Breathing is one of the most fascinating actions in the human body. It is natural, yet completely controllable. Breathing doesn’t occur 100% automatically like your heart beating, but it does seem to run on auto-pilot – in fact, you’re probably breathing right now without even thinking about it. But it can be much harder to learn how to breathe when running.
The breath is a powerful tool in our everyday life, but even more so during exercise. No matter which mode you choose – swimming, biking, running, weight lifting, yoga, etc. – your breathing pattern has a major effect on your overall feeling and performance.
We all know how to breathe, but we don’t always know the best way to breathe. In reality, the best way to breathe may change from one person to another.
In this post, we’re going to discuss breathing for runners, including a number of different breathing techniques that you can try for yourself.
Learn the Best Breathing Technique for Runners
How to Breathe While Running
The #1 rule for breathing while running is to do what feels natural to you. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try anything new. You can still learn new techniques and practice them on your own. But you won’t see significant performance improvements until your breathing technique feels natural.
In other words, it may take some time before a new breathing technique feels natural. But that is when you will truly benefit from it.
Don’t focus too much on your breathing while running. Instead, focus on your running technique which is much more important at the moment. That means using the correct posture, pace, foot placement, and more.
We’ve put together a Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started Running which includes tips on running technique.
In the rest of this post, we’re going to cover a number of tips, tricks, and techniques for breathing while running. These include basic techniques and advanced techniques, plus some new scientific studies which used experimental breathing techniques. Let’s jump into it.
Breathing techniques for runners:
- Everything You Need to Know About Breathing
- The Science of Breathing
- Why Breathing Technique is Important for Runners
- Other Breathing Techniques for Runners
- Explaining Diaphragmatic Breathing
- Diaphragmatic Breathing Progressions
- Nose and Mouth Breathing
- Rhythmic Breathing Technique
- New Study on Pattern Breathing and Heart Rate Variability
- Explaining Diaphragmatic Breathing
Everything You Need to Know About Breathing
The Science of Breathing
Before we jump into different breathing techniques, patterns, and cadences, it’s important to learn more about normal breathing.
Humans breathe about 20,000 times per day, and with each breath, there comes a split-second series of events that delivers oxygen to our muscles.
When we inhale, the diaphragm moves down, allowing our lungs to expand and fill with air. Our lungs are filled with oxygen as we inhale, and they release carbon dioxide as we exhale. Of course, this is a simplified version of the complicated processes that occur inside the body during a normal breath.
Now, for the slightly more complicated yet wildly intriguing science behind breathing.
When the diaphragm moves down during the inhale, the heart is actually able to expand as the chest cavity lengthens. As the heart expands, blood flows a little more slowly through the cardiac muscles, which sends a signal to the brain for the heart rate to speed up. With an exhale, the heart muscles shorten and the opposite signal is sent to the brain, telling the heart to slow down.
In essence, these small differences in heart rate are your heart rate variability (HRV), or the variance in time between heartbeats, measured in milliseconds.
All you need to know is that you have a significant amount of control over your heart rate and heart rate variability based on your breathing. With each breathing technique below, we’ll help explain how you can adjust your breathing and what effect this might have on your heart rate or heart rate variability.
Why Breathing Technique is Important for Runners
With each breath, we deliver oxygen to our muscles. In a simplified sentence, oxygen is what powers the mitochondria inside our muscles, allowing them to contract and operate. These contractions could be as little as shifting our hips in a chair or contracting our calf in a full sprint on the track.
Whatever the movement is, our muscles need oxygen to perform.
When people say they have “run out of breath,” they are actually saying that the oxygen consumed in each of their breaths cannot keep up with the demands of their muscles. Some people may run out of breath while climbing a set of stairs, while others will run out of breath when they push past the six-minute per kilometer pace on a run.
Proper breathing while running helps deliver as much oxygen as possible to our muscles so that we can run faster for longer. Improper breathing, or inefficient breathing, results in us falling short of our body’s potential. Your lungs will burn far before your muscles give out, and your nervous system will force you to slow down.
With each of these breathing patterns below, we will describe how you can maximize your breathing efficiency while running. When you maximize your breathing efficiency, you will reduce the stress on your lungs and deliver more oxygen to your working muscles. The end result: improved running speed and endurance.
Other Breathing Techniques for Runners
Explaining Diaphragmatic Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is a breathing technique that uses intentional focus on the diaphragm to expand your lungs and improve your breathing efficiency. You may have heard of “belly breathing,” which is identical to diaphragmatic breathing.
If you’ve ever played an instrument or participated in a yoga class, you have probably already practiced diaphragmatic breathing. At the most basic level, diaphragmatic or belly breathing starts with the intention of expanding and pushing out your belly when you inhale. Your chest and shoulders should remain basically still. All the movement occurs in your belly as your diaphragm moves down towards your hips.
