How to Breathe While Running

Have you ever paid attention to how you breathe while you run? If not, you could be making the activity tougher than it needs to be.

For most new runners, controlling your breathing will be one of the first big obstacles to tackle.

One of the main reasons for this—we don't practice it enough! Breathing does not seem like something that requires practice, considering we're always doing it, but drills and practice are actually crucial to improving our breathing during a run!

Luckily, The Run Experience is here to share with you some of our favorite breathing tips and drills to make sure you're smiling, not wheezing, as you cross that finish line.

Breathing for Runners: Why Is it so Challenging at First?

To start, let's take a look at why our breathing is giving us trouble in the first place.

Just out of curiosity, what sort of position is your body in right now, as you read this? Are you seated, standing? Slouched over, slumped back in the couch?

Well, believe it or not, the way in which you breathe (whether you're running or not) is affected by the positions you spend most of your day in. Slouching over can cause our breathing to get shallow.

Instead of using our diaphragm for deeper, more valuable breaths, everything stays up in our chest, creating little to no value for our overall aerobic capacity.

When it comes time to run, you've programmed yourself to take short, shallow breaths, which can make you feel panicked and like you can't get enough air as you run.

Breathing for runners comes down to regularly expanding the lungs (training at mid to high heart rate zones regularly), constantly improving the body's ability to utilize oxygen.

Let's take a look at a few ways we can improve our breathing mechanics.

Breathing for Runners: Belly Breathing Drill

This one's simple. Lie on your back and put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.

Take a few breaths, noticing under which hand most of your breaths are happening.

Here's the drill:

  • Take a big inhale through your nose.
  • Start by filling the high chest, then the mid-chest, then the belly.
  • Now reverse the cycle on the exhale.
  • Exhale deep out of the belly, then the mid-chest, then the chest.
  • The exhale will be through the mouth, rather than the nose.
  • Repeat these deep long breaths (hands still on belly and chest) for 10 repetitions.

Breathing for Runners: Nose Breathing Drill

Now that we've got that diaphragm working for us, let's put that new breathing strategy into practice. Before you go out for that next run, spend a few moments practicing breathing only through your nose.

Close your mouth and take 8-10 breaths using just your nose. You'll notice the belly (versus the shallow chest/shoulder) breathing kicks in right away.

Here's the drill:

  • For the first 5 minutes of your next run breathe only through your nose.
  • After 5 minutes return to your normal breathing.
  • For the last 5 minutes of your run again breathe only through your nose.

If you're not used to breathing this way (especially during exercise), there's a good chance that the nose breathing will make you feel like you can't get enough air. This is totally normal.

To help calm you down, adjust your pace and effort level to accommodate the nose breathing. Slow down and take control.

If and when that starts to feel OK, make it a little more challenging with these variations:

  • As you get more comfortable, increase to 7-10 mins at the beginning and 7-10 mins at the end.
  • Once that feels doable, try running the first 30-40 mins of your run using just your nose to breathe.
  • One last challenge would be speeding up the nose breathing—try running 1 mile at a faster pace, breathing only through your nose.

Breathing for Runners: Connect Your Breathing With Your Cadence

The last piece of this puzzle is simply matching your new breathing to your running, specifically your cadence.

Here's the drill:

Start running in place at a moderate pace. Next count how many steps it takes to inhale and how many steps it takes you to exhale. There's no right number here, just make note for yourself. Consider this your home base.

From here, start playing with changing these numbers on command. For example, if you were inhaling for 4 steps and exhaling for 4 steps, try inhaling for 4 steps and exhaling for 6. Play with this for a few minutes in place.

Consider this a new "gear shift system" for your running. Depending on the speed and intensity of your run, you should be able to match your breathing to your movement.

You'll notice that at a quicker pace, the number of steps per inhale/exhale may go down; when at a slower, "long run pace," it increases. But keep in mind, there is no right number of steps per inhale or exhale!

This drill is for you to figure out what you need at various speeds and intensities so that come the last 5 minutes of your race, you're comfortable enough to pick a "mode" to finish and beat those last few runners in!

There is always room for improvement when it comes to breathing. For best results, try incorporating at least one of these drills into your running training each week!