Everyone thinks of their quads and hamstrings when running, but no-one thinks about how to breathe while running and their diaphragm. The diaphragm is equally important to the runner! Something that should just come naturally, breathing while running is an entirely different animal. Taking the time to hone in on your breathing will have positive impacts on your running. Here’s how!
Awareness to Breathing
The first order of business is to be aware of your breathing. How do you breathe when at rest? What about during a hard effort, such as intervals on the track? Think about your breathing on an easy run versus one at 75% perceived effort.
Once you stop to think about breathing with greater frequency, you are on your way to making changes to help improve your breathing while running.
It is common for runners to find themselves often out of breath when they first start running. This typically means you are running much too quickly and just need to slow down a bit. Remember:
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your runner’s body! Sometimes, however, the quick, shallow breathing is due to breathing inefficiencies.
Deep Belly Breathing
Deep belly breathing, otherwise known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a great tactic for runners. Much more efficient than shallow breathing, it gives the athlete maximum oxygen uptake. Using the entirety of your lung capacity, deep breathing sends oxygen into the lower lobes of the lungs and will stay there longer. This results in more oxygen intake, which is awesome for runners.
If you do not have enough oxygen, that can result in the much-dreaded side stitch. If you have ever had a side stitch you know what I’m talking about here.
It feels like someone has jabbed a serrated knife right under your ribcage and is twisting it. Too graphic? I am not wrong here, folks.
Practice Deep Breathing While Not Running
Lying comfortably on your floor, place a light item (like a book) on your stomach. Finding your awareness of breath, just focus on breathing deeply in and out. You should see the book clearly rise and fall as you inhale and exhale.
As you exhale, try to consciously push all of the air out of your lungs before you inhale again. This takes practice and mindfulness. It gets easier. Note:
This is also an awesome mindfulness exercise used for stress reduction and meditation. Bonus!
Breathe Through Your Mouth
It is far more efficient to take in and expel air through your mouth, so most runners breathe that way. Sometimes, runners breathe through the nose in cold weather to prevent inhaling it down the throat, but a mouth cover can solve that problem.
While some beginner runners can start out as nose breathers, as you implement more challenging workouts you will find mouth breathing to be more effective.
Breathing On A Cadence
Most runners find it helpful to think about breathing on a cadence. Think about breathing in and out by footfalls. For easy efforts, breathe in for four footfalls and out for four. If that is too slow, try three and three.
Moderate intensity or effort runs might result in needing to breathe more frequently, or in and out every two footfalls, while hard efforts may require breathing in and out every footfall. Imagine running the 400-meter dash back in high school, or that final push to the end of a goal race. That’s where your breathing becomes labored and fast.
Odd Step Cadence
The breathing described above is all on an even step cadence, but some runners prefer to do things differently. If you are inclined to do that, most runners agree that you should be longer in the inhale than the inhale. For example, a 2:1 cadence for faster running, and a 4:3 or 3:2 for easier effort runs.
I do find it worth mentioning that if you google ‘side cramps’, you will often find suggestions of even step cadence pacing. Many experts believe that breathing on even footfalls helps prevent cramps. This is a debated topic, but I land on the said of counting footfalls by evens if a cramp occurs. This tactic has not failed me, nor has it failed any of the hundreds of athletes I have coached.
Signs You Aren’t Breathing Efficiently
Believe it or not, there are signs that you should change your breathing other than just breathing funny. Pain or tightness in your neck is one indicator. Also, if your shoulders are raising and lowering a lot, you could be breathing differently than you should. Of course, there is also the dreaded side cramp: a sure indicator something has gone amiss in your breathing.
Breathing in Different Weather
Has an arctic blast hit your area? Wearing a mouth cover can make breathing more comfortable while out in the elements. Some runners find that if it gradually gets cold, they don’t mind running and breathing in cold air.
They make mouth covers such as a scarf, muff or balaclava in different fabrics for varying degrees of cold.
Some runners find they struggle more to breathe in high humidity than cold weather. Runners with asthma may find this particularly true. Tips are to avoid running in the hottest time of day, stay hydrated and, in extreme temperatures, just slow down.
Good Running Form
Proper running form can potentially help to improve your breathing. Think about it: if you are running properly (erect, shoulders back, not squishing up your shoulders, using your arms), you are in the best position to open up your diaphragm and get deep breaths.
Swimming As Cross-Training
My credentials as a cross country and track coach have been established. A lesser-known fact is the twelve years I spent coaching girls’ swimming and running a community aquatic center. A firm believer in cross-training, swimming is an exceptional tool for any runner to have in their toolbox. First, swimming is zero impact so it is the perfect cross-training tool when your legs are beat up.
Perhaps a lesser realized advantage is the discipline and breath control needed to bilateral rhythmic breath. Competitive swimmers breathe on a cadence much like it is suggested runners should. Spending time in the pool and focusing on perfecting your rhythmic breathing could equate to more efficient breathing while running.
Runners who swim learn to regulate their breathing better. In addition, they learn to expend less energy when inhaling and exhaling.
Lastly, swimming limits when you can breathe, for obvious reasons. This can result in more lung power and capacity for runners, which helps with deep breathing.
Advice From Average Joes
Often I reach out to the Hive Mind that exists within the Runner’s World Sub-30 Club. Consisting of almost 7,000 runners, they are a wealth of information (some valuable, some ridiculous!).
Here is the advice from some Average Joes:
- Jeremy Mitchell: Breathing while running? I definitely recommend doing it.
- Michael Couey: Keep your chin up! Looking down restricts your airflow!
- Maisie Ann: Hot yoga focuses my breath a lot and now, when I run, it’s second nature!
- Dawn Knox: Wear earphones so you don’t have to listen to your own breathing!
- Zoe Hill: If I’m getting out of breath, I’ll walk for a short period. Another thing: for those with asthma remember an inhaler!
- Tara Johnson: When in the Army one of my instructors taught me to press my tongue to the roof of my mouth; it helps prevent you from breathing too fast through your mouth.
- Meaghan Nana-Sinkam: Coach Kareem advises for very hard running where you’re gasping for breath, instead of gasping in air concentrate on blowing out like a Choo Choo train.”
- Mary Skrdla Dodds: When I start to feel my breathing get out of control I sing! (Another member comments that’s why the military uses cadences! It helps steady and control breathing!)
- Chad Hause: Look up the Wim Hof breathing technique!
Question: Does breathing matter?
Answer: It most certainly does! Runners looking to improve their running can implement some small little practices to their breathing that will make a noticeable impact on their running.