How to Breathe When Running
“How do I breathe when running”. Surprisingly, you’re not alone if you’ve ever asked yourself this question or solicited advice from your running partners. As a running coach, I’ve encountered this question on more than few occasions and I think it’s important for beginners to understand how they should approach the sport from the very basics.
I’ve heard people advocate breathing in through the mouth and out through the mouth, using slow breathing rhythms, and all sorts of nonsense. Nothing irks me quite like the spread of misinformation, especially when it pertains to training topics. Therefore, I am happy to help set the record straight.
Breathing through your nose or your mouth?
You should always breathe in and out primarily through your mouth when running.
If your nose wants to join the party and help get air in and out, that’s great. However, when you’re running, feeding your muscles the oxygen they need is of paramount importance, and breathing through the mouth is the most effective way to inhale and exhale oxygen.
Your exact breathing rhythm will depend on how hard or easy you are running and/or the intended intensity of your workout. Breathing rhythms refer to the number of foot steps you take with each foot while breathing in or out. For example, a 2:2 rhythm would mean you take two steps (one with your right foot and one with the left) while breathing in and two steps (again, one with your right foot and one with your left) while breathing out.
Typically, you’ll find that a 3:3 rhythm (three steps – one with your left, one with your right, one with your left – while breathing in) works best for warm-ups and most easy paced days. This allows plenty of oxygen to be inhaled through the lungs, processed, and then exhaled with relative ease.
Don’t try to force yourself into a 3:3 breathing rhythm on an easy day if it isn’t feeling comfortable. Remember, the purpose of an easy day is to keep your effort comfortable and to help the body recover. If a 2:2 rhythm (described below) is more comfortable, go with it.
Breathing slower than a 3:3 rhythm is not advised because you’re not giving your body enough time to clear carbon dioxide. The average runner should take about 180 steps per minute (some a little less, others a little more), which means you take 90 steps with each foot in a one minute span. A 3:3 rhythm enables you to take about 30 breaths per minute, ample time to process carbon dioxide while still getting in the oxygen you need.
Moderate paced runs
Runs harder than an easy run, but not all out race efforts, should typically be performed at a 2:2 ratio (two steps – one with your left, one with your right – while breathing in, two steps – one with your left, one with your right – while breathing out). A 2:2 breathing rhythm enables you take about 45 breaths per minute, which is perfect for steady state, tempo runs, and marathon pace runs.
Hard workouts and Races
At the end of races or the end of a particularly hard interval session, a 2:2 breathing might not cut it. In this case, you can switch to a 1:2 (one step breathing in, two steps breathing out) or 2:1 (two steps breathing in and one step breathing out) breathing rhythm. This will increase your oxygen uptake to 60 breaths per minute.
I don’t recommend a 1:1 breathing pattern. At this rate, you’ll be taking shallow breaths and you won’t be able to inhale enough oxygen to maintain proper ventilation in the lungs.
On a personal note, I don’t pay much attention to breathing rhythms at the end of races. I prefer to run all out, focus on competing, and let my breathing take care of itself. However, it can be helpful to those runners who become anxious as the final meters approach.
Other good uses for breathing rhythms
While breathing rhythms can help you identify and monitor the intensity of your run, you can also use them to monitor and control other aspects of your training and racing.
Paying close attention to your breathing rhythm can help you monitor and “feel” your pace, especially on tempo runs or tempo intervals. Once you lock onto your correct goal pace for the workout, you can monitor whether you begin to breathe faster or slower to identify when you accidentally speed up or slow down. It requires close attention to detail, but it can help for runners who struggle maintaining a consistent pace.
Many runners wonder how to adjust their pace when taking on a hill during a race. Unless you know the exact grade and length of a hill, it’s very difficult to accurately measure how much you need to adjust your pace. However, if you’re maintaining a 2:2 breathing rhythm through the race, then you should focus on maintaining that 2:2 rhythm as you tackle and crest the hill. By maintaining the same breathing rhythm, you keep your effort even and prevent yourself from spending too much energy getting over the hill.
If you encounter a side stitch while running, you can slow your breathing rhythm to take deeper, controlled breaths at a 3:3 rhythm. Often, side stitches are caused by undue stress to the diaphragm, which is escalated by shallow breathing. If your side stitch persists after switching your breathing rhythm, you can try this trick for side stitches here.
As you can see, you have many ways that you can breathe and use rhythms to monitor your effort in workouts and races. Try not to become too focused on your exact breathing rhythm every step you take. Do what feels comfortable and you’ll usually wind up falling into the proper rhythm by default.
Do you have any questions about how to breathe? Have you heard of another breathing technique not covered here and have a question about it? Ask in the comments section and we’ll respond faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 meter dash!