One of the most important things that can impact your running speed, form, and endurance is how you breathe. Burning the necessary energy to run requires a lot of oxygen. Understanding how to breath properly will improve your running and make it more enjoyable.
How Does Our Body Use Oxygen?
I think it will benefit any runner to understand why breathing technique matters. When you exercise, your body burns energy that has been stored in a variety of ways. The kind of workout you do – a sprint, a long-distance run, cross-training, or something else, will determine how much oxygen your body needs.
When you run at an easy pace and you can breathe easily, your body is constantly able to absorb enough oxygen. Your body uses the amount of oxygen from the breath you take in. As the running gets harder and your body needs more oxygen, you feel the need to breathe faster, deeper, or both.
However, when you run at a fast pace, as in speed workouts, or exert a great deal of energy all at once, your body will require more oxygen – sometimes, even, more than the body can actually absorb. The breaths you take at a normal pace will not be enough. This is why you start breathing so rapidly and sometimes can feel like you aren’t getting enough air.
Tip #1 – Breathe Mostly Through Your Mouth
There’s a misconception about breathing through the nose versus the mouth. Generally, the main point to breathing through your nose is because your nose will filter and warm the air. While this might be somewhat beneficial during colder temperatures, it doesn’t outweigh the benefits of mouth breathing.
Due to the amount of oxygen needed for running, you should breathe from your mouth most of the time. It’s a bigger opening; you can get more air in. Although some say you can breathe through both your nose and your mouth, at high levels of effort, you’ll need mostly mouth breathing.
Additionally, when breathing through the nose, most people have a tendency to tighten their jaw and face muscles. When you breathe through your mouth, it is easier to relax the mouth and face. The more relaxed you can be, the better it will be for your whole body.
Tip #2 – Breathe from Your Diaphragm
It’s common when you aren’t paying attention to your breathing to just take quick, short breaths that are mostly in your chest. But these breaths don’t get your lungs to open at full capacity, and don’t provide as much oxygen compared to breathing from your diaphragm.
Also called “belly breathing,” taking deeper breaths that come from expanding the diaphragm also allows your chest muscles to open fully. In turn, your lungs can open up as much as possible. Essentially, you want your breaths to be deep enough that you see your stomach expand, while your chest does not move as much.
Breathing this deeply increases airflow through your lungs because they fill more completely. Taking in more air volume increases the amount of oxygen available for your body to absorb. Getting this concept down will definitely improve your oxygen consumption while running.
You can even practice this technique while you are lying down. Keep your chest and shoulders as still as possible. Focus on your breath filling up your stomach (rather than your chest), and holding that tension in your stomach muscles as you release the breath.
Placing your hand on your belly as you practice this can help you feel how much you are expanding your diaphragm with each breath. When you release the breath, focus on emptying out the entire breath so that your stomach lowers back to normal position. You can breathe through your mouth or nose when you practice.
Tip #3 – Get with the Rhythm
I never realized that my breathing rhythm mattered until I decided I wanted to improve my performance. I started to research different breathing and running techniques to see what I could implement in my workouts. Long story short: breathing rhythm can really make a difference.
Tip #2 above is the first step to rhythmic breathing. Next, focus on your breath in association with when your foot hits the ground. This matters because when you breathe out, you are relaxing the muscles in your core, which reduces your strength and stability right in that moment.
The moment your foot hits the ground is the moment of highest impact to your body. At that moment, your joints are being impacted by the power of two or three times your body weight. This increases fatigue and is also the moment when you may be the most susceptible to injury, due to your relaxing core.
It is very natural for you to breath in step with your foot strike. That is, inhaling for two-foot strikes and exhaling during the next two foot strikes. Or, some might take three steps on the inhale to three steps on the exhale. Next time you run, pay attention to see if this is your natural breathing rhythm.
This natural rhythm causes you to exhale while impacting the same side of your body every time, because you are always exhaling first on the same foot. This rhythm can lead to more injuries on one side of the body.
To prevent this, change up that natural rhythm by breathing in for a different number of steps on inhale versus exhale. For example, breathe in for three steps, and out for two. Essentially, if you are focusing on breathing through your diaphragm, you will also be breathing deeper, so this will feel more natural to lengthen the inhale.
It will probably take a good amount of focus at first to change to this three-two breathing rhythm. Over time, though, you will get used to it, and it won’t require any thoughts. During faster runs you will need to speed that breathing up, inhaling for two-foot strikes and exhaling for only one.
Tip #4 – Improve Lung Function
How do you get your lungs to work more efficiently? Through breathing exercises, frequent aerobic activity, and good health choices.
You can do a variety of breathing exercises when you are not running that will help you when you are. In tip #2, we went over breathing from the diaphragm. That is one activity you can practice when you are not running to improve lung function.
Another exercise to increase lung capacity is to sit and take a breath in through your nose. Then purse your lips and let the breath out twice as slowly as you breathed it in.
Working out regularly, whether it’s running or another aerobic activity, will improve your lung function over time. Your body adjusts to oxygen consumption, gradually improving its oxygen use and your ability to breathe more easily while running.
If you are a runner, you are probably already concerned about your health. Just like making good food and exercise choices, good choices for your lungs is important. Smoking, of course, is very detrimental to lung health, so opt not to smoke. Additionally, run indoors when air quality is poor to avoid taking in toxins.
Tip #5 – Hit the Hills to Challenge Your Breathing
If you aren’t already doing hill runs, add them to your workouts periodically, or maybe even once per week. Running uphill is very challenging to the body, building both cardiovascular and muscular strength.
Essentially, anything you can do to challenge your breathing is going to train you to be able to do it better the next time. No different than anything else, the more you do something, the better you will be at it.
You might have to determine the best breathing rhythm for running hills. It will be different than when you are running flat. This too can help improve lung capacity, as you are challenging your breathing in a different way. Similar to training a muscle using different machines, you are forcing different breathing patterns, improving lung function.
Adding in hill runs will not only help you be more efficient at breathing, but it can improve other areas of your runs. Plus, it will make your next flat surface run feel like a breeze!
After reading these tips, you should be able to assess your current running patterns to see where you can improve your breathing methods. Do you already do one or some of these? You may only need one or two, but implementing all of these tips into your running routine can only improve your runs.
If you do need to change things up, you may want to focus on just one technique at a time. Once you’ve got one down, add in another until you are naturally breathing most effectively. In time, you’ll be breathing your best!