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How to Breathe While Running: 5 Rules to Follow

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The two primary steps to focus on when learning how to breathe while running is to breathe from your belly while using your nose and mouth to inhale and exhale. Using your diaphragm, you maximize the amount of oxygen your lungs breathe in and allow the maximum amount of carbon dioxide to exit.

It should be pretty simple: you run, and you breathe. You don’t even have to think about it. But learning to breathe while running can actually be pretty tricky.

And, if you don’t do it right, you can run out of breath, feel like you are gasping for air, and get that dreaded side stitch while running. A common ailment for new runners with no breathing technique. 

Why is breathing while running so challenging? Because many beginner runners start running too fast and their breathing gets out of control, inhibiting the flow of oxygen to their muscles. 

Efficient breathing is important because it converts to glycogen, an essential fuel source for aerobic activity. This means maximum oxygen intake is a critical factor to consider when training.

Add in the talk of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing and matching your breath to your cadence, and this topic can be downright confusing.

But don’t worry. We got you covered with an easy-to-follow breakdown on how to breathe while running.

How to properly breathe while running

The goal of how to properly breathe while running is simple: you want to maximize the amount of oxygen your body takes in and carbon dioxide you put out so that your muscles have the energy it needs to do the work.

Five Breathing Tips To Follow

1. Run easy.

To do this, focus first on running easy at a conversational pace. When running at this pace, you should be able to do the “talk test,” in which you can say a short sentence without having to breathe heavily.

Your heart rate should be 65-75 percent of your max heart rate with easy running.

If you’re familiar with the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion), this would be a 4-6 when gauging the intensity of your run.

2. Run with good form.

If you’re running too fast, your running form will suffer, and you will begin to slump your shoulders, leading to improper breathing.

Check yourself by ensuring you’re running relaxed with your shoulders down, your back straight, chest open, arms loose and swinging by your side, and hips pointed forward. Don’t clench your fists. Pretend you are holding potato chips between your index finger and thumb.

3. Breathe from your belly.

Avoid shallow breaths. Instead, do deep breaths that feel like you are filling your belly with air.

Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is a deep belly breathing technique that allows you to take in the most air possible, holding it in the lower part of your lungs. This results in the maximum uptake of oxygen and flow of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.

Studies also show that belly breathing has a calming effect that promotes mental strength.

You can practice belly breathing at home before taking it on the road:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your shoulders down, and your body relaxed.
  2. Put your hand on your chest and your hand on your stomach.
  3. Breathe in through your nose until you can’t breathe in anymore.
  4. Feel the air go into your stomach, and your chest remains still.
  5. Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  6. Repeat several times.

4. Use both your nose and mouth.

Next, practice doing belly breathing using your nose and mouth simultaneously.

Breathing with your nose and your mouth (mostly in through your nose and mostly out through your mouth) is optimal for running because just using your mouth has a hyperventilating effect, while just using your nose doesn’t give you enough oxygen.

Using both gives you the benefits of the calming effect of nasal breathing along with the oxygenating effect of mouth breathing.

5. Get a rhythm.

Belly breathing through your nose and mouth sets you up for rhythmic breathing, breathing at a steady rate.

One study shows that rhythmic breathing helped runners reduce the stress put on the respiratory system—preventing fatigue and improving respiratory efficiency.

It takes practice and breathing exercises to match your breath with your steps, and runners should experiment with different breathing rhythms to see what feels the most comfortable.

Studies suggest that taking two steps for every breath in a 2:1 ratio is most comfortable. Easy runs can be done at a 3:3 ratio, medium at a 2:2, and high-intensity running and cardio exercises can be done at a 1:1 ratio.

How to breathe while running: nose or mouth?

That’s a trick question, as runners should use both their nose and mouth while breathing.

Studies show that many runners find it most effective to breathe through both the mouth and nose when running. These studies reveal that proper breathing in through your nose helps prevent hyperventilation, while breathing through your mouth decreases cardiovascular stress.

So, when should you use only nose breathing vs. mouth breathing?

Nose breathing: Many runners may have heard that they should be breathing through their nose in what’s called nasal breathing. Nasal breathing has been found to calm the nervous system.

But nasal breathing doesn’t supply an optimal amount of oxygen and is best used for activities like yoga or very easy running.

Mouth breathing: Breathing through your mouth while running will reduce cardiovascular stress and respiratory fatigue and is best used for speed workouts.

How to breathe while running fast

If you tried nose breathing while doing a sprint, you aren’t going to get very far.

The research has shown that runners had a higher respiratory exchange ratio when doing anaerobic running like sprints while mouth breathing (meaning their bodies were getting more oxygen) over nose breathing.

Runners had a higher heart rate with nose breathing while running fast, likely due to the stress on their bodies.

The takeaway? If you’re running fast, breathe through your mouth! If you’re running really slow, you can breathe through your nose.

How to breathe running long distance

If you are running long distances, chances are you are running at an easy conversational pace. If your pace is very easy, you can try nose breathing.

However, if your pace is faster than in heart rate zone 2 (65 to 75 percent of your max heart rate), breathe in mostly through your nose and mostly out your mouth (employing both simultaneously).

This is the most common and effective breathing pattern for running long distances.

How to breathe while running in the cold

It’s common for runners’ chests to hurt while running the cold. Why?

Because when you’re cold, everything restricts, from your muscles to your respiratory system, making it harder for them to work. Research shows that running in the cold can be bad for the lungs because it could dry out the lining and cause damage.

Try warming up indoors before heading outside to protect your lungs and make it easier to breathe while running in the cold.

Wrap a bandana or scarf over your nose and mouth to warm the air you breathe in. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. This allows the air to travel farther to your chest, having more time to warm up before it gets to your lungs.

However, this breathing pattern limits the amount of oxygen you take in, so run easy. If you’re doing speedwork, wait until you are warmed up before breathing hard through your nose and mouth.

Don’t overthink how to breathe while running

With all this said, it’s important not to overcomplicate breathing while running.

Research shows that stressing too much about how to breathe while running can decrease your running performance.

So, run easy. Breathe easy. And let it come to you.

If you still feel there is room for improvement when it comes to your breathing rate and lung capacity, or you find that side stitches, shortness of breath, and over-exertion, be sure to consult with a running coach or physical trainer. They will provide individual support to diagnose bad habits.

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