Breathing is something you do all day, every day–and mostly without paying too much attention to it. Except when you’re running. In fact, breathing may sometimes be the only thing you can think about when you’re out for a jog.
So why does running make breathing harder? Running puts a greater demand on muscles, particularly your leg muscles. To supply energy to the body, you need to breathe at a faster rate to bring more oxygen into your lungs, notes a 2016 article in Breathe. From there, the oxygen moves into your bloodstream where it’s transported into your tissues. Ultimately, for this all to happen, you can’t just breathe like you do when you’re at rest. Your breathing rate has to increase, ultimately rising four-fold, from 15 times a minute to 40 to 60 times per minute, the researchers say.
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“Our muscles rely on oxygen to perform and better breathing allows more oxygen to flow to the muscles, preventing tightness,” Amanda Brooks, CPT, a UCSEA-certified running coach, and author of the website Run To The Finish, tells Health. “Additionally, when we learn to control our breathing, we can decrease our perceived effort,” she explains.
Overall, that means more controlled breathing keeps your heart rate lower, which in turn means the body doesn’t have to work as hard, says Brooks. Follow these 7 tips for breathing right on your run.
Check your breath at rest
The first step to better your breathing technique while running is to pay attention to how you breathe all the time, including when you’re at your computer, watching TV, or taking a walk. “Few runners are breathing well because they aren’t breathing well outside of running,” says Brooks. Most often, we’re taking shallow chest breaths, which will only fill up a portion of the lungs with oxygen. “This limits the volume of air coming into the body, and thus to the muscles and brain,” she says. The idea is to “belly breathe,” which means that when you inhale, your belly expands, an indication that you’re using your diaphragm.
Breathing at rest is a great practice that can prepare you for proper breathing technique when out on your feet. “If we aren’t used to breathing with our diaphragm, then it’s unlikely we’ll do so when running, which results in shallow breathing,” says Brooks. Several times a day, put your hands on your belly and inhale through your nose, focusing on expanding your belly; then, exhale through your mouth.
Use your warm-up to warm up your breath
Get in the groove before a run with a light warm-up, which serves two purposes: ready your body for the movement ahead, and get you in the right state of mind. “Running is really supposed to be stress-relieving. If you’re stressed out about it, you’re not going to be breathing effectively,” Monica Olivas, an RRCA-certified running coach and author of Run Eat Repeat, tells Health.
Try some walking followed by dynamic movement, such as marching in place, side-to-side and front-to-back lunges, or even dancing at home. “Take a few calming deep breaths by putting your hands above your head and filling your lungs with air,” she says. This is where you’ll start your breath for running.
Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth
So, should you focus on breathing with your nose or your mouth when you’re hoofing it? Turns out, it’s a combination of both. Brooks advises her runners to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. If you notice that you tend to aggressively suck in air through your mouth, it may be a sign that you’re overexerting yourself. “When doing all of the breathing the mouth, it’s a sign that we’re running too hard,” says Brooks, who likens it to a dog panting as the pup tries to gulp as much air as he can.
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Another benefit of “in through the nose, out through the mouth” is a more centered cadence. “The nose-to-mouth option can help you mentally stay in a space of calm and relaxation,” adds Brooks. (You already knew running could be meditative, right?)
That’s important when it comes to finishing out your run. Labored breathing is anything but calm, and you may be more likely to stop short of your goal if your perceived effort is high, making the run especially tough. “As soon as you feel as if you can’t breathe, it’s as if you hit a speed bump,” says Olivas. It can be mentally taxing, and your brain may also signal you can’t go on with the run, causing “negative thoughts to flood your mind,” she says.
It’s also important to consider the length of your inhale and exhale. Brooks advises maintaining an exhale that’s slightly longer than the inhale. “This helps clear out the CO2,” she says. It’s okay if these breaths are quick, since your breathing rate will speed up the faster you run. Still, while you may be breathing fast, she advises to focus on keeping your breathing “calm and even.”
Try a rhythmic breathing method
If you want to try out specific breathing techniques to see if they’re a fit for you on your run, Brooks cites Running on Air, a book by running coach Budd Coates. “He details how we want to alternate what foot we land on during our exhale because we produce more force with the exhale,” she says. To do it, breathe in for three steps and out for two steps. “This can feel awkward at first, but then can lead to smoother breathing,” she says.
Follow the ‘talk test’
Depending on your goals, the “talk test” can clue you in on if you’re going at the right pace. And it’s all about your breathing. If you’re new to running or training for a fun run, then Olivas says that most of your running should be at a conversational pace, meaning you could chat with a running buddy through the miles. “At this pace, you’re building up endurance, which is what you need when you want to be able to run longer distances. Your breath should be at a steady pace,” she says.
Stop if you feel out of breath
If you do feel breathless, it’s time to take things down several notches. “I suggest runners stop to walk,” Olivas says. Listen, if you planned to run the entire time, it’s natural to feel a bit let down or like you’re not doing it right, but the walking break will only serve to strengthen your ability to run overall. Think of it like in yoga class, explains Olivas. There, your instructor will advise returning to child’s pose if you need a rest. You get that same rest if needed during running.
“Running is a very challenging sport. If you’re a new runner, give yourself the freedom that comes with allowing for walking breaks,” she says. When your breath returns to a more normal pattern and your heart rate calms, start running again slowly and try to maintain your breath to stay at a conversational pace.
That said, while it’s normal to breathe more heavily or even be a little out of breath during exercise, you shouldn’t be short of breath, which is a different sensation. If your chest tightens or you wheeze or cough during exercise, you may have a condition called exercise-induced asthma—which may be treated with an inhaler—according to Mayo Clinic. Always talk to your doctor if you have trouble breathing while exercising.
After you finish your run, give yourself a brief cool down. Walking for five or 10 minutes is effective in bringing your breath back to a more normal rate. Now you’re ready for your post-run routine, such as stretching, foam rolling, or smoothie drinking.
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