As a runner, your performance depends largely on your body’s ability to take in oxygen. The more O2 you take in, the quicker it gets transported around your body, fueling your muscles and helping you to perform better, run faster, and stay strong for longer.
All runners have probably wondered how to increase lung capacity for running more effectively.
But can you actually increase your lung capacity… Or is it a myth?
Let’s dive into the question and see what it means and how your lung capacity can boost your running performance.
What Is Lung Capacity?
A person’s lung capacity is how much air their lungs can hold. It’s different for everyone, based on various factors, such as the physical size of your lungs and your fitness level.
Your lung function is measured using a range of different volumes, including the amount of air you breathe in and out during a normal, relaxed breath, the amount of air you can forcefully inhale/exhale after a normal breath, and the amount of air that remains in the lungs even after you’ve breathed out as much as you can.
These measurements—and a few more—are used to calculate your total lung capacity.
Why Is It Important for Runners?
Your body requires oxygen for almost everything. When it comes to running, your muscles need constant oxygen to perform at their best. Every time you breathe in, you take in oxygen, which gets sent to the muscles and organs.
Good lung capacity means taking in more air with each breath. More air equals more oxygen, which means your muscles will have plenty of supply to see you through your run.
Also, the more oxygen you can take in at once, the less effort you exert to perform. It makes it easier to sustain an effort over a longer period of time before becoming fatigued.
Having a greater lung capacity means you have the potential to run faster for longer, sustaining a higher level of effort for a longer. So in running, having a big lung capacity is a definite advantage!
What Can Affect Your Lung Capacity?
You’re born with a certain lung size, but certain things throughout life can affect your lung capacity. These include:
Lung capacity typically decreases with age as the elasticity of the lung tissues decreases. Also, the muscles that help with breathing can weaken, so the lungs don’t expand as much as they used to.
Men tend to have greater lung capacities than women, as well as having a naturally higher red blood cell count. This means men typically use oxygen better than women for athletic performance.
Larger people have a larger lung capacity. In this case, we’re talking specifically about tall people versus shorter people rather than those who have extra weight on them.
The fitter you are, the better your lung capacity. Those who engage in regular physical exercise are likely to have better lung capacities than those who are sedentary.
Poor posture can limit the amount of air getting into the lungs. It can also lead to shallow breathing, further reducing lung capacity.
Exposure to pollution, smoke, dust, or chemicals can reduce lung capacity, especially when it’s occurred over a prolonged period.
Medical conditions like asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions can lower lung capacity. Chronic lung inflammation can also lead to scarring in the lungs, which may reduce it even more.
Those who smoke can expect to have a self-induced lower lung capacity. People who are obese may also have smaller lung capacities due to excess weight on the lungs, poor posture, and unhealthy habits.
Can You Improve Your Lung Capacity?
While your lungs are a certain size and you can’t change that, most people don’t breathe properly, leading to them using less capacity than they actually have.
While it’s impossible to increase the size of your lungs, you can learn to breathe properly and take in more air with every breath. This could be considered “increasing your lung capacity.”
Benefits of Improving Your Lung Capacity
Improving your lung capacity comes with certain benefits. Here’s what you can expect if you start actively working on your lungs.
Improved Running Performance
The more oxygen you can take in, the more O2 gets to your muscles to fuel them through your activity. Larger lung capacity = more muscle fuel. When your muscles have a constant supply of oxygen, they can hold out for longer distances while running faster.
As well as enhanced performance, the excess oxygen flow through your body also means carbon dioxide is removed faster. This can help the body to recover faster as it’s not working on removing waste products.
Increased Mental Focus and Clarity
The more oxygen that gets to your brain, the better your mental clarity and thought process. This can lead to better training sessions as your mindset will work with you, not against you, as long as you’re focused.
Improved Sleep Quality
Better lung function means you’re likely to sleep better at night. The better you breathe, the easier seep will come, and the faster your body will heal at night, thanks to the extra oxygen.
How To Increase Your Lung Capacity
Wondering how to increase lung capacity? Try some of these methods.
Implementing breathing techniques can make a big difference to your lung capacity. We recommend starting to work on some of these techniques if you want to boost your performance.
Also called “belly breathing,” this technique is about breathing as deeply as possible. You may need to shut off your instinct and actively work on breathing right down to your diaphragm.
Set aside some time to work on this specifically. We recommend sitting or lying down somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.
Inhale deeply through your nose. Try to keep your chest quite still but feel your abdomen rising. Exhale through your mouth and feel your stomach fall.
As you do this exercise, imagine your diaphragm moving down on the inhale—to make more space for the expanded lungs—and moving upwards on the exhale. Do this for a few minutes each day, and it should start to become a habit.
Make sure you stay upright and keep your form while running. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Try to coordinate your breathing to your strides—it can be 2 strides in, 2 strides out or something different—whatever works to make sure you’re getting enough breath in.
You can do this while walking or while running. The key is to fall into a rhythm of breathing in time with your steps. You can pick any pattern that works for you—3 strides for an inhale, 2 strides for an exhale, or anything else. Experiment with these rhythms to see what really works for you.
You still want to breathe down into your belly while doing this technique. Remember, you can alter your breathing pattern depending on how fast you walk or run. Make sure you’re still breathing optimally, no matter how fast or slow you’re going.