During the exhale, shrink your belly back to its starting position while keeping your chest and shoulders stationary and relaxed. The diaphragm is returning to its original position here, moving up and towards the chest cavity.
When you first practice belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, place one of your hands on your belly so that you can really feel the expansion and contraction. Start by practicing diaphragmatic breathing through your nose only, and then progress to inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Once you get comfortable with the basics of diaphragmatic breathing, it’s time to add your chest into the equation.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Progressions
For the next progression of diaphragmatic breathing, start with inhaling through your nose and expanding your belly. Next, instead of exhaling, breathe into your chest, allowing your chest cavity to expand as you feel the expansion through your ribs, shoulders, and collarbones.
Once your chest is completely filled with air, start by exhaling through your chest first, and then your belly. Don’t let it go all at once.
This simple technique can be practiced while sitting, standing, laying down, walking, or running. We recommend trying this technique first in a prone position, and then progressively working your way up towards using diaphragmatic breathing while running.
Nose and Mouth Breathing
Nasal breathing has become more than just a trend in the last decade. Many people and runners subscribe to nasal breathing like a religion, believing it is the best way to live their lives.
The science is two-sided, with many papers supporting the use of nasal breathing and others refuting it. Anecdotally, most runners use both nasal and oral breathing: inhaling through the nose, and exhaling through the mouth.
The benefits of nasal breathing include warming and humidifying incoming air and reducing the severity of exercise-induced asthma.
However, nasal breathing will only work up to a certain point in running. Once most runners reach medium or near-maximal effort, they won’t be able to intake all the necessary air through their nose only.
At that point, it is recommended that you inhale in whatever way is most comfortable for you. For most athletes, that means breathing through your mouth when they are near maximal effort.
Nasal breathing has a number of other benefits, including improved immunity and access to the microbiome of the nose. Overall, nasal breathing is believed to be better than mouth breathing in both exercise and non-exercise contexts.
We recommend giving nasal breathing a try during easy and steady runs, such as Zone 2 endurance runs. But, in our opinion, nasal breathing is a marginal benefit over mouth breathing for runners, so don't stress out if you can't do it.
Rhythmic Breathing Technique for Runners
Rhythmic breathing is breathing in time with your stride while running. Most commonly, the rhythm is as follows:
- Inhale on your left foot strike
- Exhale on your left foot strike
This is known as two-count rhythmic breathing. Some runners use a four-count breathing technique (inhaling and exhaling every fourth footstrike) during easy runs where they might not be working very hard.
You can even try five-count or six-count rhythmic breathing to focus on taking longer and deeper breaths.
As for one-count rhythmic breathing, this is a rapid breathing rate that is unsustainable. One-count rhythmic breathing should only be reserved for sprinting, and at that point, you should be focusing on your sprinting technique, not your breathing.
The science behind rhythmic breathing is inconclusive, though it may be onto something. A series of studies showed that the greatest impact stress we experience while running occurs when our foot strikes the ground at the beginning of an exhalation.
The theory behind rhythmic breathing is that we can balance out this high-stress impact by alternating inhale-exhale on one side of the body. Though the research is inconclusive, their findings paired with anecdotal evidence suggest that rhythmic breathing is a powerful technique for runners.
New Study on Pattern Breathing and Heart Rate Variability
There are a handful of new studies that have been examining the relationship between pattern breathing and heart rate variability. In other words, they are studying the effect that breathing has on your heart rate and heart rate variability, which is a key performance metric for endurance athletes.
To stabilize your heart rate variability, according to these studies, you should practice double inhales – two quick inhales – followed by a normal exhale. This may help reopen the alveoli in your lungs which collapse under fatigue. Crucially, the alveoli are the delivery source of oxygen in the lungs, so it’s safe to say that it’s bad for endurance athletes when they begin to collapse.
According to these unpublished studies, the double inhale-exhale technique can help offload excess carbon dioxide during running, combating fatigue in endurance sports.
Breathing while running seems like such a simple action. You breathe in and breathe out. But it can be quite hard to breathe while running, especially for beginners. If you run out of breath when running, that's okay. It's totally normal.
Be patient, train consistently, and trust your process. Practice these breathing techniques when running and your efficiency will gradually increase over time. The best way to increase your breathing efficiency when running is to train a lot at low intensities.
Over time, your body will adapt and your breathing efficiency will improve. Check out this podcast - The 4 Key Ingredients For a Successful Triathlon Training Plan - to hear more about the benefits of low-intensity training.
Breathing isn’t a zero-sum game in running. You are not going to forget how to breathe, but you can certainly make it a lot more efficient. Don't feel pressured to try all of these breathing techniques. Instead, the greatest gains you can make are improving your fitness and breathing efficiency through low-intensity training.