When people decide to start running, breathing isn’t something that gets a lot of consideration. There’s probably more focus on the more exciting things – getting the right running shoes, planning the first route, setting up Strava.
But many beginner runners can feel a little uncomfortable by feelings of breathlessness, tightness in the lungs or even stitch when they first begin running.
This article will look at some of the running breathing techniques that can help beginners breathe when running to avoid discomfort with their breathing, and might also help more advanced runners improve their performance.
Why do some runners struggle with breathing while running?
Breathing is a natural process that rarely needs thinking about in day-to-day life. So it’s probably worth a really top level overview of what happens when we breathe before we get into too much detail.
When you breathe, there is a gas exchange in the lungs and in the cells of your body. You breathe in, and air goes into your lungs and oxygen enters your blood. Carbon dioxide then moves from the blood into your lungs and is exhaled as a ‘waste gas’ when you breathe out.
When you run, there is more demand on your body. There is an increase in carbon dioxide production, and there is more demand for oxygen.
Many beginner runners instinctively increase their breathing rate and make lots of shorter exhales and inhales in an attempt to expel carbon dioxide, and take more oxygen on board.
However, by rapid ‘shallow chest breathing’, you are actually limiting the amount of carbon dioxide that is expelled, and limiting your oxygen intake. This can lead to a feeling of breathlessness, and can even cause stitch.
Thankfully, through breathing techniques such as deep belly breathing and rhythmic breathing it’s possible to gain more control over your breathing whilst running.
What is deep belly breathing?
Belly breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) is a breathing technique where you don’t just involve the lungs in your breathing, but also your stomach, diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
It involves consciously engaging your diaphragm when you breathe, to allow your lungs to fill with oxygen more efficiently as they fully expand. It also helps to expel carbon dioxide more efficiently, as the slow exhalation means that there is more time for the carbon dioxide to leave the blood.
If you want to experience deep belly breathing right now, relax and take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand. Next, breathe out slowly through your mouth, contracting your stomach muscles as you do so.
There are a few ways that deep belly breathing can help runners.
- It can help to prevent discomfort and breathlessness. By taking deeper breaths, you are allowing more oxygen to enter your bloodstream and this can help to prevent discomfort and breathlessness.
- It can help you to run more efficiently, as it helps you to use your oxygen more effectively, and can help you to run at a steadier pace for longer.
- It can help to prevent stitch. Stitch is often caused by carbon dioxide build-up, and deep belly breathing can help to expel carbon dioxide more effectively.
It can often be best to start practicing your deep belly breathing technique in a quiet room when you are not feeling stressed.
Once you’re used to belly breathing at home, you can practice while you are out running. It is important to be patient and consistent. It may take a little while for it to become second nature, but eventually it will help lead to more efficient breathing when running, and enable you to run more comfortably.
When you combine deep belly breathing with other techniques such as rhythmic breathing, the compound effect can be even more powerful.
What is rhythmic breathing?
Rhythmic breathing is an additional breathing pattern technique that can be used when running in order to improve your performance.
It is a way of breathing that coordinates your breath with your foot strikes, to focus your mind on your breath and keep you calm and relaxed. When you are focused on your breath, you can run more efficiently and avoid getting tired as quickly.
To illustrate how rhythmic breathing works, if you went for a 2:3 pattern you would inhale for two foot strikes, and then exhale for three foot strikes, and keep on repeating that pattern.
There is a lot of research and opinion around rhythmic breathing when running, and it’s generally accepted that working on an odd pattern (2:3, 3:2) is preferable to working on an even pattern such as 2:2, as it alternates the breathing so you’re not always exhaling on the same foot.
Is it possible to run without getting out of breath?
It all depends on how hard you’re pushing yourself.
Assuming you are operating within your upper target heart rate zones for exercise, it may be possible for some elite athletes to run without getting out of breath, but for most people it’s not feasible, especially when starting out.
When you run at a moderate-hard pace, your body is working hard and needs more oxygen than normal to meet the demands of the activity. Even with deep belly breathing and rhythmic breathing, the increased demand for oxygen can cause you to get out of breath.
However, one of the main reasons that beginner runners get out of breath so quickly is that they are trying to run too fast, and their body is desperately trying to address their oxygen deficit.
As a beginner runner, it’s important as a guideline that you only run as fast as you can hold a conversation. That way, you’ll be able to run for a longer period of time without getting out of breath.
Should I breathe through my nose or breathe through my mouth while running?
There’s a lot of debate over whether to ‘breathe properly’ you should breathe through your nose or mouth when running.
Some people say that breathing through your nose helps to filter the air before it enters your lungs, while others say that mouth breathing helps you to take in more oxygen, which is important for runners. Other suggest that you should breathe through both your nose and your mouth.
Ultimately, there is no ‘proper breathing technique’ for running. It’s up to you to experiment with different techniques and breathing patterns such as deep belly breathing and rhythmic breathing, and see which one feels the most comfortable and helps you perform your best.