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Breathing Basics for Runners

Getting started, maximize your performance with rhythmic breathing

For runners, losing your breath may be a big obstacle to success. Whether you're a beginning runner or looking to improve your stamina, proper breathing techniques can give your running a boost.

Breathing Basics

Before we talk about running techniques, let's do a quick update on the one thing we take for granted: breathing. At a basic level, we breathe to fuel our bodies with oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When we stress our bodies through running, our bodies struggle to get adequate oxygen in and remove this waste product. When we reach these limits, we also see an increase in lactic acid in our muscles, which causes cramps and fatigue. The best answer to get more oxygen into the body is through more efficient breathing, such as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.

When we rest, we may only be using a little bit of our lung capacity, breathing at what is called tidal volume, but we'll need more air getting into our lungs when running, or when doing any type of exercise.  You can practice belly breathing at home—as you inhale, let your belly rise, allowing your diaphragm to descend so there is room for your lungs to fill with air.

Rhythmic breathing

Another powerful tool to get more oxygen and also reduce the impact of running on your body is rhythmic breathing, or creating a rhythm between breathing and the way in which you run, also known as your gait. Rhythmic breathing is a successful technique for runners because:

  1. We actively use our respiratory muscles when we breathe in and relax them when we breathe out. It takes more effort and time to fill the lungs than it takes to exhale, when the diaphragm simply relaxes to push out the air. Rhythmic breathing can make us more aware of the need for a longer time to inhale the oxygen needed for high-intensity exercise like running.
  2. When we inhale we contract and stabilize our diaphragm and core muscles making them more stable during the inhalation phase of breathing.  When your foot hits the ground, the force of impact equals two to three times your body weight. That stress of impact is greatest when your foot strikes the ground. If that impact is at the beginning of an exhalation, it catches us at the most unstable times for the pelvis and core. Rhythmic breathing can train us to time the force of impact more with our inhalation (more stability in our diaphragm and core muscles) and also train us to shift the impact from the right foot to the left. And instead of repeatedly inhaling and exhaling on the same foot, a 5-step running pattern can help spread that impact between the feet and reduce the stress on the body. This technique may allow you to maximize your performance and reduce injuries and even side stitches. 

Infographic image of inhaling and exhaling with footsteps underneath

To practice rhythmic breathing, remember to use belly breathing and a 5-step pattern: 3 steps as you inhale and 2 steps as you exhale (i.e. As you step: inhale left, right, left; exhale right, left, right; inhale left, right, left; exhale right, left, right). This will naturally shift your breathing so it's not impacting the same foot on the inhale over and over again, reducing the pressure on the diaphragm and body during the course of your run. As you hit a quicker pace and need more oxygen to fuel your muscles, you can still maintain this balance by shifting to a 3-step pattern: 2 steps as you inhale and 1 step exhale. The 5-step and 3-step patterns may be hard to visualize, but when you start to use the pattern you can almost sense when the breathing becomes more comfortable.

Infographic image of inhaling and exhaling with footsteps underneath

Getting started

Especially as you begin to run, concentrate on a casual, comfortable jog and set realistic starting points and goals. Focus on your pace of breathing and get comfortable with jogging, taking breaks as needed, before you increase the intensity. By using belly and rhythmic breathing, your breathing can become more efficient during your run.  Please remember to speak to your physician before beginning an exercise program, especially for those with chronic conditions.

What about people with lung diseases?

A lot depends on severity of lung disease like asthma and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Regular exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, and while it may seem difficult with a lung disease, the right amount and type of exercise has many benefits. As a pulmonologist I recommend people with lung disease stay active and be mobile and exercise as much as they can. They should always speak to their pulmonologist or primary-care physician before beginning or making changes to any exercise routine. Some patients may also find assistance through formal programs of pulmonary rehabilitation, which will guide you on how to exercise and be more active with less shortness of breath.

Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise routine.

Related Topic: Fitness

  • Albert Rizzo, M.D., FACP
    Chief Medical Officer
    Albert A. Rizzo, M.D., is the American Lung Association’s leading medical authority. Having served as the chair of the Lung Association’s National Board of Directors, Dr. Rizzo is the key medical advisor to the American Lung Association and a leading media spokesperson for the Association.

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Submitted by Donna at: January 21, 2016
There should be more information about walking/running with COPD or asthma. Being obstructive lung diseases they would be air trapping if they did the suggested pattern you mention. They need to increase exhalation to get the air out. So at least 1:1 preferable 1:2 or 1:3 inspiration to exhalation
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