Running is a great form of exercise and meditation in motion. It requires no equipment — just a pair of reliable sneakers and your body. All you have to do is choose where you want to run and, after a warm up, you’re on your way.
What most beginner runners (and some more experienced runners) might not know is that there is another important factor that affects your quality of run.
It’s your breathing pattern.
Running, like all types of exercise, is a form of stress on your body. And you might not notice it, but your breathing patterns change when your body undergoes stress.
You surrender the deep breaths from your relaxed state and instead go into shallow chest breathing. This pattern of breathing provides no benefits to your tense and working muscles.
It may seem hard to focus on proper breathing while you’re trying to cross the finish line, but it’s vital to pay attention to your breath.
What Is Improper Breathing?
Most of our day-to-day breathing happens subconsciously; it’s much harder to manage when all you can focus on is the aching of your muscles and putting one foot in front of the other.
You might not even be aware of the breathing technique you use during your run.
If you aren’t breathing with your diaphragm, then you are breathing inefficiently for your run. Diaphragmatic breathing is the act of using the diaphragm — a muscle located underneath your ribs, near your stomach — to pull and push air in. These breaths are usually much deeper.
It might be hard for us to switch into that type of breathing as we tend to go with erratic, shallow breathing rates when we’re stressed. And that type of breath rate comes from the upper chest area.
The Consequences of Improper Breathing
Your muscles need oxygen to function properly. Oxygen is used by your body to break down glucose and create the fuel for your muscles. Your breathing and heart rate increases during exercise to allow more oxygen into the body. The more stress and force you exert on them, the quicker they need to get that oxygen.
When you engage in shallow chest breathing, your muscles aren’t getting enough oxygen and they aren’t getting it fast.
What happens when your body runs out of the oxygen you need during workouts?
Instead of converting glucose to fuel, your muscles will start converting glucose into lactic acid. Running is an aerobic exercise but without proper oxygen intake, you’ll switch into anaerobic exercise which will leave you out of breath and cause the familiar pain of side stitches to come on.
If you’re breathing improperly even on easy runs, you’ll find that fatigue sets in quickly. The recovery period will also be more difficult because your body is struggling to compensate for the lack of oxygen and energy from your run.
Additionally, you put a heavy weight on your foot each time it hits the ground and one study showed that the stress load is even greater when you exhale with your foot’s impact. Why is that the case? When you exhale, your core muscles relax and your core is less stabilized — your body is taking in the impact in other muscle groups. Improper breathing can lead to increased soreness on one side of your body.
Proper breathing techniques can help eliminate these problems and make your runs more enjoyable.
Find the Right Breathing Method
We’ve covered numerous breathing techniques in our other guides, but there are specific techniques you can use to maximize each run.
The most fundamental change you need to make to your breathing technique during runs is to inhale and exhale using your diaphragm. Inhale as your diaphragm expands and exhale as your diaphragm contracts.
If that’s hard to remember, just think about pushing your belly out and sucking it in.
Practice on a couple of easy runs or even when you’re out walking by placing a hand on your stomach. Now feel yourself push out your belly as you inhale and walk. Then push down on your belly with your hand as you exhale.
It’s an unfamiliar feeling but after practicing this technique, you’ll find it a useful tool in your runner’s arsenal.
Developing a rhythmic breathing pattern forces you pay attention to the flow of your breath and align it to the flow of your footsteps. It’s as simple as counting seconds (you’re counting footsteps and breaths instead).
If you’re constantly exhaling on the right foot, your right side of the body will probably feel much more worn down after your run. Same goes with the left foot and side. You can employ rhythmic breathing to remind yourself to evenly distribute the impact between both feet.
Rhythmic breathing can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the difficulty of your run:
For warm-ups or easier runs, breathe in with a 3:3 pattern. This means that you’ll breathe in for three steps and then breathe out for three steps. This pattern will have you exhaling on the same foot each time so if you want to make sure you’re alternating, try a 3:2 pattern. Breathe in for three steps, breathe out for two. This will help you exhale on each foot independently.
Moderate to Hard Runs
On slightly more difficult runs, you can dip lower into a 2:2 breathing pattern. This will allow you to take in more breaths per minute while giving your body enough time to expel carbon dioxide from your lungs.
To alternate the exhales, you can also try a 2:1 pattern. This should increase your oxygen intake to 60 breaths per minute. This pattern is great for harder runs.
Experiment With Breath Rates
Now that you know a couple of starter breathing patterns, you can try experimenting with different rates throughout your run.
For example, you could increase your breath rate to 4:4 on a flat terrain on a long run. For uphill runs, you might need to adjust it back to 3:3. It all depends on your comfort.
Breathe Through Your Nose
Though it’s not required, it is highly recommended that you mostly try to breathe through your nose. We say “mostly” because we know how tough it can be.
Breathing through your nose will help you consciously slow down your breath rate and focus on deeper breathing. Mouth breathing is usually associated with shallow breaths.
Breathing through your nose has the added benefit of preventing your mouth from drying out.
You don’t always have to breathe through your nose. It can mostly be used as more of a training method to help you become aware of your breaths during runs.
But as always, it’s all about your comfort. If you need to open your mouth to breathe, do that. Try nose-breathing on easier runs and go from there.
How to Train for Better Breathing During Runs
Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge of these various breathing techniques, you’ll need to integrate them into training plans to teach your body a new pattern.
One of the best ways to train yourself to breathe is to practice mindful breathing outside of the run. Just take a few moments out of your day to pay attention to your breath. Becoming aware of what your body feels and does as you breathe is a good stepping stone to your controlled breathwork on a run.
It’s especially interesting to note what happens to your breath and body when you’re stressed out — it’s similar to pushing your body to run harder. Spire can help pinpoint those moments and encourage healthier breathing habits throughout your day.
Another way to add breathwork into your runs is by breathing first, moving after. Try out one of the aforementioned breathing patterns (2:2, 3:2) while standing in place. Instead of footsteps, use seconds. Then walk it out.
When you started running, your focus was probably on crossing the finish line or just getting through the run. But if you take a moment to establish good breathing habits early on, you’ll be able to enjoy your runs so much more. You’ll cross the finish line without wearing down your body and lungs. You’ll be able to recover faster, too.
Take care of your breath and your body will thank you.