Pursed Lips Breathing
Breathe deeply through your nose. On the exhale, purse your lips and breathe out slowly, as if you’re blowing bubbles through a straw. Focus on controlling this exhalation and ensuring you get as much air out as possible.
Make sure to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. You can do this at home or while running, but keep good form.
Practice these breathing exercises at home to help increase your lung capacity. Just a few minutes every day can make a noticeable change.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Sit comfortably with good posture. Use your right thumb to block your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril. Then, block your left nostril with one of your other fingers and open your right nostril, exhaling through it. Repeat the entire process, just switching nostrils every few minutes.
Box Breathing (Square Breathing)
You can do this exercise seated or standing. Inhale deeply through your nose, counting to 4 as you do so. Once you’ve reached 4, hold your breath for a count of 4. Then, exhale for a count of 4, and hold your breath again at the bottom of the exhale.
Repeat this exercise multiple times. As well as helping to increase lung capacity, this breathing method can help to ease anxiety.
Breath Holds (Static Apnea)
Exhale completely and hold your breath for as long as possible at the bottom of the exhale. Once you can’t hold it any longer, release it and take a few deep breaths before trying again. Over time, the length of your breath-holding will increase, a sign of an improved lung capacity.
As well as boosting lung capacity, this exercise trains your body to tolerate higher carbon dioxide levels.
Run To Improve Lung Capacity
As well as doing breathing exercises, you can improve your lung capacity simply by doing the exercise you already enjoy—running.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
HIIT training is the best way to increase lung capacity. It challenges the cardiovascular system and forces it to improve, like training a muscle. Start slow and increase gradually. Be patient and the lung gains will come!
Go for a Long, Easy, Slow Run
Longer, slower runs help to improve aerobic capacity and endurance. This effectively trains them to work more efficiently, so they improve slowly the more long runs you do. If you’re doing a training program that includes tempo runs, easy runs, long runs, and HIIT, you’re on the right track for improved lungs.
Run at a High Altitudes
Research shows that people living at higher altitudes have larger lung capacities. However, it’s worth noting that to benefit from running at higher altitudes, you’ll need to do so for extended periods.
It’s also not a comfortable experience. Air pressure decreases, so your lungs must work harder to draw in oxygen. This is excellent for boosting lung function, but a few runs here and there are unlikely to make much difference unless you move to a high-altitude area.
Certain cross-training activities can boost your lung function. All cardio forms of cross-training will do so to some extent, but some are better than others. Cycling is an excellent choice because you can get great HIIT exercise, and it works some of the largest muscles in the body.
Interestingly, swimming with a snorkel is a fantastic way of boosting lung capacity. You don’t need to turn your head to breathe, and you can get a lot of oxygen in. You’ll only be breathing through your mouth, which isn’t a habit you want to get into when running, but this is purely to widen your lung capacity.
Snorkeling helps you develop more efficient breathing techniques and activates the respiratory muscles—diaphragm and intercostals—which strengthens the entire chest and boosts respiration.
Lifestyle and Habits to Support Lung Capacity Improvement
If you truly want to improve your lung capacity and keep it like that, you must be prepared to make lifestyle changes. Here are a few things you can do.
Managing Environmental Factors
Pollution, pollen, and dust can all be managed to an extent. If these things are a factor, looking at ways to reduce their effect is a good idea. Air filters, allergy medication, and regular cleaning may be necessary to reduce things that are affecting your lung capacity.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet
An unhealthy diet can lead to excess weight, which stresses the lungs and affects breathing. Make an effort to eat healthy and fuel your body with what it needs.
Dehydration can hamper lung function, so staying hydrated can help your lungs function properly. It’s especially important to stay hydrated while running to avoid a dry mouth and throat that can make breathing difficult.
Do Breathing Exercises Throughout the Day
Commit to doing breathing exercises throughout the day and you can expect your lung capacity to improve. You can do them while watching TV, waiting in a queue, or commuting to work.
Get Enough Sleep
If you’re short on sleep, your posture suffers as your body is tired. With poor posture comes poor breathing. Sleeping is important to stay healthy, and health and wellness is important for lung function.
Tips to Increase Your Lung Capacity While Running
It’s easy to sit on the sofa and breathe. But it can be harder to practice these things while running. Try these tips!
Focus on Deep Breathing
Belly breathing is the way to go. Focus on breathing slowly, in a controlled manner that fills your lungs. This can be difficult to focus on throughout your run, but with practice, you’ll find it becoming easier and easier.
Practice Controlled Breathing Patterns
Work on controlling your breathing patterns. Make an effort to breathe from your diaphragm, and try to breathe evenly, simultaneously inhaling to exhaling.
The easiest way to get into a rhythm when you’re running is to match your breathing to your cadence, as mentioned above.
Incorporate Hills and Stair Running
Hill running and stair running are forms of HIIT, and HIIT is known to improve cardiovascular health. Better cardiovascular health equals improved lung capacity.
During these high-intensity exercises, the lungs must work extra hard to get enough oxygen to the muscles for performance. When you do these kinds of exercises, over time, your lung capacity becomes better and better. It takes time, but this is a great way to improve it.