Updated: January 6th, 2022

We’ve all been there. Particularly when new to running; your legs are playing ball just fine, but your breathing seems out of control. How is something so effortless yet be so complicated when you start to up the ante?

Especially when you see other runners out in the park breathing as if they were stood still. Annoying isn’t it? Well, you are not alone. It’s a skill we have all had to learn at some point during our running lives, so welcome to the club!

If you have found your breathing to be erratic, shallow or you tend to hold it in. If your runs are tormented by side-stitch pain and you’re unsure how to make the most of your breathing.

Then this, my friend, is written for you; A comprehensive guide to master your breathing whilst running. Class in session…

Woman struggling to breathe on run

Why is controlling your breathing important?

You might think your leg muscles are the most important muscles for running. And you’d be half right.

You see the muscles in your legs do a lot of the work actually running, however they are only useful if they get oxygen. Oxygen creates energy. Oxygen is carried to them through the bloodstream from the lungs.
How do the lungs get oxygen? From the second most important muscle… your Diaphragm.

A large flat muscle that sections off the ribs and lungs to the rest of your organs below. The diaphragm’s job is to expand your lungs and draw oxygen in, which then gets pushed into the blood and down to your legs for energy.

Diaphragmatic vs chest breathing

This type of breathing is called ‘Diaphragmatic’ and is essential to help you control your breathing technique. When utilised correctly (we will get into exactly how to do this later on) it will engage your deep belly, your whole lung capacity (rather than the alternative we do these days; chest breathing). By engaging your full lung capacity, more oxygen is inhaled, meaning more blood is oxygen-rich meaning more energy for the legs, bingo!

More oxygen-rich blood leads to:

  • Stronger endurance runs
  • Increased ability to maintain pace
  • Increased VO2 Max (the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise, used as a way of measuring a person’s individual aerobic capacity.)
  • Faster recovery
  • Less stressed mind
  • Enjoying the run scenery more
  • Improves sleep
  • Significantly less likely to get side-pain stitch

Diaphragmatic breathing vs chest breathing

Okay this is where you come in. Pop one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath in and notice with hand moves more (try it a few times with your eyes closed, really tune in).

  • If your chest-hand moves more, then you are chest breathing.
  • If your belly-hand moves more, then you are diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Which one are you?

    Breathing infograhic

    Chest breathers:

    Not to worry, most of the population are chest breathers. (We can change this and it’s easy; just stick with it). What chest breathing ultimately means is that you are not using the diaphragm – instead, you expand your chest to partially inflate the lungs (unable to use them fully because there’s not enough space). Resulting in shallow breathing, lacking oxygen and we’ve activated the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response).

    It’s not ideal for running (or everyday life). It will explain why you feel breathless, fatigued and unable to maintain a pace; your body is simply just not getting enough oxygen in.

    For running, the body needs to step away from that struggle and panic, and remain relaxed, (only to recruit this fight/flight when a dinosaur is chasing you).

    Woman breathing on run

    Belly breathers:

    You are optimal. Unconsciously breathing with your diaphragm – lungs are expanding fully with each inhalation; you have plenty of oxygen coming your way. Also you are utilising the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

    Your work is not done; yes you can belly breathe now, sat still, but can you maintain it when you run?

    Train yourself to belly breathe

    For so many years I didn’t realise I was a chest breather until I ran with a weight vest – you learn quickly not to breathe with your chest! Every step was a forced exhale. I had to regain control and this is exactly how I did it:

    Start still, lay or sit with one hand on your belly, and take a slow inhale. The deeper the breaths the better; this exaggerates your hand movement until it becomes something you don’t think about. (Doing this a couple of times a day will help; not only with preparing to run like a pro, but with everyday stress, but also to help you fall asleep). Try it at your desk, before you go to sleep, drinking your morning coffee.

    Lay breathing

    Take this onto a walk. Now, this takes a little more practise. The breathing on the move step will help you train your breathing through your mouth and nose at a steady pace. It’s also a smart idea to consider a pattern with your footwork (start now so you don’t have to think about it when you pick up the pace).

    Remember what works for you will be inherently different to what works for anyone else. With that in mind, here are some suggestions to get you started:

    • Inhale for 3 steps, exhale for three steps (for easy paces)
    • Inhale for 2 steps, exhale for 2 steps (medium pace)
    • Inhale for 1 step, exhale for 1 step (maximum, high intensity runs)

    Man breathing

    Whilst walking it is easier to again hold your belly and feel the movement, but at a run, this is a little more difficult so try to practise this step a lot before speeding up. You can practise this walking the dog, your commute into work even shopping.

    To Control your breathing whilst running, the keyword is rhythm. Make sure it is calm and comfortable. There is no harm in slowing your pace until you are comfortable breathing.

    Nose or mouth breathing?

    If you’re heading out for a casual run, at a slower pace then you could opt for nasal breathing. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

    But if you find yourself struggling to catch your breath or have a conversation, either ease the pace or choose to solely use your mouth to breathe.
    However through high intensity, maximal effort work breathing through your mouth is optimal here get all the oxygen you can and power on through!

    Breathing

    Inhaling (with your diaphragm) through your mouth gets the most oxygen into your body to fuel your muscles. Plus it helps to release any tension in your jaw (maybe you’re a jaw clencher like me).

    You may also find that nasal breathing brings on the dreaded side-stitch; forcing you to stop and breathe as much and as. Deeply as you can. Why? The build-up of pyruvic acid in your body – It needs oxygen to turn it into energy. So if you find yourself holding your breath, or not getting on with nose-breathing, don’t worry it happens to the best of us, just opt for the mouth breathing option ad see how you go.

    Now you have breathing mastered, why not try one of our FREE training plans? And start working towards your running goals! You can find the one that’s right for you, here.

    Happy running (and breathing!)

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