How To Increase Lung Capacity For Runners: 3 Breathing Exercises

Regular breathing exercises can improve low lung capacity, allowing you to enjoy running more.

New runners, senior runners, and all runners, for that matter, often find that they feel breathless while running.

But are there actually ways in which you can make your lungs stronger for running, just as you would with squats or lunges for your leg muscles?

There are different breathing exercises that can potentially improve your lung capacity over time, such as diaphragmatic breathing, pursed-lipped breathing, and rhythmic breathing.

In this article, we will discuss how the lungs work, factors that affect lung capacity, and how to increase lung capacity for runners with our top three breathing exercises.

A person breathing in.

What Is Lung Capacity?

Before we look at how to improve lung function with breathing exercises, let’s discuss what is meant by “lung capacity.”

Lung capacity is essentially a measure of how much air volume your lungs can hold. It is often called vital lung capacity.

The lungs are part of the respiratory system, which begins with the mouth and nose. The nasal passages and trachea, also known as the windpipe, help you take in inspired air from the surroundings. 

The nasal passages warm and filter the air while the air that you inhale through the mouth goes straight down the trachea.

All the inhaled air then goes down the bronchi, which are tubes that branch to each lung. From there, the bronchi split off into even smaller air passages known as bronchioles. 

The bronchioles help bring oxygenated air into the lungs and air with carbon dioxide that you want to exhale back out the other way.

A person bent over out of breath from running.

At the cellular level, the lungs are filled with tiny sacs known as alveoli. These are the functional units of the lungs that are responsible for gas exchange at the cellular level.

Capillaries bringing deoxygenated blood from the right ventricle of the heart diffuse oxygen from the capillaries into the small alveoli sacs. 

Then, the lungs can oxygenate the blood, which diffuses back into the blood vessels to the left atria of the heart. From there, the heart pumps the blood into the left ventricle and out of the aorta into circulation so that your body has oxygenated blood.

The greater your vital lung capacity, the more oxygenated air you can breathe in and exhale with each breath.

This makes breathing more efficient much in the same way that getting consistent exercise strengthens the heart muscle and increases stroke volume so that each heartbeat can pump more blood.

Higher lung capacity means that you can have a slower respiration rate or take fewer breaths per minute while still taking in as much oxygen and ridding the body of as much carbon dioxide, which is seen as a toxin.

When we think about lung capacity, what also matters is tidal volume. The tidal value is essentially the amount of air you are breathing in and out per breath.

A runner taking a deep breath.

As long as you have a healthy respiratory system and no chronic or acute lung conditions such as emphysema, pneumonia, bronchitis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COOD), asthma, or some other type of respiratory infection, the tidal volume or the amount of air you are breathing is significantly less than your maximum lung capacity.

Essentially, there is always a fairly significant “breathing reserve,” even during high-intensity exercise.

In fact, according to the European Respiratory Society, during rest, we breathe about 15 breaths per minute for a total of 12 liters of air, which means that each breath is about 0.8 liters.1National Library of Medicine. (2016). Your lungs and exercise. Breathe12(1), 97–100. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.elf121

‌If the lung capacity is 6 liters, the amount of air we breathe at rest only uses 13% of our vital lung capacity.

During vigorous cardiovascular exercise, our breathing rate can jump up to 40-60 breaths per minute to take in 100 liters of air. This is at most 2.5 liters per breath, which is still not even quite 42% of your lung capacity.

Therefore, we can feel “out of breath” while doing some type of exercise that increases heart rate, there isn’t actual shortness of breath in a clinical sense.

People in a breathing class.

What Is a Good Lung Capacity?

According to the American Lung Association,2American Lung Association. (2019). Lung Capacity and Aging | American Lung Association. Lung.org. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/how-lungs-work/lung-capacity-and-aging the average lung capacity for a young adult (age 20-35) is 6 liters.

Lung capacity tends to be higher in males vs females and taller individuals.3Delgado, B. J., & Bajaj, T. (2019, April 16). Physiology, Lung Capacity. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541029/

Studies suggest that lung capacity decreases with age, beginning to decline after the mid 30s because the lungs start to lose elasticity and the breathing muscles weaken.

There are also certain lung conditions and acute respiratory infections that can compromise your vital lung capacity, the strength of your breathing muscles, and the functional health of your respiratory system.

Examples of lung conditions, respiratory infections, and health conditions that can alter breathing patterns and potentially compromise lung capacity include the following:

Health Conditions That Can Compromise Lung Capacity

  • Lung cancer
  • Lung disease
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Lower respiratory infections
  • Obesity
  • High waist-to-hip ratio
  • Allergies
  • Low vitamin D levels4Zosky, G. R., Berry, L. J., Elliot, J. G., James, A. L., Gorman, S., & Hart, P. H. (2011). Vitamin D Deficiency Causes Deficits in Lung Function and Alters Lung Structure. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine183(10), 1336–1343. https://doi.org/10.1164/rccm.201010-1596oc
  • Pregnancy5Hopkins, E., & Sharma, S. (2019, March 14). Physiology, Functional Residual Capacity. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK500007/
  • Lack of physical activity

Additionally, air pollutants or poor air quality can make breathing difficult and may irritate your lungs or alter your breathing patterns.

