Knowing how to increase lung capacity for running – or rather, aerobic capacity, as we’ll discuss – can help you make some quick gains when you’re starting out on your running journey.
It plays a crucial role in our ability to run continuously, and without decent aerobic capacity you’d never get that far without having to stop to walk.
In a perfect world, we would all have the lungs of Olympic athletes. You just picture yourself gliding over the finish line with ease, right?
But if you clicked on this article, chances are you might be more in the “huffing and puffing” stage than the “never break a sweat” stage.
Don’t worry. We’ve got you.
In this article, we’re going to look at:
- How much lung capacity actually matters for runners (whether newbies or marathon runners),
- Whether or not lung capacity is really a limiting factor in your running performance,
- Why aerobic capacity is the metric you really want to think about,
- The breathing exercises you can do now to help your lungs and aerobic capacity.
Let’s jump in!
How Much Does Lung Capacity Matter For Running?
What I’m about to say may surprise you.
When it comes to distance running like marathon running, a high lung capacity is actually not as essential as you think.
It’s easy to make this mistake. When you’re doubled over and fighting for breath, it feels like you need more air, right?
Not so fast.
Dr. Todd Buckingham, an exercise physiologist and world champion triathlete, asserts that the lungs are actually overdeveloped for a runner’s needs.
“Unless you are one of the best runners in the world,” he says, “Your lung capacity is not a limiting factor in your running performance. Your ability to transport and utilize oxygen is your problem.”
His math checks out, according to the American Lung Association. They tell us the average adult lung capacity is 6 liters (a little over 1.5 gallons).
So at rest, a normal breath takes only half a liter. When exercising, a breath is 2.5-4 liters each.
How This Affects a Runner’s Lung Capacity
Our lungs have the capacity to hold 1.5-2 liters more air than we use.
You’re definitely getting enough air. So what’s really the issue?
There are a lot more processes going on behind the scenes.
Here’s what happens each time you breathe:
- You take in oxygen (among other gases).
- The oxygen diffuses from your lungs to the lungs’ blood vessels.
- The oxygen is moved to the leg muscles by your red blood cells.
- The oxygen diffuses from the blood to the muscle.
- Your body converts the oxygen to ATP (energy) in your mitochondria.
That’s a lot going on, right? As you can see, creating energy is so much more than just being able to take in a lot of air.
What This Means for Your Training
When people are thinking of how to increase lung capacity for running, they are actually looking to streamline that complicated process up there. They want their bodies to better transport and use the oxygen that comes in with each breath.
Lung capacity is more like aerobic capacity.
This means the types of strategies you may have thought you’d need will be a little different.
Lung training for running won’t be about expanding so much as conditioning.
Okay, you say. Then I want to know how to strengthen my lungs for running.
Note: a great way to measure your aerobic capacity is through doing a 12-minute Cooper Test (see our guide here).
Related: Aerobic vs Anaerobic Training – Why You Need Both!
How to Increase Lung Capacity for Running Through Breathing
All right, so working off of the idea that lung capacity equals aerobic capacity, there are several ways to improve this.
The first is through a series of breathing exercises for running designed to warm up the lungs and make it easier to breathe in the first place.
Runners often favor these 3:
- Diaphragmatic breathing
- Pursed lips breathing
- Rhythmic breathing
Let’s take a look at each one.
Related: What’s a Good VO2 Max? Average VO2 Max By Age And Sex
People with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) often have long-term problems and poor airflow.
To fight this, one thing they turn to is diaphragmatic breathing or “belly breathing.” Runners get huge benefits from this.
Here’s how you do it:
- Sit against a wall or chair, or lie all the way down.
- Place one hand on your upper chest, and the other below your ribcage.
- Inhale through your nose for about two seconds, paying attention to your breath as it moves through your abdomen, making your stomach rise.
- Tighten your stomach muscles as you breathe out, exhaling through pursed lips. Keep the hand on your upper chest still.
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes, 3-4 times a day.
