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How to Breathe Better When Running

Breathing is an automatic bodily function, but when you’re running, it doesn’t always feel easy or effortless. If you struggle to breathe while running, it’s important to establish a proper breathing method to improve your breathing while running. Breathing correctly while you run will improve your endurance and performance and ultimately make you feel more comfortable. First, let’s look at the mechanics behind breathing while running and why it feels hard sometimes. Then, we’ll offer some breathing advice for runners to improve your breathing while running.

Why do I struggle to breathe when running?

Woman bending over with her hand on her head, trying to breath after a run.

The main reason you might struggle to breathe when running is a buildup of carbon dioxide in your body. When you exercise, your lungs work harder to bring oxygen into your body and expel carbon dioxide, a waste product your body produces when you create energy. During strenuous exercise like running, your body uses more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide. As a result, your breathing and circulation speed up to take in enough oxygen.1

It’s normal to feel out of breath when you run, but the more regularly you do it, the more efficient your muscles and respiratory system will become. Also, things like quitting smoking and adhering to the breathing advice listed below will significantly improve your lung capacity within a short time to improve your breathing while running. 

Regardless, if you suddenly feel severely breathless or can’t catch your breath after a run, you should see your doctor.

Is it better to breathe through your nose or mouth when running?

Old man on a indoor treadmill  at a gym smiling.

It depends on the situation. If you’re casually jogging or running at a leisurely pace, you can breathe efficiently by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. On the other hand, if you’re running vigorously and at a high intensity, breathing through your mouth is more efficient. Mouth breathing gives your body more oxygen and fuel for your body, which can help reduce the severity of that uncomfortable out-of-breath feeling.

Breathing advice: 5 tips for how to breathe while running

A couple running up a hill wearing backpack and rain jackets.

If you tend to get out of breath quickly when you run, you can improve your breathing while running by following the tips below.

1. Practice deep breathing.

Deep breathing will enable your body to use oxygen more efficiently and reduce tension in your shoulders for a more comfortable run. To understand how deep breathing should feel, do the following: 

  • Lay on your back and breathe in through your nose. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
  • Fill your belly with air and exhale slowly. Your abdomen should rise, but your chest should not.
  • Try to lengthen the duration of your exhales versus your inhales.
  • Repeat this for 5 minutes.

Start deep breathing when you’re not running. And when you begin incorporating deep breathing into your runs, keep the pace slow at first. You can increase your pace once you get the hang of how it feels.

2. Maintain proper running form.

Having good running form will improve your breathing while running and more efficiently. To maintain proper form:

  • Keep your body straight and erect. 
  • Avoid hunching over or leaning forward too far. 
  • Keep your back straight and relax your shoulders, so they are level.
  • Allow your arms to hang naturally at your waist at a 90-degree angle.

3. Try rhythmic breathing.

When you exhale with each foot strike, your body absorbs a lot of stress and improves your breathing while running. Breathing rhythmically can help distribute the stress evenly across both sides of your body. Instead of breathing in a 2:2 pattern, which often feels most natural for runners, breathing rhythmically in an odd pattern can increase your endurance and decrease your risk of injury.

Try sticking to a 3:2 rhythm to start: 

  • Run at a leisurely pace. 
  • Inhale for three counts.
  • Exhale for two counts.
  • Repeat.

Once you’re comfortable with how to breathe while running, you can pick up the pace and breathe with a 2:1 rhythm like this:

  • Run at a faster pace.
  • Inhale for two counts.
  • Exhale for one count.
  • Repeat.

4. Run indoors if you live in an area with poor air quality.

It’s hard to breathe when the air quality outside is poor. For example, if you live in an urban area with heavy traffic, you’re more likely to breathe in more pollutants from the vehicle traffic on the street. As a result, you might find it harder to catch your breath or you might cough more. To avoid air quality issues, try running early in the morning before rush hour or in areas far away from vehicle traffic, like a nature preserve. 

Alternatively, you can also transition to running inside on a treadmill. Fitness apps like Vingo make indoor running more exciting because you can explore real-world virtual places like Iceland while you run! You can also meet up with your running friends on Vingo or connect with other runners using the Vingo app.

