Breathing probably isn’t something you think about on the regular. Most of the time, the inhales and exhales happen automatically. But, I do think about breathing when I’m
running…likely because it suddenly becomes a lot harder for me to breathe.
The reason you may feel breathless early in runs is because of lower oxygen levels, especially for those who are novice runners or who don’t exercise much. Generally, the best way to remedy this is to work for deeper breaths, says running coach Rebeka Stowe. “[Breathe] from your diaphragm and fill up your whole rib cage 360 degrees,” she says. “Avoid shorter, shallow breathing from your chest.”
Meet the experts: William Roberts, MD, is the director of the Sports Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Gordon Bakoulis is an RRCA-certified running coach who was a finalist in the 1992 U.S. Olympic 10,000 meter trials and has coached runners at all levels since 1985. Heather Milton, CSCS, is an exercise physiologist at NYU Langone’s Sports Performance Center.
A quick refresher: Breathing involves inhaling to fill the air sacs inside your lungs. The small sacs (a.k.a. alveoli) are then filled with incoming oxygen that will be 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.
After, the oxygen is pumped into the blood and distributed throughout the body, while the carbon dioxide is expelled when you exhale. But the lungs can’t execute this process on their own. Breathing requires the assistance of the many muscles, like the diaphragm. This process is automatic because “the brain has sensors that detect reductions in blood oxygen and will respond by ‘telling’ the body to breathe faster and deeper,” he explains.
The benefits of proper breathing while running go past just feeling better while you’re pounding the pavement. Not only can they potentially improve exercise performance by one to five percent over a long learning period, breathing the right way also has huge psychological benefits to help increase runners’ exercise tolerance, positive mood, and training habits, a 2022 Frontiers study found.
Read on for all the expert intel on how to breathe while running for every level.
How To Breathe While Running For Beginners
The best way to breathe while running is to not overthink it, says Gordon Bakoulis, RRCA-certified running coach and 1992 U.S. Olympic trial finalist. When you’re just starting out, keep these tips in mind:
- Take relaxed, rhythmic breaths. Don’t hyper-fixate on your rate, Bakoulis says, especially when you’re a beginner. To allow yourself to breathe naturally, she advises keeping your mouth open and not worrying about where the air comes and goes, because most people do both.
- Beginners should run at “conversation effort.” Bakoulis says this is “a level where they can breathe comfortably and talk throughout the run while their bodies become stronger and more conditioned.” You can try breathing in for four steps (right-left-right-left), then out for the next four, she recommends. (More on the other rhythmic breathing techniques for running later!)
- Take long runs with a partner. Those long runs call for a sustained conversation pace, and the best way to do that is by running with a friend and actually talking throughout. “They shouldn’t breathe so hard that they can’t talk comfortably, or they won’t be able to finish the run,” Bakoulis says. She advises watching YouTube videos of the best marathon runners and seeing how relaxed their breathing is for most of the race, except when they’re about to finish.
- Maintain good posture. A tall, upright stance helps you breathe better and keep proper form. Leaning forward can restrict the ability to take deep breaths, says Bakoulis—especially when you’re running uphill. “Instead, keep the shoulders relaxed and chest open so you can take deep, full breaths,” she says.
- Calm your breathing post-run. You should return to a resting rate within a few minutes of your last stride. It’s a sign that you’ve “overextended” if you continue huffing and puffing longer than that. If you’re constantly feeling breathless during your runs, it’s possible that you could have have exercise-induced asthma, so it’s best to see your doc or a sports medicine specialist, Bakoulis adds.
5 Breathing Techniques To Optimize Your Running
Ready to level up your performance? There are specific breathing techniques designed to help runners achieve more efficient, effective, and comfortable breathing during their runs.
- 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 pattern is naturally favored by most runners, according to research published in Science. It may also minimize the work of the respiratory muscles, making running feel easier. This rhythm is optimal for intense endurance runs, according to a study published in Plos One.
- 5:2 rhythm: Some runners prefer an LCR method that requires them to inhale for three steps and exhale for two. This may work best on slow runs.
Pro tip: Play around with timing your inhales and exhales to your cadence to see how your body responds and which one helps you feel the strongest, Stowe. “You will use different techniques for different sessions,” she says.
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…it is, explains Stowe. “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 breathe.”
“The faster pace you work at, the less oxygen your muscles are going to be operating with as well,” adds Stowe. But don’t worry: the more you work, the stronger you’ll get. As you add miles, 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.
“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.”
For most, once you’ve settled into your pace your natural breathing pattern will be mainly through the mouth. Still, Dr. Roberts 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.
How To Breathe While Running Fast Or Sprinting
Sprints are all-out efforts intended to push you to your max, and breathing is very individual. “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 want to pay particular attention to the depth of your breaths while sprinting, as Stowe recommends above. Focus on 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.
Now, get out there and practice! You’ve got this.
Erin has over 15 years of experience as a journalist and professional writer. Her words have appeared in Well+Good, The Zoe Report, Brides, HuffPo, InStyle, Nylon, Bustle, Blood+Milk, LALA Magazine, TimeOut LA, HelloGiggles, The EveryGirl, and other outlets. In 2010 she founded—and then sold—Broke Girl’s Guide, a hyper-local lifestyle guide for young women on a budget. More recently, she co-wrote a cookbook for Los Angeles-based vegan restaurant Little Pine to be published in early 2021.
Addison Aloian (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Women’s Health. When she’s not writing about all things pop culture, health, beauty, and fashion, she loves hitting leg day at the gym, shopping at Trader Joe’s, and watching whichever hockey game is on TV. Her work has also appeared in Allure, StyleCaster, L’Officiel USA, V Magazine, and Modern Luxury Media.