Best Breathing Techniques for Running
Breathing is a simple, involuntarily act that we tend to ignore unless, of course, we can’t breathe. But, is breathing something that requires more of our attention, especially when paired with running? There are three general schools of thought on running and breathing: that runners should breathe however is comfortable while paying little attention to their breath, that runners should micromanage their breath in relation to cadence and foot strike patterns, and finally that respiratory exercise is necessary to perform at the highest level. Each of these aspects will be discussed, including the evidence for (or against) these views.
Mouth Breathing vs. Nose Breathing
The question that must be answered when discussing how to breathe while running is whether it is best to breathe through your nose, or through your mouth. For runners who also participate in yoga, it may be tempting to assume that nose-breathing is best, as nose breathing is considered cleansing, detoxifying and stress relieving. However, when running, we are most concerned about getting as much oxygen as possible into our bodies so that oxygenated blood can efficiently travel to muscles. For this reason, breathing through the mouth is most efficient. Not convinced? Take a deep breath in through your nose and hold it. Now, exhale and take a deep breath in through your mouth. Do you notice a difference?
Belly Breathing vs. Chest Breathing
The next experiment is to breathe through your mouth and take notice of which part of your body rises first: your belly, or your chest? Although chest breathing is primarily associated with breathing through one’s nose, some people who breathe through their mouth also engage in this bad habit. When we inhale air primarily into our lungs (as opposed to our diaphragm, or belly breathing) we principally take shallow breaths. Chest breathing is not ideal because when our breath is shallow, not as much oxygen as necessary enters our blood stream, leading to cramps and side stitches. When we draw air all the way through our diaphragm, we ensure that our lungs fill completely with air, delivering maximum oxygen to our bodies.
A number of running coaches and professional runners are advocates of rhythmic breathing, which involves breathing in relation to cadence. For instance, during easy runs, runners are encouraged to breathe in for two steps and out for two steps. This method has even been suggested to stop a side stitch by rhythmically forcing the diaphragm (the cause of the side stitch) to expand when otherwise contracted.
To prevent side stitches, here are some useful tips.
• Stay well hydrated by drinking water or sports drinks
• Warm up thoroughly and increase your pace gradually
• Increase your fitness level
• Strengthen core muscles
• Run on soft surfaces to reduce the force of impact (trail running can be great)
• Practice belly breathing
• Eat at least three hours before a run
• Decrease your pace until you are further conditioned
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Others suggest a 3:3 breathing rhythm (inhaling for three steps and exhaling for three steps) in order to optimize the amount of oxygen that is taken into the lungs. For others, a 3:2 breathing pattern is best in order to remove the subconscious bias towards always exhaling when one leg hits the ground, thus further increasing the impact suffered by that leg. Some runners, such as four-time Olympic Trials qualifier Budd Coates, have attributed an even breathing pattern to increased injury in a specific leg, and indeed researchers1 have investigated this supposed effect.
When running at a more difficult effort, runners may find that a 2:2 or 3:3 breathing pattern is hard to maintain. Changing the ratio to 1:2 (inhaling for one count and exhaling for two counts) or the opposite, 2:1, will increase the amount of oxygen taken in per minute, thus leading to potentially improved performance and comfort. However, a 1:1 breathing pattern is not recommended, as this will lead to shallow breathing, which will not adequately oxygenate the lungs.
Advantages of Rhythmic Breathing
You may be wondering at this point if there is any advantage to counting your steps and breathing. For many coaches, the answer is a resounding yes. For one, breathing rhythmically can help a runner learn to pace him or herself better. Since cadence and breath are as enmeshed with one another as leg turnover and arm swing, gaining control of breathing and following a pattern can lead to improved pacing capabilities.
Besides pacing, rhythmic breathing can help a runner maintain even effort throughout a hard run or race, especially if there are drastic changes in topography. For instance, by maintaining steady, patterned breathing throughout the race, a steady effort will follow.
Even others have found that rhythmic breathing can promote mental and spiritual well-being, especially during a race and times of stress. Breathing patterns are well-studied in yoga practices and other Eastern philosophies, and are believed to have a calming effect on the mind and body. A commonly held belief among yoga practitioners is that when exhaling for an amount of time longer than an inhalation, such as would occur with the 1:2 breathing pattern, the parasympathetic nervous system can be calmed. If this is true, it would have great effect on distance runners.
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Disadvantages of Rhythmic Breathing
Now that we have discussed the numerous advantages of this method, what, if any, are the disadvantages? For some runners and coaches, rhythmic breathing is a lot of unnecessary work for zero benefit. The naysayers of rhythmic breathing believe that breathing in whichever way is comfortable for an individual is best. Although it has been merely suggested that rhythmic breathing may increase or decrease injury risk, there is no scientific data to back up the anecdotal evidence.
Strengthening Diaphragm Muscles
No matter how you breathe, there is no doubt that strengthening the muscles used for breathing can make a positive impact on your ability to draw oxygen into your lungs and expel waste products (such as carbon dioxide). In fact, scientists from the Center for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at the Brunel University in England have even shown that there is a link between diaphragm strength and fatigue2 during long distance races, such as the marathon. Hence, the stronger your diaphragm muscles are, the longer you can delay fatigue during the race.
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There are a number of methods that can be used to strengthen these important muscles. A common way is to first lie on your back and practice breathing such that only your belly raises when you inhale, and not your chest. Focus on the tension that you feel in your intercostal muscles. That tension is the strength that is required to separate belly and chest breathing. As you become more efficient in this exercise, practice belly breathing while you are sitting upright instead of lying on the floor.
If simply focusing on your breathing is not providing additional benefit, there are breathing tools that can help increase the strength of your breathing muscles, such as the PowerLung. This device works to provide resistance against inhalation and exhalation in order to improve the muscle tone of respiratory muscles. To answer the next question: does it work? According to scientists3 at the University of Arizona, as well as acclaimed running coach Matt Fitzgerald, the results speak for themselves.
When asked about how to breathe while running, Olympic marathoner Marius Ionescu (2:12, Düsseldorf Marathon, 2016) said “you want as much oxygen in as you can, as easily as possible”. There are plethora of running techniques and patterns out there, yet as a runner it’s your duty to find what works best for you. You need oxygen delivered to the muscles and tissues as fast as you can, and if you find a way that’s less common and it works, stick to that!
When I read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, I took notes from the chapter where he talks about running breathing techniques. He mentioned that he slowly decreases his breathing rhythm, breathing from his abdomen, and breathing through his nose on easy runs. The reason why he does that is because deep breathing lowers the brain activity and heart rate.
1. Daley MA, Bramble DM, Carrier DR (2013) Impact Loading and Locomotor-Respiratory Coordination Significantly Influence Breathing Dynamics in Running Humans. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70752. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070752 (link)
2. Ross E., Middleton N., Shave R., George K., McConnell A.K. (2008) Changes in respiratory muscle and lung function following marathon running in man. Journal of Sports Sciences 26(12), 1295-1301 (link)
3. Holm P, Sattler A, Fregosi RF. Endurance training of respiratory muscles improves cycling performance in fit young cyclists. BMC Physiology. 2004;4:9. doi:10.1186/1472-6793-4-9. (link)