A breath of fresh air : The correct breathing technique for running
Gasp, pant, “must stop…”, pant, gasp “running!”
We’ve all been there – that point when you’re breathing as fast as you can, your lungs are burning and you just can’t seem to get enough air – however that burning feeling in your lungs doesn’t have to be normal. Often it’s a result of a poor breathing technique, rather than running too fast.
Breathing technique is often the most forgotten training of runners, because breathing is natural, automatic and simple. It just happens. However, for most people improving their breathing technique will bring immediate benefits to their running, whether that is an increase in pace or in duration of running.
Here are some tips and exercises you can use to improve your breathing technique and make that burning feeling a thing of the past:
Many runners (myself included), running books and coaches advocate the ‘in through the nose, out through the mouth’ breathing technique. This is an excellent technique and apart from the benefits of slow breathing discussed below, has one key benefit – purer air to your lungs. Unlike your mouth, your nose and sinuses are packed full of little hairs designed to filter the air, delivering cleaner air to your lungs.
However, unless you have the fitness level of an elite runner, maintaining nose breathing is really only possible on your slow pace runs. Once your pace rises to the point where it requires conscious effort to inhale through your nose, switch to mouth only breathing. Your mouth provides a much larger opening and will allow you to keep breathing deeply as your breathing rate increases.
This sounds obvious but many people equate breathing quickly with a larger air intake, however the opposite is true. When breathing quickly or panting you only breathe ‘high’ in your chest, which only activates a small part of your lungs and reduces the volume of air being inhaled.
Instead, breathe deeply, ensuring your diaphragm and belly are activated. This will draw air deep into your lungs, and maximise your intake. And remember, it’s not just ‘air in‘ that is important. Focus on your exhalation because a full exhalation will do two things:
- Keep slightly higher air pressure in your lungs to facilitate oxygen/CO2 transfer.
- Ensure that the maximum volume of air is expelled, thereby removing more CO2 from your system.
Breathe from the belly:
The key to breathing deeply is to learn to breathe from your belly. When you inhale your diaphragm contracts and moves downward. At the same time muscles in your chest contract to expand your rib cage. Together these increase the volume in your chest cavity and draw air into your lungs. Working your diaphragm to its fullest potential allows your lungs to expand to their greatest volume and fill with the largest amount of air, which of course you need for your running.
Here’s how to learn to breathe with your belly:
- Lie down on your back with legs stretched out.
- Place your hands on your chest and try breathing high into your chest. You will notice your stomach flattens out and your hands move a lot. This is high breathing and is not good!
- Now, keeping your hands on your chest, focus on raising your belly as you inhale. You should notice that the amount your hands move is reduced, but that you were able to take in more air. This is belly breathing and is good!
- On the exhale lower your belly with a gentle squeeze of your core muscles. Don’t try to force the air out with your chest muscles, as this constricts the upper chest area.
- Practice belly breathing with a book on your stomach. This will give you a visual guide and ensure you focus on moving the book, not your chest.
- Here’s a video to help you learn to breathe slowly and deeply from your belly:
Now you know what belly breathing is, practice lying down, sitting and standing. You should be breathing from your belly (diaphragmatically is the technical term) whether you’re running, walking, eating or sitting at your desk. Making sure you do it all the time will also help make it second nature when running.
This might sound counterintuitive, but reducing your breathing rate when running has several benefits. Firstly, slower breathing encourages deeper breathing, and a more efficient use of the volume of the lungs.
Secondly, a slower breathing rate allows the most time for the exchange of oxygen and CO2 in your lungs, important for maximising your endurance at high speed.
Thirdly, (and for some runners, most importantly) is the positive effect slow breathing can have on your mental state. In the book ‘Eat and Run‘ Scott Jurek discusses slowing down his breath rate, breathing from his belly, and breathing through his nose on easy runs because of the positive effects on brain activity and heart rate. Slow breathing has been shown to affect your parasympathetic nervous system, calming brain waves and heart rate, thereby helping to cultivate a ‘relaxed-yet-alert’ mental state. You could look to Pilates or Yoga for the same proof of concept. All those breathing exercises are there for a reason – to allow you to achieve a relaxed but alert state to improve your practice. This benefit is associated with entering what runners refer to as ‘the zone’ – that period where everything ‘clicks’ and running seems effortless, the miles fall away and the mind can seemingly block out pain.
Running is a cyclic action, symmetrical across your body, repeated over and over. Because your breathing muscles are linked into your core stability muscles that all work in cycle with your running action, breathing in time with your footfall synchronises these events. The result is that your breathing will work with the natural contractions in your core muscles, not against them.
If you’re quite fit, a slow ‘recovery’ jog might be at 4-4 cycle, this means one breath in for 4 steps, one breath out for 4 steps. Most people however will find 3-3 most comfortable for their easy runs and 2-2 for tempo pace, stepping up to 2-1 for the sprint finish. Most elite distance runners will run a marathon at 3-3 and then move to 2-2 in the later stages, but we’ll leave that sort of performance to Mo Farrah and Paula Radcliffe.
To learn to breathe rhythmically:
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place your hand on your belly and make sure that you are belly breathing, breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. (You can use a book like above)
- Inhale to the count of 3 and exhale to the count of 3. Try counting in your head “in-2-3…out-2-3” to assist. Concentrate on a continuous breath as you inhale over the 3 counts and a continuous breath as you exhale.
- Once you become comfortable with the inhale/exhale pattern, add alternating foot taps to mimic the running steps, ensuring not to ‘jerk’ your breathing in time with the steps. Smooth breathing is good breathing.
- Practice rhythmic breathing on your long slow runs first. The steady state of this running will allow you to get your breathing and footfall in sync. Count in your head to help, and ensure your breathing isn’t ‘jerking’ with your footfall. Once you’ve got the hang of it, add it into your faster runs and speedwork too, making sure to change your breathing pattern to 2-2 and 2-1 as you need it.
Already an accomplished rhythmic breather? Try adding in odd numbers to your rhythm. This is like adding extra gears into your gearbox and makes for smoother transitions between different speeds. From 4-4 move to 4-3, 3-3 to 3-2 etc. Some people advocate always running on odd numbers, the theory being that an even number rhythm always has you inhaling and exhaling on the same foot strike, leading to imbalances and possibly more susceptible to injury. For me, the jury is still out on this one; however, for those that are interested here is a link to the article explaining the benefits.
You train your legs for running all the time, and if you’re good, your core and other ancillary muscles as well. Why not your breathing muscles? Stronger breathing muscles go hand in hand with a strong core, so training them has a double benefit.
You can reinforce your breathing muscles with Pilates type core exercises as well as improve your breathing technique with Yoga based breathing exercises.
This Runners World article has some good Pilates based exercises which will benefit your breathing but also your core strength in general.
Here is a video of showing yoga techniques for improving diaphragm strength and control – although I don’t subscribe to the ‘physic’ affects of this exercise – I cannot argue with the fundamentals of the benefits of these exercises:
Breathe Cool : Banish the Burning Feeling
Next time you’re out running, use the tips above and pay attention to your breathing, making sure to breathe deeply, easily and rhythmically. With a correct breathing technique your running will improve,be more enjoyable, and you will banish that burning feeling from your lungs forever.
Happy running everyone!
Get Going, Get Running!
You’re Breathing All Wrong – Men’s Journal
Breath Enhancers article and videos – Runners World
Nasal Breathing – Wikipedia
Nose Breathing – Optimal Breathing
Breathing Tips For New Runners – Active.com
How Should I Breathe When I Run? – Running Competitor