Updated: Dec 29, 2021
It isn’t your weak legs that make you stop and clutch your knees to catch your breath. Understanding proper breathing techniques will help you run better – and teach you how to breathe easily.
How many times have you flashed a courtesy smile at someone when they tell you they wouldn’t run unless someone was chasing them? They say that because running is hard. Learning to run is uncomfortable. Non-runners and runners can agree on that.
But why? When you start a run, you feel short of breath. Breathing brings oxygen to your body, which travels through your blood, which your cells use to turn glucose into ATP. Think back to seventh-grade biology: ATP is energy. Every breath is giving you energy.
But when you are sucking wind, the last thing you feel is more energetic. Let's explore two breathing exercises that can you can do today to help breathe easier.
Breathing Exercises for Running
Problem: Your lungs are not a muscle.
Sure, you might increase their capacity by 5-15% with exercise, but the number of alveoli you have (the 480 million microscopic sacs that absorb oxygen) does not increase. Your lungs are already doing the best job that they can and there is little more you can ask of them. They are ready to run.
Solution: The things attached to them.
Your lungs inflate and deflate because of your diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and your abdomen. These are all trainable muscles. This also means that they grow weak from disuse.
The harder you exercise, the more oxygen your body demands and the more carbon dioxide it must get rid of. The network of muscles that inflate your lungs is slammed into overdrive; a 2016 study showed that exercise causes you to breathe up to four times more per minute. Like any muscle that is not strong and developed, it will fatigue quickly.
Fix it: Try Sandbag Breathing for 30 Days.
The world’s leading breathing expert, Alison McConnell, trains athletes at all levels to breathe stronger through functional diaphragm training. Her clients include a four-time Olympic gold medalist. Think of the powerful and controlled breathing of a professional swimmer or an opera singer; a powerful diaphragm will fatigue slowly. Try this:
1. Lie on your back as if you were in Shavasana with a towel supporting your head. Open your limbs and wiggle until you find stillness.
2. Breathe normally, without pauses. Soften your stomach. Relax your forehead. Open your hands.
3. Place a small sandbag on your belly (large book, half-bag of cat food, get creative). Focus your attention on it. Breath in and out, raising the bag (do not stick your stomach out). Let your breath raise and lower it. The weight will resist against your diaphragm and tone the muscles of your abdomen wall.
4. Try it for five minutes. You have done enough when you feel short of breath or cannot raise the bag as high.
5. Do this for three days in a row, take a rest day, and three days again. Advanced sandbag breathers eventually add a second sandbag.
Problem: I’m tired on my long run.
Your blood not only drops off the oxygen molecules, but also collects the excess carbon dioxide that is metabolically created by exercising. As the level of CO2 in your body increases, three things happen: you breathe faster, your heart beats harder, and the pH in your body begins to drop.
This is devastating because as pH goes down it becomes more acidic. This process causes lactic acid buildup. Your lactate threshold is the point at which your body is producing lactic acid faster than it can flush it.
The Solution: Efficient breathing prolongs hitting your lactate threshold.
As lactic acid builds, your body diverts blood from powering your legs to rescue your overworked respiratory muscles. Decreased blood flow shows up in your run as fatigue. One study found that lessening the effort of breathing can improve blood flow to the legs by 7%.
Another study proved that respiratory muscle resistance training (RMRT), or breathing through an air-restricting device five times per week for four weeks, increased the workload for the respiratory muscles.
This strengthening resulted in participants increasing their VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can consume while exercising. A higher VO2 max led to hitting the lactate threshold later.
The fixes: Intensity, abs, strides, exhales, and your mouth.
Intensity interval training is the classic way to increase your VO2 max quickly. These efforts push you beyond your lactate threshold and gradually continue to push that breaking point further and further back.
Remember, abdominal muscles are part of your respiratory system, so do not skip your core workouts. Download an app, hit a class, or consult YouTube. Core workouts are hard but short, so don’t make an excuse.
Some runners calibrate their breath to their foot strike. For example, they exhale every third step (which alternates the foot you land on). If you feel short on air, start with every second step. The purpose is to control your breathing consciously and powerfully until it becomes a natural running breathing pattern. This requires a significant amount of discipline and practice.
Pro tip: focus on your exhale. Hypoxic drive occurs when there is too much carbon dioxide in the body cells, which jumpstarts the body to breathe harder attempting to rid itself of the excess. Pay attention to fully emptying your lungs. Avoid short, shallow breathing. Slow down. Proper breathing during running is intuitive breathing, using both your nose and mouth and taking in full lung loads that feel satisfying.
Use your mouth. Nasal training has been debunked as an efficient technique for runners. Your body needs air, so get as much into it as fast as you can (and risk not warming, humidifying, and cleaning it through your nose first). Nasal breathing is useful, however, to slow your heart rate.
Training these muscles can and will occur in more ways than purchasing a breathing resistance tool, living at altitude, or practicing diaphragmatic breathing. Running naturally strengthens your core too, so as you continue the discipline of your runs, trust that you are benefiting your respiratory system. This is why seasoned runners do not gasp for life after the first few blocks (anymore). To quickly prolong your endurance, increase your body’s efficiency, and overcome the initial hump of discomfort, try these breathing exercises for running and start building those respiratory muscles.