8 Ways to Increase Lung Capacity For Running

Lung capacity is crucial for us runners, so increasing it should be an integral part of any training routine. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Why should you care?

Improving your lung capacity takes your breathing to the next level.  Once you’re breathing more efficiently, you’ll become a better and stronger runner.

Today I’m going to share a few simple tips for increasing your lung capacity. Follow them, and you’ll be breathing easier during your runs.

1. Start Slow

Getting winded while running doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem with your technique or the way you’re breathing: it’s more likely a problem with your conditioning.

When you exercise, you’re placing your body under a lot of stress, and your muscles demand more oxygen. The more you ask of your muscles, the more oxygen they need.

So, how do you take things slow?

Quite simple. When you’re running, maintain a conversational pace. This means you should be able to speak in full sentences without gasping. After you’ve gotten to that level of conditioning, work your way up to more challenging runs and distances.

Consider doing any of the following:

Run a longer distance at a slower pace. This will help boost your red blood cell count, grow more capillaries, and make your heart stronger—the heart is, after all, a muscle.

Run more frequently each week. If you only run a couple of times per week, add a third day. Doing so provides your body with the opportunity (and stimulus) to build more cell mitochondria and capillaries. This, in turn, allows more oxygen to course through your bloodstream.

Consider cross-training. Opt for cardiovascular activities such as cycling, swimming, and skiing.

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2. Learn Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a form of respiration in which you use your entire lung capacity. The principal muscle involved in deep breathing is the diaphragm—a muscle group shaped like a jellyfish or a parachute.

As you can see in the image, the diaphragm sits below the lungs and divides the torso into the abdominal and thoracic cavities.

During deep breathing, the diaphragm pulls down on the abdominal cavity to completely inflate the lungs, drawing in maximum air. Then it deflates, squeezing the air out.

Belly Vs. Chest Breathing

Most runners are chest breathers rather than belly breathers. Also known as shallow or thoracic breathing, chest breathing occurs when the act of respiration originates from the top lobes of the lungs.

When you breathe shallowly, you expand and contract the chest while the abdominal area remains still. This draws minimal air into the lungs. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, breathing this is super  inefficient.

You can learn deep breathing in the comfort of your own home. Start out lying flat on your back on the floor with your chest open and shoulders relaxed. One hand should be resting on your chest and the other on your belly.

Now breathe in slowly, spending about ten seconds on your inhale. Visualize your lungs filling up with air. Feel the air moving into your chest, stomach, and abdomen.

Once your lungs are loaded with air (you might feel mild discomfort in the solar plexus, just below the breastbone), hold your breath for a count of ten, then exhale slowly for ten seconds through pursed lips while pulling your belly button to your spine.

Your lower hand should be moving with each breath while the upper hand remains relatively still throughout the exercise. Every time you inhale, your abdomen fills up like a balloon, then deflates on the exhale.

3. Breathing Exercises

Looking for more breathing exercises? These should satisfy your curiosity.

The exercises described below can increase strength in your respiratory muscles and help build endurance. That, in turn, will improve lung function.

These exercises are all simple, easy to do, and can be done anywhere. You can do them at home, at work, during your commute, or, preferably as a part of your warm-up routine. Repeat each exercise three to five times in one series.

Bhastrika Exercise

Rib Stretch

Abdominal Breathing

The 4/7/8 Technique

Breath of Fire

4. Breathing While Running

“Should I breathe through my nose, my mouth, or both?” This is a common question in the running world.

My answer makes everybody happy: use both pathways. While running, focus on getting as much air as possible into your body so that the oxygenated blood can meet your muscle’s needs.

Don’t know how to make that happen? Try the following:

Open your mouth—preferably in a “dead fish” position. The mouth is larger than the nostrils, so, it’s more effective at drawing in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

Rhythmic Breathing

If you want to run like a pro, try rhythmic breathing. Don’t worry, it’s not some complicated yogic technique. It’s simply the practice of coordinating your inhales and exhales to your foot strikes.

For example, a 2:1 breathing ratio means taking two steps on the inhale, and one step while breathing out. The exact ratio to follow depends largely on your training intensity, fitness level, speed, and personal preference.

The rhythmic patterns I recommend for beginners are 2:2 and 2:3. They’re ideal for training at slow to moderate intensity. Keep in mind that these ratios are not written in stone. Just because something works for one runner doesn’t mean it will work for you.

5. Pilates Exercises

Pilates exercises are a form of cross training that reduces huffing and puffing without putting too much stress on your body. This is as simple as it can get.

How they work is no mystery.  Pilate exercises focus on deliberate breathing patterns to increase muscle strength, build mobility, and improve posture.

Further, these exercises strengthen all the muscles of the core—including the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, which are located between the ribs and play a role in both the inhale and the exhale.

Practice the exercises below two to three times a week either as a part of your cool down or as a stand-alone routine.

The Swan

The Hundreds

The Standing Chest Expansion

Breast Stroke

Spine Twist

Advanced Tactics

If you’re already doing all of the above, but you’re still looking for more options, these advanced tactics can help.

6. Altitude Training

Why do elite athletes from different sports head do high altitude training? Because it works.

The Science Behind Altitude Training

At higher elevations the air contains less oxygen. This forces the body to compensate by triggering red blood cells and hemoglobin production. This in turn increases the blood oxygen-carrying capacity, along with your body’s ability to use oxygen and convert it into energy.

Once you’re back to low elevation, your body maintains its increased level of red blood cells and hemoglobin for up to two weeks.

Be Careful

Once you take your training to a higher altitude, you’ll instantly notice symptoms of altitude sickness, including fatigue and dizziness. As a general rule, give your body at least a couple of weeks to acclimate the thinner mixture of oxygen in the air.

7. Respiratory Training Equipment

Also known as hypoxia or restricted or resistance breathing, this is an endurance building strategy that elite athletes use to challenge their lung power without braving elevation.

It works by partially blocking airways. This makes your normal breathing restrictive, which simulates high altitude training.

In general, respiratory training apparatus can be anything from an electronic gadget to sophisticated training masks.

Some tools include:

  • Hyperbaric sleeping chambers
  • Low-oxygen tents
  • Swimming while using a snorkel with restricted airflow
  • Working out with a hypoxic air generator
  • Portable hypoxic machines

There’s one important caveat. It’s neither easy nor cheap to get access to some of these tools., and you risk overtraining when you use them. There’s a good argument that says it’s not worth the investment and risk, especially if you’re not a serious athlete competing on the world stage.

That being said, a hypoxic mask may be within your budget—they retail for under $100.

8. Keep Your Lungs Healthy

In the end, some of the best measures you can take to improve your lung power might have nothing to do with your training routine. Lifestyle choices such as diet can have a significant impact, too.

These tips will help keep your lungs as healthy as possible.

Stop smoking. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 40 years, you already know that smoking is bad for your health.  Time and time again, research has shown that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer, lung diseases and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD).

Eat foods rich in antioxidants such as leafy green and cruciferous vegetables. They contain many healthy compounds that can help rid your body of harmful toxins. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are good examples.

Get vaccinated. Shots like the pneumonia vaccine and the flu vaccine can go a long way in preventing lung-related issues and promoting overall health.

Improve air quality. Keep your home well ventilated by improving indoor air quality, reducing pollutants like artificial fragrances, and getting rid of mold.

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These are some of the best tools for increasing your lung capacity for running. So what are you waiting for?

Get started today.

If you’re a  complete beginner, here are a few beginner guidelines.

 5 Tips for The Complete Beginner

How to Start Running with 5 Simple Steps

Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Running

You got no excuse here.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep running strong.

And please feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

David D.