As a guy with asthma, let me tell you that learning how to breathe while running is one of the most important things you can do. Outside of running with proper form, learning some proper breathing techniques for running can be the difference in a decent run and a great run.
Fortunately breathing exercises are some of the simplest skills to master for a runner. (Unless you’re all evil and corrupted by the Dark Side like Darth Malgus up there. I don’t think any number of breathing exercises is going to really fix that hot mess.)
Basically, unless you’re a Sith Lord, you should be able to learn how to breathe while running without too much trouble. Here are just a few things to keep in mind.
Breathe with Both Your Mouth and Your Nose
There is a lot of back-and-forth about whether a runner is better off mouth-breathing or nose-breathing. In general, it’s up to you and what works best in your situation. But there are some things to consider as to when you want to do either.
For most runs, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth is the recommended pattern. If you’re doing long-distance running at a sustained pace (like half-marathon training), you can bring in enough oxygen with your nose and expel enough CO2 with your mouth.
If you’re sprinting, though, or going for a faster race like a 5k, you may not be able to get enough oxygen intake with just your nostrils. So you would want to do some mouth breathing.
A Word of Warning
However, keep this in mind whenever you’re inhaling with your mouth: control is important. It’s easy to hyperventilate with mouth-only breathing.
You will likely start taking large gulps of air and panting when the going gets tough. That can lead to both overoxygenation and lightheadedness as well as a complete loss of control of your breath that keeps you panting and not being able to get enough oxygen.
You don’t want either. And it’s totally weird that it can lead to both, right? Bodies, man. Bodies.
With that in mind, it’s really up to you which airways you use. Science says one isn’t better than the other, and it’s your being mindful and in control that matters.
Time Your Breathing With Your Steps
The control of your breathing comes with the rapidity that you take those breaths. One of the first things you will want to do when learning how to breathe while running is timing your breathing with the cadence of your steps.
For the most part, you want an odd ratio of breath-to-steps. For me personally, a 3:2 ratio works very well. Like this:
- Breathe in for three footfalls (through your nose)
- Breathe out for two footfalls (through your mouth)
Sometimes, I have to turn it into a 4:3 because of my asthma and needing to simply gulp more air down. But it’s measured and purposeful, not gasping and panicked. That way leads to hyperventilation.
If you’re struggling, try to inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose. Swap it up. But you’re maintaining control, and that’s the important thing.
Also keep in mind than an even ratio, like 3:3 or 2:2, can cause some physical issues, too, as your inhales and exhales will often fall on the same feet and stress one side of your body more than the other. That’s why the odd ratio tends to be a better choice.
Breathe With Your Belly
Some of the best advice on how to breathe while running that I’ve ever got was to fill my belly with air when I’m struggling. Not just with breathing, but muscle fatigue, stomach cramps, strange cadence, whatever.
You want to breathe deeply into your diaphragm and fill your stomach with air before you breathe out. It’s like a miracle cure. Try it. You’ll see.
To make sure you’re doing it right, press your hand flat against your stomach just below your rib cage, and if your hand is pushed outward, you win! (Believe me, it’s much harder to do this kind of breathing while you’re running at race pace, so you will want to practice.)
The first time I tried this style of breathing was in the middle of summer humidity in Florida. I was about two miles away from my condo, and my wife was out on a run in the opposite direction. Oh, and my inhaler was back at the condo, too. So of course, I felt the first twinges that come before an asthma attack.
First thing I did was turn back toward the condo. I did not want to get in trouble even further away. And then I went to belly breathing. I slowed down, put my hand on my tummy, and breathed in. And out. In. And out.
The asthma attack didn’t happen. And I was able to finish my run.
I told my wife about this trick, and she was skeptical. She was all like “I know how to breathe while running, dude!” But after she tried it, she uses it every time she laces up. She swears by it. (She even told me to make sure I included in this post how much she swears by it.)
One of the reasons she wanted me to put that in here is that she suffers from mid-run stomach cramps pretty often, and by breathing deeply and filling her gut, the cramps are settled and her runs go well. It was a pretty big thing until she tried this particular breathing technique.
