How to Breathe While Running

It’s easy to get wrapped up in strategies for speed work, stretching or nutrition while training for a race. But many of us forget about an element of running that serves as a foundation for how fast and how far we can go: our breath.

The way you breathe while running is an important part of performing your best. So, how can beginning and advanced runners alike optimize their breathing to maximize running potential? Let’s take a closer look, with the help of a few coaches, including the elite coach, Dr. Jack Daniels.

Oxygen: A Runner’s Basic Fuel

Our respiratory system pumps oxygen into our bodies and pumps carbon dioxide out. This process becomes more crucial when we are exercising and the demand for oxygen increases.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that inhaling and exhaling may account for up to 10 to 15 percent of energy demand during intense exercise, such as running.

When your body isn’t getting enough oxygen during a run, you’ll immediately notice it in your breath: you may be panting or breathing raggedly. But struggling for breath can have systemic effects on your body, even when you stop running. Your body produces lactic acid when oxygen levels are low, which in turn can cause muscle cramps and fatigue.

Breathing With Your Belly While You Run

Two runners side by side.

One way to ensure we are getting as much oxygen as possible is through a breathing technique called diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that uses your diaphragm—the large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs—to help move oxygen in and out of your lungs.

Using the technique can strengthen the diaphragm, decrease the amount of work it takes to breathe and decrease your body’s demand for oxygen, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

A good way to practice belly breathing is to lie down on the floor and place your hand on your belly. When you inhale, try to breathe so that your belly rises and lifts your hand.

Once you’ve got the hang of it, stand up and repeat the steps. With practice, you can train yourself to belly breathe while running, thereby increasing your ability to obtain and use oxygen.

As for whether you should be breathing in through your nose and breathing out through your mouth, or using both, many coaches encourage runners to use the breathing pattern that feels most natural.

Rhythmic Breathing for Runners

Rhythmic breathing utilizes your foot strikes as a way to regulate and count your breathing. To try it, start with a basic “square” pattern that syncs with your footstrike (sort of like counting dance steps): Breathe in (1), two, three, four; breathe out (1), two, three, four.

And just like dancing, the breathing-step pattern can change.

Dr. Jack Daniels is an Olympic medalist and exercise scientist who works with elite runners, including a number of Olympians. He currently serves as Head Coach of the Run S.M.A.R.T. program. In an email to Fleet Feet, Daniels says 86 percent of the serious runners he has tested ventilate with a 2:2 rhythm, inhaling for two steps and exhaling for two steps.

“Elite runners often start races with a 2:2 rhythm for about 2/3 of their race, and go to 2:1 or 1:2 the last third of the race,” Daniels says.

You can try this approach with a 5K distance, for example, by using a 2:2 rhythm for the first two miles, and then switching to a 2:1 for the last mile. Daniels says you’ll know quickly whether you’re pacing yourself properly: “If you can’t stay with 2:2 for two miles, then you went out too fast.”

Daniels says he found doing a five-minute run during which you change the rhythm each minute can help runners practice breathing and find which rhythm works best for them.

“Do a five-minute steady run using a 4:4 rhythm the first minute, then change to a 3:3 rhythm the second minute, a 2:2 the third minute, 1:1 the fourth minute and again to a 4:4 rhythm the fifth minute,” he says. “Many won’t mind that 4:4 the first minute, but realize 4:4 isn’t good by the fifth minute. When on an easy run, 3:3 is a workable rhythm, but it isn’t good enough for a race.”

There’s a significant amount of research that’s been done on rhythmic breathing and running. The authors of one seminal 2013 study, Impact Loading and Locomotor-Respiratory Coordination Significantly Influence Breathing Dynamics in Running Humans, found rhythmic breathing aided in “reducing the work of ventilatory muscles, and minimizing fatigue of respiratory muscles that are critical to endurance aerobic activity.”

If rhythmic breathing supports running economy, is there an ideal rhythm we should be working toward? The short answer: It depends on an individual runner’s fitness level and goals. A beginner or intermediate runner on a long run may do well with a 3:2 or 3:3 pattern, while an elite runner racing in a 5K will likely favor a 2:2 or 2:1 pattern.

A runner kneels down to tie her shoes.

Consistency is Key to Breathing Better

Although belly breathing and rhythmic breathing can significantly impact your running, it’s consistency in your training that will ultimately improve your fitness level and increase your body’s ability to utilize oxygen.

USA Track & Field-certified running coach Lou Ann Bakolia, who coaches through her company Off to Run, says consistency is key to becoming a better runner.

“The breathing will come with consistent training,” she says in an email to Fleet Feet. “They have to run at least three days per week.”

USATF coach Tim Clark also says proper breathing can help a runner’s recovery from a hard workout.

“A runner’s level of fitness, and ease of breathing go hand-in-hand,” Clark says in an email. “Therefore, the more fit one is, the quicker one’s recovery.”

Pay attention to your training schedule, focus on your breathing, and your upcoming race may feel a bit breezier.

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