As a runner, you might not think about your breathing as much as you do your form, cadence, mileage and running route. But especially if you’re a newer runner, it’s key to have a breathing strategy, experts say.
“Your breathing style gradually becomes second nature, so getting it right at the beginning of your running journey is good practice,” says Thomas Watson, a UESCA-certified running coach, ultrarunner and founder of Marathon Handbook.
That said, even longtime runners can benefit from looking at their current breathing techniques. “Breathing is important for all runners,” says Kelly Kuhn, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist who works with runners. “The ability to get a good breath is important to reduce nagging injuries.”
Here, find out why breath is so important no matter your running level, plus three breathing strategies to try.
COMMON BREATHING MISTAKES
One of the most common pieces of breathing advice for runners is to just breathe in a way that feels natural. That’s good advice — to a point. That’s because what many runners do naturally isn’t necessarily helping their performance; in fact, it might even be setting them up for injury.
“Shallow breathing is when you’re taking short, sharp breaths using only the top of your lungs,” Watson says. “Shallow breathing uses more energy and delivers less oxygen, and can leave you feeling tense and anxious.”
This type of breathing is often the result of something called “abdominal gripping.” “This means you are holding the abs so tight and tense that you cannot get breath all the way down to the pelvic floor,” Kuhn explains. That’s a problem, because it creates extra pressure on your core and sets you up for muscle imbalances and potentially even strains, Kuhn says.
“The pelvic floor is a stabilizer of the core and pelvis. If it is working really hard to manage the pressure of the abdominals squeezing down on it, it cannot effectively manage the job of controlling pelvic motion as well,” Kuhn explains. That can set off a chain reaction: The hamstrings have to work overtime to prevent the pelvis from tipping forward, you might tuck and clench your glutes to help out the pelvic floor, resulting in less control over the knee joint and less power in your stride, and the low back can even get involved in overcompensating.
Instead, runners should focus on performing deep breathing, Watson says. “Try to breathe from your entire torso and let your lungs completely fill with air. This optimizes oxygen delivery and is the best breathing technique for running.”
“I recommend focusing on mouth breathing while you run,” Watson says. “Nose breathing is great for workouts where restricting the flow rate of oxygen to your lungs is desirable, like yoga.” But when it comes to running, you want to maximize your available oxygen supply, Watson points out.
“Attempting to only nose breathe will likely cause you to have to slow down. So unless you’re training to specifically improve your respiratory system (as opposed to your muscular or cardiovascular system), I recommend mouth breathing.”
(The only exception to this, of course, is if you’re purposely using nose breathing to pace yourself and improve your endurance.)
“Most breathing problems start with simply running too fast or too hard before our body is ready,” says Steve Carmichael, a USA Track and Field Level 1 and RRCA-certified running coach.
“When we start running, our body needs time to adapt. This adaptation starts almost immediately, but really gets noticeable after a few weeks and improvement continues for months to come. When we run too fast, or too hard, we put our body in a state of oxygen deficiency and run out of breath sooner. While there are times to push the intensity higher, the vast majority of runs should be conducted at a lower intensity, and slowing down helps our body build endurance. As we build endurance, our breathing gets easier.”
Runners often forget to run relaxed. “This causes your body, especially your back, neck, shoulders and face to tense up,” Carmichael says. “As a result, you don’t breathe as efficiently as you could.” Tensing up can cause shallow breathing, but it can also lead to early muscle fatigue, particularly in the muscles mentioned earlier, which keep you upright and properly supported.
3 BREATHING TECHNIQUES TO TRY
DIAPHRAGMATIC BELLY BREATHING
Consider this the antidote to shallow breathing.
“The basic idea is to lie on your back on the floor, and breathe in until you feel your stomach rise,” Carmichael explains. “Then, tighten your stomach muscles and hold them tight as you exhale. Repeat this several times each day and before long, breathing becomes easier and more efficient. Even though it does not look like much, it is strengthening your core through the activation of the abdominals and diaphragm.”
For best results, combine this breathing technique with strength training. “I think the best strategy is to add in lunges, single-leg activities and squats and really tie breath training into those activities,” Kuhn says. “When the nervous system learns the breathing strategy with exercise, it has it to pull from when running. Then, the runner does not necessarily need to focus specifically on breathing during the run.”
THE 2:2 METHOD
“As you run, inhale for two counts, then exhale for two counts,” Watson explains. “Continue this cycle throughout your run. Practice it on a regular training run at a comfortable pace — not too fast, not too slow.”
According to Watson, this equal-length inhale and exhale helps steady your breathing pattern. Ideally, you want to practice it without listening to music or anything else to get used to the rhythm.
An important note: “Some runners may find the 2:2 ratio too challenging to start with; you can slow down your pace and try a 3:3 interval instead. Likewise, when performing speed work, your breathing should become more rapid, too. Go for a 1:1 ratio for sprints.”
This last method is about self-awareness and putting it all together.
“Each runner has a natural rhythm,” Carmichael says. “Whatever it is for you, it’s a great way to ‘tune in’ or ‘dial in’ your breathing to your stride pattern.” Whether you time your breaths to the music you’re listening to, counts in your head or an inner sense of timing, this method purely means breathing at a pace that feels right to you.
“During runs, I encourage my athletes to do frequent self-checks,” Carmichael explains. “The goal is to self-evaluate as they run. I have them start at their head and work their way to their feet, focusing on removing negative thoughts, ensuring that they are running relaxed and making sure that they are belly breathing and breathing rhythmically.”
By focusing on these self-checks periodically throughout their run, runners can self correct if they feel themselves tensing up, getting anxious or running too fast.”
And as you become more experienced, it gets easier to find your natural rhythm, Carmichael says. “When everything is in sync, you breathe better and you run better.”