5. Warm up your lungs.

Just like you warm up your body before exercising, you should also warm up your lungs. A good lung warm-up will get your heart pumping and blood flowing. Try some of these chest-opening exercises to loosen up your muscles and prepare your respiratory system for exercise:

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other high on your abdomen. Take a deep breath and focus on making the hand on your stomach move out, not the one on your chest. Do this for a minute or two.
  • Place one of your elbows against a door frame, so it’s level with your shoulder. Take one step forward with the leg closest to the wall and keep your body straight. You should feel a stretch in your chest muscles. If you feel the stretch before taking a step forward, don’t take the step.

How to avoid side stitches

Man stretching before his run.

Side stitches are another typical breathing-related issue runners face. They’re incredibly uncomfortable, but you can take some steps to avoid them.

According to research, about 70% of runners experience exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), also known as “side stitches.”2 Side stitches can be mild, like a cramp, or severe, like a sharp and stabbing pain.

To prevent side stitches while running, make sure you: 

  • Warm up before your run.
  • Avoid eating large meals or drinking large quantities of liquids 1 to 2 hours before your run.
  • Breathe deeply while running.
  • Focus on exercises that strengthen your core.
  • Start slow, especially if you’re new to running.

Experts aren’t sure what causes side stitches, but they theorize one or more of the following things may be the cause:2

  • A muscle cramp of the diaphragm or abdominal muscles
  • Stress on the supportive visceral ligaments that attach the abdominal organs to the diaphragm
  • Slowed blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract
  • Aggravation of the spinal nerves
  • Irritation of the parietal peritoneum (a membrane that lines the abdominal and pelvic cavities)

Anyone can get side stitches, but you might be more likely to experience them if:

  • You don’t warm up properly before you run
  • You eat a large meal before a run
  • You run too far or too fast without giving your body time to adjust
  • You take short, shallow breaths rather than deep, belly breaths

How can I improve my lung capacity for running?

Woman eyes closed breathing in cold air in the forest.

Many runners think improving their lung capacity will help them feel less out of breath while running. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. The average adult’s lung capacity is about 6 liters.3 Your lungs move about 0.5 liters of oxygen with each relaxed breath, and that number jumps to 3 liters per breath during high-intensity exercise.4 So, generally speaking, lung capacity isn’t really the issue.

Instead, the key to improving your breathing while running is to strengthen your lungs and help your body better transport and use the oxygen it brings in with each breath. Fortunately, this isn’t as difficult as it may sound. To strengthen your lungs and improve your breathing, try these things:

  • Pursed lip breathing: This strategy will help you control your breathing in a structured way. First, inhale for two seconds through your nose. Purse your lips (like you’re going to blow out a candle) and exhale slowly for 5 to 6 seconds. Repeat for 5 minutes.
  • Rhythmic breathing: As we described above, you can practice this type of breathing while you run. First, start running at an easy pace. Inhale for three counts and exhale for two, continuing this pattern as you run. It may feel weird at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it feels. Continue throughout your run.
  • Deep breathing (or belly breathing): Also called diaphragmatic breathing, this is the same type of deep breathing we described above. To try it out, lie on your back, inhale through your nose, and focus on taking the breath down deep into your abdomen. Your stomach should rise, but your chest should not. Tighten your stomach muscles as you breathe out. Repeat for 5 minutes.
  • Interval running: Interval running doesn’t have to be complicated. The simplest way to do it is to run in short, fast bursts followed by a few minutes of jogging. Don’t forget to warm up and cool down before and after your run, too.
  • HIIT running exercises: Warm up before you begin. Run or power walk for 1 minute and then walk for one minute. Repeat 5 to 6 times and then rest and cool down.

Key takeaways:

Proper breathing can improve your running performance, endurance, and comfort. New runners who struggle to breathe while running can strengthen their lungs with breathing exercises, interval running, and HIIT running exercises. Maintaining proper running form, avoiding poor air quality areas, and warming up the lungs before each run will also help improve breathing performance.

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References:

  1. Your lungs and exercise. (2016). Breathe, 12(1), 97–100. https://doi.org/10.1183/20734735.elf121 
  2. Morton, D., & Callister, R. (2014). Exercise-Related Transient Abdominal Pain (ETAP). Sports Medicine, 45(1), 23–35. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0245-z 
  3. Lung Capacity and Aging. (2021, November 23). American Lung Association. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/how-lungs-work/lung-capacity-and-aging 
  4. Quaglio, L. (n.d.). The Right Way to Breathe During Exercise. National Academy of Sports Medicine. https://blog.nasm.org/the-right-way-to-breathe-during-exercise 

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