Should Runners Focus on Their Breathing?

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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Should Runners Focus on Their Breathing?

The simplicity of running is what draws many of us to the sport. Just lace up your shoes and head out the door — it’s pretty much that simple. Aside from a reliable pair of running shoes, little else is required. Over the years we’ve become more focused on what some may call the minutiae of running. While some of this can be useful or intriguing, at times we overcomplicate a sport once so beloved for its ease and accessibility. Breathing patterns are an area where this has been the case.

Breathing is the most basic, intrinsic thing we do over the course of the day. Yes, sometimes there are moments when we consciously focus on breath, like yoga class or when we are moving at too frenzied a pace and need to slow down. But for the vast majority of our lives, breathing is not something we need to consciously focus on.

Fortunately, there is little evidence to suggest we need to focus so specifically on breathing while running. But let’s take a look at some of the topics that arise around running and breathing.

BREATHING BASICS

As a new runner, just about all breathing feels challenging while running, let alone trying to breathe in any specific pattern. The good news is time and consistent training improves this. The more regularly you run, the easier it becomes, and the less labored your breathing feels.

Your background affects how easily your breathing adjusts as a new runner — a background in sports, such as soccer, sets you up better to adjust to running than if you were a sedentary smoker, for example. Always consult your doctor if there are any medical issues affecting your breathing. No matter your background, give it time and know it gets easier.

Whether you’re a new runner struggling through your first nonstop mile or a seasoned one running a hard effort, a little experimentation should quickly demonstrate breathing through your mouth while running is far more efficient than using your nose.

While fit, experienced runners may be able to run an easy effort while breathing through their nose only, you simply won’t be able to take in enough oxygen through your nostrils alone to run efficiently, and this slows down runners of all experience levels.

BREATHING PATTERNS

A breathing pattern is simply the ratio between your inhalations and exhalations. While studies have examined the impact of different types of patterns, none have been conclusive in determining whether one pattern is better than another or leads to less injury.

In “Running Formula,” coach Jack Daniels suggests a 2:2 breathing pattern. Some more recent books, such as Budd Coates “Running on Air,” imply that an odd breathing pattern (2:3, etc.) reduces your injury risk. But no studies confirm this. Since every runner is a study of one, it makes sense there is no optimal breathing pattern.

Rather than being beneficial, some studies show focusing on an internal cue (like a breathing pattern) rather than an external cue can actually reduce running economy. This is further bolstered by the fact there is no set breathing pattern used by elite runners. They exemplify the same variety we see in the rest of the running population.

DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING

In this process, you focus your effort on breathing more from your diaphragm (located between the chest and abdominal cavities). Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to take deeper, more efficient breaths and expand the belly as you inhale. The diaphragm tightens as you inhale, moving downward to create more space in your chest and allow your lungs to expand. Good running form — staying upright and not hunched — enables this type of breathing.

WHEN FOCUSING ON BREATH MIGHT BE USEFUL

While there is no need to focus on specific breathing patterns, some runners may find it useful to combine breathing with an awareness of perceived effort. Running by feel is a useful skill to hone, and awareness of breath as an indication of effort may be helpful.

This may be challenging as a new runner since you often feel out of breath, but more seasoned runners may find themselves settling into various rhythms depending on the type of run (recovery, tempo, etc.).

Much as in yoga, being mindful of your breath can be a way to improve your focus, avoid distraction or stay engaged with your running.

If focusing on your breathing rhythm is meditative and enjoyable, then by all means do it, but don’t force it at the expense of making your run less rewarding.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.

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