3 techniques to breathe properly while running and avoid injury
- When you are
running, it's important to breathe with your diaphragm to reduce cramping.
- While running it is best to create a rhythm between your breath and stride.
- Whether you breathe through your nose or mouth while running is a personal preference.
- This article was medically reviewed by Audrey Springer, RRCA certified running coach, BS in
ExerciseScience, and fitnessinstructor at Relentless Runners in Knoxville, TN.
While you might not think much about how you breathe, it can impact your running performance. Practicing proper breathing while running can help you improve the quality of your run and avoid injury.
This article talks about why breathing matters and how to breathe properly while running.
Breathing properly improves your running performance
"Your muscles use oxygen as food," says Mariam Zakhary, DO, a sports medicine physician at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
So when you aren't breathing properly, your body is not getting enough oxygen for your muscles to function normally, Zakhary says. As a result, instead of using your diaphragm to inflate the lungs, your body will use accessory muscles, like the upper back muscles, to breathe.
Breathing this way will force your upper back muscles to repeatedly contract and expand which can cause pain or discomfort.
Another issue is that when you are breathing improperly you can hit your aerobic threshold faster. This is when you struggle to breathe in enough oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide during exercise, and it can cause a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which makes you tired or cause cramps.
Breathing effectively will ensure that your body gets the oxygen it needs to perform well. Here are three tips to help you breathe properly while running:
1. Use your diaphragm
The diaphragm is a large muscle located below the lungs and heart, and it "should be the star player of breathing," Zakhary says.
When you breathe in air, your diaphragm tightens, creating more space in the chest for the lungs to expand. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, pushing air out. This style of breathing is referred to as diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing is important during running because it encourages deep, full breaths, which improves the quality of your workout by giving your body a steady supply of oxygen to keep muscles working.
It also helps decrease your heart rate and stabilize your blood pressure, which means your heart doesn't have to work as hard to pump oxygen throughout the body.
Before implementing diaphragmatic breathing on a run, Zakhary says beginners should try it while lying down to get a sense for how it feels:
- Lie on your back and put one hand on your chest and the other on your ribs.
- Inhale deeply until your diaphragm is completely extended — your belly should inflate.
- If you are breathing through your diaphragm, your ribs should rise and fall but your chest and shoulders should not move.
Do this for five to 10 minutes three times per day. Once this breathing style becomes more familiar, you will be able to do it while seated and eventually standing.
With practice, your body will naturally start breathing diaphragmatically, and you can apply it when you are running.
Maintaining proper form is also important for diaphragm breathing. Keeping your shoulders back and chest lifted creates room for your diaphragm to expand fully.
Read more about proper running form.
2. Breathe rhythmically
Rhythmic breathing is when you create a rhythm between your breath and stride.
For example, you can inhale every three steps and exhale over the next two steps. This creates an uneven breathing pattern, where you're inhaling as your left foot strikes the ground for half the time and on the right foot for the other half.
This uneven sequence is exactly what the American Lung Association recommends because it ensures you are not exhaling on the same foot all the time, which can put added stress on one side of the body.
This is important because constant force on one side of the body makes it more prone to injuries like stress fractures, runner's knee, or shin splints.
A 2013 study in PLOS ONE recorded the breathing patterns of fourteen adults running on a treadmill at their preferred speed and found following an uneven breathing pattern boosted breathing efficiency and reduced the strain on muscles.
Inhaling always takes longer because breathing in requires more effort for your respiratory muscles than breathing out. Following the five-step or three-step sequence can ensure you get enough oxygen for your body to maintain high-intensity exercise.
3. Find which breathing style is comfortable for you
Whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth can also impact your running performance.
There is evidence to suggest breathing through your nose during exercise can improve your performance because nasal breathing more effectively releases nitric oxide in the body — a molecule that facilitates respiration and oxygen absorption.
A 2018 study in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science tested the performance of 10 runners under both nasal-only and mouth-only breathing. Participants ran for six to ten minutes on a treadmill at an increasing pace, followed by another round of six minutes at a steady pace. The study found runners who breathed through their nose had fewer breaths per minute, meaning they were able to take in oxygen more effectively.
However, this was an extremely small study and Zakhary says there is no scientific consensus about whether it is best to breathe through your nose or mouth, and ultimately, it depends on personal preference.
How you breathe may also differ based on the type of run you're doing. For example, it is usually most effective to breathe through your mouth when running at higher speeds, since you are able to take bigger breaths. Meanwhile, long-distance runners may find it easier to breathe through their nose. The key is to find out which breathing style is most comfortable for you.
Why do I struggle to breathe while running?
The main reason people struggle to breathe while running is because they have not practiced breathing properly.
"Just like we do exercises for stability, core stability, hip stability, to improve our efficiency with running, we have to do exercises on our off time as well to improve the appropriate muscles we need to breathe," Zakhary says.
If you are beginning a new running program, Zakhary says you should consult a sports physician to figure out how to avoid injury and optimize breathing. Additionally, if you are experiencing persistent shortness of breath — particularly if coupled with other symptoms like cough or history of asthma — you should go see your physician.
The bottom line
Proper breathing technique is an important component of running and can help you avoid discomfort, injury, and improve your performance.
In particular, breathing through your diaphragm and breathing rhythmically will help you stay energized and injury-free. Before heading out on your next run, practice proper breathing techniques at home.
"Just like anything we do, especially in performance, the more you [breathe] the better you will get at it," says Zakhary.
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