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How to breathe while running

How to breathe while running: Image shows runner moving fast
(Image credit: Getty)

If you’re a beginner in the running world, you may not know how to breathe while running. As soon as you start to put one foot in front of the other and increase your speed, you’ll begin to notice a difference in your heart rate and muscles and this can also panic your mind – but it doesn’t have to be the massive stressor that your mind has you believing it is. 

Whether you’re running outside or you’ve taken the plunge and invested in one of the best treadmills (opens in new tab), learning how to breathe effectively will help you run faster, feel less stressed while running, and help you enjoy the feeling of the wind in your hair as you pound the pavements. Investing in one of the best running watches (opens in new tab) can also provide live heart rate data so that you can monitor your progress as you improve.

Here we talk to the experts about how to breathe while running – and whether different breathing patterns can help us to relieve the stress running can put on our breathing. 

How should you breathe while running?

The harder you run the more out of breath you’ll get because your respiratory system is used to breathing in a particular pattern. Relaxing, as much as possible, while you run, can be difficult, but can help to regulate your breathing.

"The most common mistake that people make when they start running is they go off too fast and don’t learn to pace themselves," Nick Anderson, head coach for Saucony (opens in new tab)and GB & EA running coach, told Live Science.

So, how does running too fast impact your breathing? "It means you go into an oxygen debt, where you are working much harder than the amount of oxygen that you’re taking on - you can only operate in the anaerobic area for a short amount of time before you’ll need to slow down to get back into the aerobic zone."

Tana von Zitzewitz, a personal trainer and master trainer at Barry’s UK (opens in new tab) believes nasal breathing is the way to control this: "It’s a great way to get a large amount of oxygen deep into the lungs whilst helping the body to be able to tolerate levels of carbon dioxide."

A study by Colorado State University (opens in new tab) proved this when testing the effectiveness of nasal breathing on 10 runners, over a six-month period. Their findings showed that during nasal breathing their respiratory rate, and breaths per minute decreased, while their intake of oxygen and outtake of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream increased.

"Ideally, it’s best to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Using both nose and mouth also helps us to gauge the intensity of our running," Tana, who is also a UKA Run Leader, told Live Science.

If you’re not sure what pace you should be running, Anderson advises running at the speed of chat: "In the early weeks, when you’re just beginning your running journey, if you can’t easily chat to someone next to you then you’re running too hard. As you get fitter and stronger you can play with different training zones."

How to breathe while running: Image shows woman taking breath after a run

(Image credit: Getty)

What is rhythmic breathing?

Rhythmic breathing is said to be a great way to calm the nervous system down while running. Running can release those feel-good hormones - such as dopamine and endorphins, however, if you’re running at a moderate to high intensity, studies into exercise and circulating cortisol levels (opens in new tab)have also shown that running can increase levels of cortisol in the body, a hormone that is linked with stress. 

Rhythmic breathing won’t come naturally to anyone but it’s a great way to calm down the body. But how do you do it? Start with emptying your lungs by breathing out, then inhaling through your nose for five seconds, holding it for five seconds, then blowing the air out of your lungs, through the mouth, with force.

One study from the University of Utah (opens in new tab) proved that rhythmic breathing is most effective for runners as it helps to reduce the stress put on our respiratory system, with the authors revealing it: "reduces the work of ventilatory muscles, preventing respiratory muscle fatigue, and improving respiratory efficiency through enhanced gas mixing, transport, and exchange."

However, von Zitzewitz told Live Science: "It takes concentration to master rhythmic breathing and running, as you need to count the number of steps or repetitions, whilst inhaling, and then do the same whilst exhaling and then try and keep them accurate for each stride."

Start by trying the breathing technique, for five minutes, while you’re in a relaxing environment. Once you’re comfortable with the technique try it on a slow jog and see how it helps to improve your running, then you can gradually increase it into your routine.

If this technique feels too labored for you, von Zitzewitz suggests just concentrating on being more aware of your breathing as you run will help improve your performance.

"For longer distances, start off with a steady pace or your base pace, take note of your breath, at this pace you should be able to breathe effortlessly in through the nose and out through the mouth, as you progress through each pace always take note of your breathing," von Zitzewitz added.

"If it becomes too labored too quickly you will fatigue and therefore your pace is not sustainable so you will need to pull back a little. Running gets better over time, by small consistent progress. Use your base pace as your guide and make very small improvements to that, to begin with."

While she also recommends Pranayama breathing, which she said, "helps the flexibility of the lungs and is said to improve breathing whilst running," and advises runners to: "use these deep breathing techniques whilst warming up and activating, as it's an excellent way to prepare for a run."

How to breathe while running: Image shows women on treadmills

(Image credit: Getty)

How does breathing affect your running form?

If your breathing is labored, or you feel stressed when you run, you’ll naturally find that your form is off.  A good form when you’re running is shoulders down, a straight back, and hips forward, but you’ll naturally slouch if you’re not relaxed.

Anderson says that the hardest part is learning to relax, but breathing in the correct way will help your body to do just that as you run. Your form should then naturally correct itself, but if you still feel stressed Anderson advises you to tell yourself to remain in control, while also being more aware of your posture, advising runners to: "Drop your shoulders down and shake your arms out - this will distract you from any stress you are putting on your breathing."

Sarah is a freelance writer - writing across titles including Woman&Home, Fit&Well, The Independent, LiveScience, and the BBC in the UK. She covers a variety of subjects, including trends in beauty, business, and wellness - but her biggest passions are health and fitness. She can normally be found trying out the trendiest fitness class or interviewing an expert about the latest health trends.