Running is just about the most straightforward cardiovascular exercise you can do, and it’s great for getting the respiratory system firing. 

But, while it’s completely normal to feel a little out of breath when you run – especially on tougher sessions – it can sometimes feel difficult to breathe when running. If your breathing problems are getting in the way of your running goals, it could be time to pay more attention to your breathing technique. 

This guide breaks down the process of breathing, and in particular how to breathe when running. As you read, you will learn explaining how breathing works, why you may encounter some breathing difficulties when running, and, importantly, pick up some tips to make you a more efficient runner.

How does breathing work?

In everyday life, we don’t think a whole lot about how we breathe. It’s controlled subconsciously by the respiratory centre at the base of the brain. But we all know it’s a process that’s critical to our existence.

Oxygen is breathed into the lungs through the nose and mouth. From there, it passes into the bloodstream and is used to create energy and remove carbon dioxide, the waste product created when we produce energy, from the body.

So, how do we breathe when runNing?

When we start to run – or undertake any form of vigorous exercise – our muscles are working harder. This leads to a rise in the demand for oxygen.

When the brain senses this, we breathe faster and deeper. Typically, the human breathing rate increases from about 15 times a minute (12 litres of air) at rest to 40–60 times a minute (100 litres of air) during exercise. 

We also become much more conscious of our breathing when we’re running – especially if we quickly become short of breath, feel tight in the chest, or have a stitch coming on.

What factors can affect how you breathe when running?

Breathing when running can be compromised by a number of factors.

Some are intuitive, others less so.

  • Exertion. Perhaps the most obvious one. The more effort you put in, the higher your oxygen requirement becomes. Thus the more rapid and/or deep your breathing will get. Think about how your breathing changes when you run up hill. You might find you change from breathing in and out through the nose to using the mouth breathing more.
  • Weather. Cold air can irritate the lungs and narrow the airways making it more difficult to breathe. If you have a condition such as asthma, bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cold air can also trigger symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath.
  • Humidity. Humid air is also harder to breathe. This is partly because the higher percentage of water vapor in the atmosphere reduces the relative oxygen availability. However, humid air can also activate nerves in the lungs that narrow and tighten airways.
  • Altitude – The higher you go, the less oxygen is available in the air. This makes running at altitude more challenging. Athletes often use altitude training as a stimulus to make the body produce more red blood cells. This in turn gives them a greater capacity to transport oxygen around the body for competition. 
  • Medical conditions –Medical conditions such as asthma, which restrict the airways, can also make it more difficult to breathe when running. This can include fit individuals who have exercise-induced asthma, a narrowing of the airways triggered by strenuous exercise. The preferred term for this condition is exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
  • Running Posture – If you have poor running posture, for example, you are slumped over when you run, it makes breathing deep into your lungs by using your diaphragm more difficult. It can result in rapid, shallow breathing from the upper part of the chest.
Several factors can impact upon breathing when running. These include temperature, humidity, and even running form.

Hits and tips to improve your breathing when running 

Ensure you are adequately warmed up.

Setting off quickly can often lead runners to feel out of breath as their body tries to respond to the need for more oxygen. But easing your body into exercise, and raising the heart-rate steadily can help ready your respiratory system for more strenuous exertion to follow. For more information on the benefits of warming up and cooling down, read more HERE.

Breathing exercises.

Breathing exercises are designed to oxygenate the body and engage the calming parasympathetic nervous system. They generally focus on slowing your breathing and using your diaphragm and intercostal muscles (around your ribs) to fully utilise your lung function. Breathing exercises usually aim for slow, steady, rhythmical breaths.

Examples of breathing exercises include:

  • Box breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 4 and out for 4
  • Locomotor-respiratory coupling (LCR). Synchronise your breathing pattern with your foot fall. ie. breathe out for 2 steps and in for 2 steps. Increase the numbers as is comfortable
  • Belly breathing. Lie on the floor with your hands just beneath your lower ribs. Consciously breathe using your diaphragm, fully expelling the air on each breath. Notice how your belly rises and falls in comparison to your chest. Practice until it becomes second nature.

Ensure you are breathing properly.

Take note of how you are breathing when you run. If it is shallow and from the upper part of the chest, try and slow it down, compose yourself, reduce the tension in your body, particularly neck and shoulders, and breathe deeper into the belly. You may need to slow to regulate your breathing before picking up the pace again.

Mouth breathing vs nose breathing.

While breathing through both is often recommended to get an adequate supply of oxygen when running, by restricting yourself to nose breathing you can regulate your breathing and stay in control of your exertion. Breathing through your nose can also help filter out dust and allergens, and humidifies the air you breathe in, bringing it to body temperature and making it easier for your lungs to use. During nasal breathing, your nose also releases nitric oxide which helps to widen blood vessels and can help improve oxygen circulation in your body.

Include walking breaks in your run session.

By adjusting the pace of your training sessions and including light jogging or even walk breaks, you can further help to regulate your breathing and stay in control of your breath. 

Check running technique and posture.

Using a mirror (remember to look where you’re headed!), taking a video, or having a trained eye to help, you can assess you breathe when running. This can help you get useful cues for areas of improvement. You can often spot areas of tension, shallow breathing patterns, and whether you’re using your diaphragm or breathing exclusively from the chest. For more information about proper running form read more HERE.

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What is the best breathing technique for running?

The best technique is the one you are most comfortable with that allows you to breathe easily and rhythmically when running. For most runners, this is a combination of nose and mouth breathing. However, breathing through your nose as much as possible when running has advantages. These include filtering out harmful air particles, warming the inhaled air to body temperature for the lungs, and making it easier to breathe deep into the diaphragm, ultimately improving lung volume and increasing oxygen uptake and circulation.

Why do I get out of breath when running?

If you have trouble breathing when running and get out of breath quickly it is because your body is trying to adapt – requiring more oxygen for the muscles to create energy and get rid of carbon dioxide as a waste product from exercise. It therefore puts demands on your respiratory system. Becoming out of breath is generally nothing to worry about as your work your way to fitness. As your fitness improves you should find breathing becomes more comfortable at a given pace.

Structured running sessions will not only help you improve your pace, but are a great way of maximising your training sessions to achieve better fitness results.

How do I control my breathing when running?

To control your breathing while running, concentrate on:

  • Breathing rhythmically through the nose and mouth
  • Purposefully slowing each breath
  • Breathing deep into your belly
  • Slowing your pace to regain composure if needed
  • Run with a friend at a conversational pace. If you can’t chat, you’re running too fast!

How to improve my breathing while running?

Improved breathing for running beginners takes practice, but will also come naturally the more you run and the more your fitness increases. A popular technique is to restrict yourself to nose breathing only. This means you limit your pace. It’s a form of low intensity running and if you feel you need to take in a gulp of air through the mouth, it is a cue to slow.

How to improve breathing for running long distances?

Breathing correctly for long distance is particularly important, because with more time spent on your feet, small efficiencies made in breathing, stride length, or running economy are magnified over many miles. Concentrating on breathing exercises including more nose breathing can help. As you’re running within yourself to cover the long distances, this should be easier to focus on than if you were running high intensity track intervals.

How to run faster without getting out of breath?

There is no shortcut to running faster without getting out of breath. Working on improving your breathing when running has a role, but you should also concentrate on your running form – so you cover the ground more efficiently with less effort and less risk of injury. The main objective though is to work on better cardiovascular fitness. This often means more running, but you could also swim, cycle, cross-train or play other sports. Unless there is a diagnosed medical issue, we shouldn’t see getting out of breath as a negative, but the start of a journey to improved health and fitness. For a complete guide to improving your aerobic fitness, read more HERE.

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