exhale.
Rhythmic Running Patterns To Play With
Here are the main breathing ratios.
The 3:3 Ratio
During the 3:3 pattern, you take three steps on the inhale, then another three on the exhale.
In general, you might take up to 30 breaths per minute with the 3:3 ratio.
For beginner runners whose sole goal is running at an easy and relaxed pace, the 3:3 ratio is the way to go.
The 3:2 Ratio
For established runners, the 3:2 pattern is ideal, especially when running at moderate intensity effort, which should make up the majority of your training.
This ratio consists of taking three steps—right foot, left foot, right—on the inhale, then two steps—left foot, right foot—on the exhale.
And as I have already stated, opting for an odd-even breathing ratio may help prevent discomfort and injury since you’re alternating between landing on your right and left foot on the onset of the exhale.
This pattern may also help prevent painful side stitches and painful diaphragm cramps that plague many runners on the road.
The 2:2 Ratio
This translates to tow strides per inhale, two per exhale.
In general, you’ll be taking roughly 40 to 45 breaths per minute with this pattern.
The 2:2 is a good recipe for steady state cardio, such as tempo runs, and marathon pace training.
Just keep in mind that when using this ratio, you’ll be landing on the ground on the same foot at the beginning of each exhalation.
This, in theory, may cause one side of your body to withstand a greater stress load when running.
As you pick up the pace, switch to a 2:1 ratio.
With this ratio, you take two steps on the inhale, then one step on the exhale.
This is most suitable breathing pattern for tempo training—cruising at about 10K race pace, or slightly faster.
Fartlek and interval training should typically be performed within this ratio.
The 1:1 Ratio
Al-out-effort running and racing call for a 1:1 pattern.
You, basically, take one stride per inhale, one stride per exhale.
For most runners, this breathing ratio occurs during the final burst of middle or long distance races.
Note: Please keep in mind that the above breathing ratios should only be used as orienting guidelines.
They’re not, by any means, universal rules that every runner out there should follow to the letter.
So, you got to experiment with different patterns to find the best breathing rhythm for you.
Practicing Breathing Ratios In The comfort of Your home
Before you start tinkering with your cadence breathing, it’s always helpful to practice it a bit before you take it to the outside world.
Here is how
Start off by lying down on your back, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground.
Keep your face relaxed, with the mouth slightly open.
Next, while placing your hand on your chest and the other on your belly, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale out through the mouth.
Make sure your breathing is continuous and relaxed.
Do not force it.
Once you’re set, inhale for the count of three, then exhale for the count of three—a 3:3 pattern.
Focus on keeping your breath smooth and continuous as you keep inhaling over the three counts and breathing out over the three counts.
Once you get used to this inhale/exhale pattern, add foot taps to mimic walking/running steps.
Walk it Off
Once you feel mastered rhythmic breathing while laying down, take it for a walk.
Take three steps on the inhale, then three on the exhale.
Do this for a few minutes, then switch to a 3:2 ratio.
So on and so forth.
Take it Out For A Run
Once you get the hang of walking cadence breathing, start matching your breaths with your foot strikes when running—typically, inhaling for three foot strikes and exhaling for two (3:2).
As a rule of thumb, practice cadence breathing on your slow, relaxed runs first.
Be sure to set realistic starting points and goals.
Then, over time, slowly introduce cadence breathing into faster runs and speedwork training, making sure to opt for 2:2 or 2:1 ratios.
After a few months of practice, cadence breathing—whether it’s in a 3:2 or 1:1 ratio—will become automatic.
You won’t even have to think about it.
Nose Vs. Mouth Breathing
According to my experience, inhaling through the nose and exhaling out of the mouth is much more efficient for running.
Inhaling through the nose allows for deeper breaths and warms the air on its way to the lungs, whereas breathing out from the mouth helps get rid of as much carbon dioxide as possible.
It also relaxes the body.
How to put this into practice? Simple.
During your run, the mouth should be held slightly open in what’s known as the “dead fish” (the name speaks for itself).
Here’s how to breathe properly in cold weather.
Strengthen Your Core
The diaphragm is the main muscle in charge of breathing, and you can tone it the same way you strengthen your calves and hamstrings.
Pilates exercises are one of the best ways to do this, and doing so will boost your endurance and performance.
Two Pilates Exercises For Better Breathing
Here are two Pilates exercises to try:
- Lie flat on your back with your legs squeezed together and your knees and hips forming 90-degree
- Lift both legs a few inches off the floor, engage your abs and buttocks, and raise your arms over your thighs. Lift your head and gaze at your toes.
- While holding this position, start to pump your arms, moving them in a controlled up and down manner. While doing so, breathe in for five pumps, moving your arms in a controlled up and down manner.
- Aim for three to five sets and keep pulsing your arms for 10
- Lie flat on your back with your knees pulled to your chest.
- Inhale slowly as you lift your legs towards the ceiling as far as you can while tightly squeezing them together.
- Reach your legs over to the right, allowing the hips to lift away from the floor, then go back to starting position with your legs straight overhead, your core engaged, and your lower back remains on the floor.
- Repeat on the other side, reaching your legs over to the
- Continue reversing the circular direction each time. Aim for three sets of eight reps on each side.
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I hope this blog post was helpful.
It covers all you need to know about how to breathe while running.
Please feel free to leave any comments below, or send me any questions you may have.
I’ll be happy to answer ASAP.
Thanks for reading my post.
Image Credit: Ed Yourdon