How to breathe while running is one of the most important questions you can ask. Breathing is critical for life, and it’s something we do in our day-to-day lives without thinking about it.
When it comes to exercise and running, however, many people struggle to find a comfortable breathing pattern, and experiment with different methods.
Let’s look at what the key factors are in breathing while running, and then we’ll introduce the best-proven techniques for effortless breathing while running.
By adopting better breathing techniques, runners can experience better efficiency, a more consistent running pace and form, and a more relaxed mind.
We’ll look at:
- The importance of proper breathing when running
- Deep vs. shallow breathing
- Breathing exercises you can do before running
- Our recommended breathing technique: walking through the 2:2 method
- Breathing Hazards
- Tips for increasing your breathing capacity
Let’s get into it!
The Basics of Breathing
Breathing delivers oxygen and expels carbon dioxide.
The oxygen is obviously important – it helps create energy, and any kind of restriction in that delivery of oxygen can lead to problems.
If we are breathing too shallowly or quickly, our body feels tension.
Stress hormones are released, and less energy is available to fuel your activity.
On the other hand, if we are breathing slowly and deeply, providing ample oxygen, our body naturally relaxes. It reduces blood pressure and balances the system.
So . . . how does this apply to running?
- Related: Side Stitch While Running
How to Breathe While Running: The Fundamentals
Your breath is critically important during a run.
Your body is managing a wealth of processes all at the same time.
It needs oxygen in order to operate at peak performance.
At the same time, clearly you can’t take in incredibly long, slow, deep breaths, because your body needs oxygen more quickly than that.
The more you practice breathing deliberately, the better your body will get at managing this balance.
The more that you work on this, the better your lungs will get at finding that balance. At bringing in the most oxygen it can at a steady rate.
Dialling in your breathing while running is essential, especially when preparing to ramp up your miles if training for a marathon or similar event.
Breathing Techniques – Before You Go Running
Before addressing your breathing while running, first take some time at home to check out your own breathing.
Deep Vs Shallow Breathing
Deep breathing is taking long, deep ‘belly breaths.’
Shallow breathing is shorter and sharper breaths – your chest will pump up and down more frantically. Shallow breathing uses more energy, delivers less oxygen, and is associated with states of higher anxiety.
Marshall Weber, certified personal trainer and owner of Jack City Fitness, reminds you to use your diaphragm. “If you’ve ever taken a singing lesson, this tip will probably sound familiar to you. Your diaphragm is a crucial part of your body, especially when it comes to proper breath control.
Try doing this now, while you aren’t running. Put a hand over your chest and another on your belly and take a deep, deep breath. You should feel your stomach expand beneath your hand, rather than your chest. Then, give your belly a gentle push as you exhale. You want your exhale to be lengthier than your inhale.
These deep breaths are referred to as ‘diaphragmatic breathing,’ or ‘belly breathing.’ They will allow you to breathe more deeply while you run.
This breathing technique can feel a bit funny if you’ve never tried it before. Try giving it a whirl while lying on your back — it’s a good way to really feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.”
At all times, we want to be aiming for deep breathing as opposed to shallow breathing.
Practice Deep Breathing Pre-Run
If we can have our body energized and relaxed at the same time, that provides the perfect balance to have a great run.
Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and taking in a long, slow, deep breath.
Let the air fill your upper chest, mid chest, and then lower chest.
Pause for a moment.
Then exhale, slowly, surely, pressing out all those toxins.
Consciously focus on deep, slow breathing. This will prime your behaviour for running.
How To Breathe While Running – The Technique
The main technique we’re going to use is called the 2:2 method.
This simply means that while running, you’ll inhale for two counts, then exhale for two counts.
Keeping the inhale / exhale actions the same length helps steady your breathing pattern, and a count of two is sufficient time to perform a deep breath without forcing the air.
Some practical tips on implementing the 2:2 method:
– The 2:2 method is designed to be used when running at a comfortable pace – yet faster than jogging.
– Consciously place your focus on the act of deep breathing as you run.
If the 2:2 method is too challenging, you may wish to begin with a more gentle pace and try for 3:3 or 4:4 intervals.
