Confession: It wasn’t until about five years ago that I ran my first mile.
It happened one day while walking Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail in Austin, Texas. A fast walk turned into a jog, which turned into a slow run.
One mile turned into four. Running gave me a rush of endorphins and sense of accomplishment. I loved feeling the exhaustion in my legs: it made me feel energized and clear-headed. I was hooked.
As a newbie runner, I had much to learn. First of all, not the best idea to run over four miles right off the bat. My muscles and joints were not fans. Second, it wasn’t as easy each day to hit the trail and pick up a run. I had to learn form, how to pace myself and how to breathe while running. I had no idea that running would be so complicated! Haven’t we been doing this since the beginning of mankind?
Just like any new sport or exercise, you get better with practice. As a new runner, I learned how important it is to take in as much oxygen as possible on the inhale and, equally important, to rid my body of as much carbon dioxide on the exhale that I could. In this post, I’ll teach you how to breathe while running so that you’re breathing optimally from the time of your first run all the way to your first half marathon.
Why Is Mindful Breathing Important While Running
Even though our bodies breathe involuntarily, mindful, proper breathing while you run can boost your endurance and reduce injury.
Many people have a tendency to hold their breath when they exercise, especially as the movements or pace increase in difficulty. This isn’t good for your body. If you breathe improperly, this could mean uncomfortable consequences like side stitches or lower performance while running.
Your muscles need oxygen and won’t work effectively if they aren’t getting enough of it. Oxygen fuels muscle contractions that happen when your body is in motion. It drives the spark which helps your muscles convert the glucose from your diet into energy.
With your muscles working extra hard during exercise, they need more energy. Your breathing rate increases so that the amount of oxygen being delivered to your muscles keeps up with the increased energy production. That’s why you breathe harder and faster when you increase your pace or intensity.
We often think of inhaling and taking oxygen in as the most important function of breathing, but carbon dioxide removal is equally important. In her book “Breathe Strong, Perform Better,” Alison McConnell says “the supply of oxygen becomes a secondary objective of breathing during heavy exercise, then the emphasis of its role switches to getting rid of the by-product of exercise, carbon dioxide.”
Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of cellular respiration. Your blood takes carbon dioxide from your muscles back to your lungs. The quality of your exhalation determines how well your body rids itself of this waste product.
“…the supply of oxygen becomes a secondary objective of breathing during heavy exercise, then the emphasis of its role switches to getting rid of the by-product of exercise, carbon dioxide.” — Alison McConnell, “Breathe Strong, Perform Better”
Develop a Breathing Pattern for Running
Breathing patterns not only help you keep pace, they can also prevent injury.
“Rhythmic breathing can help reduce fatigue of respiratory muscles in endurance running, which could improve endurance performance and, quite possibly, reduce injury risk,” says scientist Monica Daley, who conducted the study “Impact Loading and Locomotor-Respiratory Coordination Significantly Influence Breathing Dynamics in Running Humans.”
The study found that the practice of couple breathing, or locomotor-respiratory coupling, can “reduce work of breathing and minimize rate of fatigue.”
Breathing Patterns: Find the Sweet Spot
To synchronize your breathing, use the rhythm of your steps to regulate your breath. If you are on a slower, easy run, for example, you’ll choose a different breathing rhythm than when you’re running for speed. The goal is to synchronize your breath with your strides.
Many runners prefer a 2:2 breathing pattern — two strides for every inhale, two strides for every exhale. This helps create a rhythm that, overtime, you will no longer have to count in your head.
On the other hand, there are many experts, such as Budd Coates, author of “Running on Air,” who recommend breathing in odd, not even patterns — two strides for every inhale, three strides for every exhale. In a study by Dennis Bramble and David Carrier, they found that you are more prone to injury when the “exhalation always falls on the same foot” because it puts more stress on that side of the body.
I’ve tried both kinds of coupled breathing, even and odd. For longer, slower runs, I lean toward the odd pattern. Because I am aware that even breathing could have a negative impact on my leg, I don’t like to give one leg significantly more impact than the other when running for longer periods of time. Plus, at a slower pace, it’s easier to extend my exhale for three strides. For shorter, more intense runs, however, the odd pattern has never been a comfortable breathing technique for me. It is difficult to extend the exhale for three strides on a fast run.
Where to Breathe From
Where you breathe from is just as important as how you breathe. Our innate impulse is to breathe with our upper chests, which is a mistake that many beginner runners make. Chest breathing neither takes in nor expels enough air. To take deep breaths, you need to be belly breathing while you run.
Belly breathing means your inhales and exhales come from your stomach area, also called diaphragmatic breathing. You can practice chest breathing with the following breathing exercise, right now as you sit:
- Place a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly.
- Take a deep breath through your mouth
- If you are belly breathing, the hand on your belly should rise first, and the hand on your chest should move later and less.
You will not intake a sufficient amount of air through nose breathing. Focus on breathing deeply through your mouth while you run. This small change will yield immediate improvements to your running efficiency and performance.
Start Off on the Right Foot
Ready to try it out on your own? Here’s how to get started:
- Try different breathing patterns for different types of runs until you find the one (or ones) that work best for you.
- If you are new to running, start at a slow pace and use a longer breathing pattern, such as a 3:3.
- Take note of how you feel during and after each run. How is your energy level? How are your muscles feeling? If you’re not feeling your best or tiring out more quickly, try adjusting your breathing pattern.
The most important thing is that the quality of your breathing remains constant all the way to the finish line.
Want to know what your breathing looks like when you run? Check out Spire – the wearable device for activity, breath and state of mind. Spire measures your breathing and sends you signals when your body is exhibiting signs of stress.