Being at altitude, especially if you are doing any type of vigorous physical activity at higher elevations, can also increase your breathing rate because there is less oxygen available per breath.

Rib fractures can make it difficult to expand your rib cage when you breathe, which can also reduce your working lung capacity until the injury heals.

A group of people practicing breathing.

How To Gain Lung Capacity

Getting consistent aerobic physical activity to improve your cardiovascular health also strengthens your respiratory system, breathing muscles, abdominal muscles, functional wellness, and lung health.

Plus, studies suggest that getting regular exercise reduces your risk of various lifestyle diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and hypertension.

Improving your overall physical health and wellness reduces the strain on the respiratory system and may help decrease your risk of lung cancer and other lung conditions.

Additionally, high-intensity exercise (such as high intensity running, high intensity interval training, cycling, heavy weight lifting, etc.) that increases your heart rate causes you to engage in deep breathing.

This type of physical activity is one of the most effective ways to strengthen the abdominal muscles and breathing muscles, and can improve the efficiency of gas exchange to take in oxygen and rid the body of carbon dioxide.

How To Increase Lung Capacity For Runners?

There are different breathing exercises that can potentially improve your lung capacity over time.

Here are some of the best lung exercises to strengthen the respiratory muscles and improve your lung health:

A person doing diaphragmatic breathing.

#1: Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a specific breathing technique that is often called deep belly breathing, abdominal breathing, or deep diaphragmatic breathing.6American Lung Association. (2021). Breathing Exercises | American Lung Association. Www.lung.org. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/breathing-exercises

The goal of diaphragmatic breathing is to breathe not just by expanding your lungs but truly by filling your entire belly with air by stretching the diaphragm to allow for maximal lung expansion.

According to the American Lung Association, rather than taking rapid, shallow breaths, the best breathing techniques for running are diaphragmatic breathing and deep belly breathing.7Fitness, & Diseases, L. H. and. (n.d.). Breathing Basics for Runners. Www.lung.org. https://www.lung.org/blog/breathing-basics-for-runners

‌As your cardiovascular fitness improves, your lungs, diaphragm, and breathing muscles will become stronger and more accustomed to breathing deeply and rapidly.

Additionally, according to the Cleveland Clinic,8Cleveland Clinic. (2019). Diaphragmatic breathing exercises & techniques. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing diaphragmatic breathing training can also increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and enhance the removal of carbon dioxide, which is a metabolic waste product that we eliminate from the body during exhalation.

Here is how to do diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Consciously relax your shoulders and release your tongue from the roof of your mouth, releasing tension held in your jaw.
  3. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen.
  4. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, encouraging the breath towards your abdomen to expand your belly rather than fill your chest.
  5. Slowly exhale through your nose or mouth, aiming to reach a count of 8.
  6. Repeat as many times as you’d like, trying to deepen the breath on every cycle.
A person taking a deep breath.

#2: Pursed Lip Breathing

This is a great breathing exercise for beginners because it strengthens the respiratory muscles without being overly complicated.

  1. Breathe in for two seconds through your nose.
  2. Purse your lips like blowing out candles on a birthday cake. 
  3. Breathe out slowly, dragging it on for a full 4-6 seconds. 
  4. Repeat for 5-10 minutes.

#3: Rhythmic Breathing

Rhythmic breathing establishes a breathing pattern while running that prevents feeling a shortness of breath by keeping breathing steady and controlled. Rhythmic breathing also decreases stress on the diaphragm.  

Depending on your fitness level and the pace and intensity with which you are running, most running coaches suggest using a 3:2 breathing pattern while you run.

This entails inhaling for a count of three and exhaling for a count of two, so you should inhale for three footstrikes and exhale for two footstrikes.

Unless you are running at a very high intensity, exhalation is mostly a passive process in which the diaphragm and breathing muscles can relax. In contrast, inhalation is an active process that requires work from your respiratory muscles.

A person taking a deep breath.

It takes more time to fill the lungs with oxygenated air than to passively breathe the inspired air out, so having a longer count for inhalation better supports your breathing needs during running. 

Additionally, when we inhale, the diaphragm and core muscles contract, making them more stable than during the exhalation process when they are relaxed.

As with other types of strength training, in order to see appreciable improvements in your vital capacity or function of your respiratory muscles, it is important to practice lung exercises for the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, and smaller breathing muscles consistently.

You can even incorporate mindful breathing exercises several times throughout the day.

Be patient. As your fitness improves, you should feel a difference in your breathing pattern while running.

If you are interested in diaphragmatic breathing, check out this next guide:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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