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.