In the ordinary course of a day, most of us don’t give much thought to the ins and outs (literally) of our breathing. Running, however, can put a greater emphasis on the otherwise unremarkable (but, remarkable!) process due to the fact that it can sometimes cause breathing to become difficult or labored.
In a nutshell, the breathing process works like this: When you inhale, you’re filling the air sacs inside your lungs, which then fill the small sacs (a.k.a. alveoli) where that incoming oxygen is exchanged with carbon dioxide in the blood at the cellular level, explains William Roberts, MD, director of the Sports Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
That oxygen is then pumped into the blood and distributed throughout the body, including to the muscles activated by exercise, while the carbon dioxide is expelled when you exhale. The lungs can’t execute this process on their own, either; breathing requires the assistance of the many muscles, including (and most critically), the diaphragm.
Despite its many moving parts, this is a natural process that usually takes care of itself, even when you’re running, says Dr. Roberts. “The brain has sensors that detect reductions in blood oxygen and will respond by ‘telling’ the body to breath faster and deeper,” he explains.
Lowered oxygen levels may account for the feeling of breathlessness early in your run, Dr. Roberts explains. This will be especially notable in those who are novice runners and/or who don’t exercise much. “You’ll [also] see people at the end of a race who are panting because they’re trying to make up for their [oxygen] losses,” he explains.
Generally, running coach Rebeka Stowe says that the best way to remedy this is to work for deeper breaths. “[Breathe] from your diaphragm and fill up your whole rib cage, 360 degrees,” she says. “Avoid shorter, shallow breathing from your chest.”
In fact, cultivating a specific “centering” breathing technique can be helpful, explains Stowe: “It gives you a focus you can dictate within the run. This practice can influence your feeling of control of your environment. In addition, breathwork can actually engage the parasympathetic (think, calming) branch of your nervous system.”
Why can it feel like such a struggle to breathe while running?
Runners tend to take shorter inhales and exhales when they run (versus when they’re at rest or walking), says Heather Milton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center. “This actually decreases the amount of oxygen that fills the lungs,” she says. “And we want our lungs to fill with oxygen with each breath, as this oxygen is needed to pump to working muscles to have energy available to continue running with ease.”
The diaphragm is a muscle that sits at the base of lungs, she explains, and we need that muscle to contract in order to inhale fully, and to relax in order to exhale fully. “Often, we see people who do not utilize this muscle to the fullest,” she says. “This limits how much CO2 (a byproduct of running and other exercise) we expire, thus reducing the amount of oxygen that can enter the lungs and get to the bloodstream.”
It may also feel like a struggle because technically, explains Stowe, it is. “When you are running versus, say, walking, you are asking for greater strength from your body—to stabilize through the core as you move between strides,” she says. “This greater strength requirement also asks more of the respiratory muscles that help us breath. The faster pace you work at, the less oxygen your muscles are going to be operating with as well. It may feel like a struggle, because it is, but the good news is the more you work, the greater strength you will build and your body will adapt”
But difficulty breathing while running isn’t only physical. Sometimes, Stowe says it can have psychological causes, too. “Often when we run, we are pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone,” she explains. “And this feeling and experience that we are operating at a limit can create some anxiety, which can result in that feeling of struggle as the physiological reactions to the stress response occur,” she explains.
In some cases, struggling to breathe while running can also be a sign of asthma (a common cause of chest pain while running). It could also be due to vocal cord dysfunction—a condition that can be caused by anxiety wherein the vocal cords close instead of open when someone breathes in—and should be checked by a physician, adds Dr. Roberts.
Is it better to breathe through your mouth or nose while running?
The experts generally agree that there’s no one prescriptive way to breathe, even when pounding the pavement. “When running, you want to have relaxed, rhythmic breathing,” says Milton. “This means breathing through your mouth or nose, as long as you can maintain slow, rhythmic breathing.” She adds, however, that for most, this means breathing mainly through the mouth once they’ve broken into a solid pace.
Dr. Roberts, however, still recommends using both the nose and mouth to breathe, as this approach aids in the goal of moving as much air as possible into and out of the lungs.
5 Breathing Techniques To Try While Running
That said, there are specific breathing techniques designed to help runners achieve more efficient, effective, and comfortable breathing during their runs. Rather than being prescriptive about who should do which, and when, Stowe recommends playing with them to see which make you feel the strongest and most successful in your training system. “You will use different techniques for different sessions,” she says.
- 4:4 box breathing: “I often incorporate 4:4 box breathing—in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4—into my easy [running] sessions,” says Stowe.
- 2:2 rhythm: Take two steps (one with the right foot, and one with the left) while breathing in, and then two steps while breathing out. This approach, and those that follow below, is known as locomotor-respiratory coupling (LCR), where a person syncs their breathing patterns with their footstrikes. LCR may help reduce conflicting demands placed on the diaphragm and other muscles needed for breathing, thus enabling more efficient inhales and exhales, according to research published in the journal Plos One.
- 3:3 rhythm: Inhale for three steps or strides, and then exhaling for three steps or strides.
- 2:1 rhythm: Breathe in for two steps and out for one. This breathing pattern is naturally favored by most runners, according to research published in Science. It may also minimize the work of the respiratory muscles, thereby making running feel easier, and that it’s most optimal during intense endurance runs, per study findings published in Plos One.
- 5:2 rhythm: Some runners instead prefer an LCR method that requires them to inhale for three steps and exhale for two. This may work best on slow runs.
How To Breathe While Sprinting And Running Fast
“For sprints, best to check with your coach,” says Dr. Roberts. “I was coached [to take] ‘one breath in 100 meters’—beyond that it was breath as needed.”
Whatever your pace, you may want to pay particular attention to the depth of your breaths while sprinting and try to employ, as Stowe recommends above, breathing that starts deep in the belly rather than up at the chest—even if it feels counterintuitive to the pace of the run. This will help to increase the amount of oxygen you inhale and carbon dioxide you exhale, which prevents you from tiring as quickly. It may also eliminate the abdomen cramping caused by diaphragm spasms.