Pursed Lips Breathing
If you find yourself short of breath, pursed lips breathing is a way to control it and get you back to normal.
This involves breathing in a structured, purposeful way, keeping your airways open longer.
You’ll gradually build lung strength if you practice this regularly.
- Breathe in for two seconds through your nose.
- Purse your lips like blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
- Breathe out slowly, dragging it on for a full 4-6 seconds.
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes.
The final breathing exercise for running can be done right in the middle of your run.
Rhythmic breathing distributes that force evenly by timing your inhales and exhales. This way, the opposite foot hits the ground for each breath.
With rhythmic breathing, you can save yourself from repetitive motion injury and long recovery times.
Rhythmic breathing isn’t just for running, either. Studies show that practicing this shows significant improvement both in cardiac health and coping with stress.
Here’s how to do it properly:
- Inhale through your nose.
- Use your stomach to breathe in, rather than your chest.
- Though there are different options, a good rule of thumb is the 5-step pattern: 3 steps on inhale, and 2 steps on exhale. This will naturally place your feet in the right position.
- When you need more oxygen, shift to a 3-step pattern: 2 steps on inhale, and 1 step on exhale.
Feel like you’ve got the hang of the breathing and are ready to try something more taxing? I’m on it.
Four Great Lung Exercises For Running Endurance
The second best way to increase lung capacity is by pushing yourself. As you make more demands on your body, it will eventually rise up to meet you. Here’s how:
1. Interval running. One of the most effective ways to build lung capacity is by working your body hard in short bursts followed by rest. By running intervals, your body gets used to more strenuous effort without taking it too far.
2. HIIT training. Have you ever heard of the term “muscle confusion?” Continuing the interval idea, HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts keep you from hitting a lung capacity plateau by varying the types of exercises you perform.
Here are our recommended HIIT Running Exercises.
Be sure to warm up and cool down before and after!
3. Build endurance with the long, easy, slow run. This pushes you in a different way, combating fatigue by getting your muscles used to working longer.
Keep your heart rate at a manageable level, but aim for longer than your usual running sessions. Shoot for 20-30% of your usual weekly mileage.
4. Run at a high altitude. Training at 8,000 feet or higher forces your body to work much harder by reducing your supply of oxygen.
Over time with altitude training for runners, your body will adjust, increasing the number of red blood cells and moving oxygen more efficiently. If nearby mountains aren’t your landscape, look for a gym with a hypoxic chamber to simulate the altitude. Or invest in an elevation mask to restrict airflow.
How to Keep Your Lungs Super Healthy
Of course, none of this matters if you don’t take care of your lungs in the first place. Make sure they’re in top shape by:
- Not smoking
- Having an air filter and dusting often to keep irritants out
- Keeping up with your vaccines to prevent problems like pneumonia
- Eating antioxidant-rich foods such as kale and blueberries
- Stay consistent with your workouts
After all, if you’re going to go through all this effort with breathing and exercise, that effort should be added to a solid base. Why build a house with a shaky foundation?
If you want to get more in-depth measurements of your lung capacity, here’s how: VO2 max.
What is VO2 Max?
VO2 max, in short, is a measure of a person’s maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise. In other words, VO2 max gauges the athlete’s max capacity to use oxygen.
Sound familiar? That’s the same process that happens every time you take a breath – the one we just went over.
VO2 max is considered the gold standard for measuring an athlete’s aerobic and cardiovascular fitness.
You can get a higher measure by taking the difference between two people of the same age, fitness level, and body type, who finish a race at completely different times. One has more oxygen flowing, so their muscles can work harder.
To calculate VO2 max and what to do with it, we’ve put together a guide with all the ins and outs of your VO2 max.
If you feel like you’re trying all of these tips and you’re just as red-faced and exhausted as before, you might just be working too hard. Training for a marathon is intense and difficult. It’s easy to get burned out.
Avoid that frustration by getting real help with your training. Download our free marathon bootcamp to get you up to speed safely. When you step up to the starting line you’ll be ready to take on anything.