Beginner runners may find they have to take regular walking breaks – that’s OK.
The focus should always be on completing a deep, belly breath.
Nose Vs. Mouth Breathing For Runners
Often you’ll hear how you should focus on breathing through your nose.
This is regularly practised in yoga classes and several other forms of exercise.
Your nose has all sorts of filtering systems to block pollen, dust, and dirt from getting into your lungs. It helps to ensure your lungs stay as clean and high-functioning as possible.
When it comes to running, the nose vs. mouth question has a different answer, depending on what type of running you’re doing: sprinting or long distance running.
Weber advises, “When you’re running, you might find that breathing in through your mouth helps your body take more oxygen in. This leads to less breathlessness.”
You’re performing an intense cardiovascular workout such as sprinting and need to maximize your oxygen input, not restrict it. Now is the time to let the full, wide stream of oxygen pour into you, keeping you going.
Long Distance Running
Long distance is a different story. When you breathe, you inhale oxygen and release carbon dioxide. If you breathe through your mouth, your body is less able to filter and maintain the levels of carbon dioxide, thus depleting your energy.
While mouth breathing works well for short distances like sprints, it is not enough to maintain the oxygen levels you need for long runs.
Campbell Will, a breathwork teacher and physiotherapist at Breath Body Therapy, explains why:
“Long distance running should be an aerobic exercise (meaning in the presence of oxygen) this is a much more efficient form of energy production, and lasts a lot longer. Sprinting is primarily an anaerobic exercise (meaning without oxygen). What most runners don’t realise is the availability of oxygen (dictating whether we are performing aerobic or anaerobic exercises) is dependent on our ability to tolerate increasing levels of carbon dioxide.
Long distance runners should breathe almost entirely through the nose (inhale and exhale) as this maintains adequate levels of carbon dioxide in the blood thus keeping the body in an aerobic state. This differs from sprinting where breathing through the mouth provides more volume of air, faster, but will very quickly push the body to an anaerobic state (not sustainable long term).
Long distance runners should work on modulating their speed so that they can maintain nasal breathing, rather than pushing too hard or fast and having to compensate by breathing through the mouth. This will build a higher aerobic threshold, meaning more energy for longer, and faster recovery.”
It’s worth mentioning that you want to keep your lungs in as healthy a condition as possible to reach your ideal running ability.
Lungs that are compromised will have a much harder time bringing in oxygen and doing the carbon dioxide exchange.
Avoid smoking. If you know people who smoke, do your best not to inhale their second-hand smoke.
Keep your home areas clean so they do not clog up the air with mold or dust.
Do you have allergies?
Work with a doctor to figure out what they are and how to minimize them. It might be worth it to look into an air filter for the rooms you use most often, to give your lungs a chance to work without as much strain.
Building your Breathing Capacity
Your lung capacity actually works like every other muscle in your body – it can be built up with proper resistance training.
The more oxygen you can get in with each breath, the more relaxed your breathing will be when you run.
Imagine you are trying to run with a face mask on so only small amounts of oxygen get through to you.
You’ll probably end up gasping like a fish fairly quickly. The same thing happens – although to a less extreme level – if you run without your full lung capacity.
Try adding a meditation practice to your daily schedule – one that involves a breathing pattern as a component (even a running meditation can help with this).
That will give you a chance to focus wholly on your breathing. The more you practice at it, the more you can get a sense of just how deeply the body can breathe.
When we’re hunched over phones or tablets or computers all day, we can come to think that small-breath, small-lung system is all we’ve got. We can forget just how powerful our bodies really are.
As Weber suggested, lie flat on your back to give your lungs their largest space to work with. Put a hand on your belly. Draw in a long, slow, deep breath, letting your belly fill out like a balloon. That’s what your lungs can do. Now squish it all out, out, out, until your system is empty.
The Bottom Line
Breathing is a critical part of every moment. How to breathe while running is a non-negotiable skill if you want to optimize your training (and comfort).
Practice your breathing during off-hours, and be sure to think about your breath during a run.
You’ll be surprised at how much your performance improves once you do!