Remember, though, if you’re doing the deliberate belly breathing like this, it is slow and deliberate. You probably won’t be making your cadence and ratio match up. Put that on hold while you recalibrate yourself.
Should You Always Belly Breathe While Running?
Belly breathing, or more accurately…diaphragmatic breathing, isn’t just a one-and-done miracle cure. It is actually one of the better ways for you to breathe while running in general.
You will have to practice for this, too, but you will see improved performance and VO2 Max if you are able to breathe into your diaphragm more often while breathing.
Most of us breathe into our chest (shallowly) as we go about our lives. So we do the same thing while running. If you are able to train your body to take in more oxygen and process it, the better you’re going to feel overall.
It can take some time, and there’s a good chance you won’t be belly breathing constantly — especially during really hard runs. But if you really want to learn how to breathe while running, diaphragmatic breathing needs to be a top priority.
Wrapping Up with How to Breathe While Running
Honestly, whether you’re a new runner who hasn’t been able to get a solid mile at once yet, or if you’re a road-race veteran, it’s important that you know how to breathe while running. You have to pay attention to your breath, and if you’re worried about it, make sure you try out these breathing exercises.
It is one of the few things in the sport we can totally control. And one of the simplest. Lucky break.
So do you have any tips on how to breathe properly while running or how to control your breath?
This article was originally published in 2016, but rewritten on September 14, 2020 with updated and expanded content
I have a question for you, related to running but not to breathing (those are some great tips, by the way… they really do work). What is a good preventive measure for shin splints? Back in HS I ran cross-country, and knocking out a 10-mile run was simple… until I injured my ankles running downhill one race. I was on recovery for a long time, other pursuits came up, and I basically gave up on running. Now, much older, I’d like to get back into it. Periodically, I give running a new try. I lace up the ol’ Nikes, and start with a good Couch-to-5k program, focusing on the goal of being able to run another 5k in the future. Always and without fail, about a week into the new running routine, the pain that eminates from my shins is excruciating and I end up limping for about 3 days until it subsides.
I don’t quite have the funds to go see a doctor to get it looked at to see if it’s just a ghost of my old injury or what, but have heard it could also be from the shoes I’m running in. Have you heard of shin splints being from something other than an injury?
In the meantime, I just hop onto my stationary bike a few times a week or use my Kinect, trying to do what I can before the fast-approaching Ultimate season.
I know of two reasons that I’ve dealt with: the first being the distance and length of time you’re running. I’ve pushed myself too hard during a week and stalled out because of shin-splints. Just because C25K says you should run X amount that week, if your body says no, then just take it slower to prevent the injury. The distance/time you’ll net uninjured will even out.
The second is actually the one that most solved mine, and that’s the shoes. I was running in my old (too large) Sketchers, and I gave myself a mild case of shin splints. I switched into my Asics Nimbus 13s, and I haven’t had a case of splints since July.
I can’t say either are THE reason, but if you cut it back just a bit and try some different shoes that are more suited to your posture (any running store should be able to test you for pronation and such.)
Nimbus, huh… that… sounds familiar. 😛 Thanks for the advice. Maybe after the snow stops I’ll look into getting some new shoes. 🙂
I am an expert on shin splints now.. Ok maybe not an expert but here is some ideas I have used. First time I got shin splints it was from running on an incline on a treadmill. Incline on the treadmill is a big no no if you easily get shin splints. Stay away from inclines in general. I still can’t go near them or my shin will flare up. Compression sleeves help a ton. I wear them all the time. I got the Zensah ones at my local running store. I took two months off and healed up the shin splints completely. Then I stick to this. Don’t increase mileage more than 10% a week ever. Always ice the shins for 20 minutes after each run. Take it slow. Stay away from hills completely. I have Pearl Izumi M3 shows and they help a ton. Lightweight but still have some cushion. Make sure to stretch the lower leg after you run. I stand with my toes on the curb and do heel up and heel down for about 10 times. Just some ideas.. It’s a constant battle for me. I have been running pretty solid for about 3 years now but not very far. I am at 7 miles a week and trying to work up to 10 right now after coming off the shin splint layoff..