It’s likely you don’t think about your breathing every day, because it’s just automatic. But when you’re doing any kind of cardio activity, such as running, sometimes that’s all you can think about—it’s not your legs that feel like they’re working extra hard, it’s your lungs. Because running exerts extra effort, it’s important to have proper breathing techniques, so you don’t always feel like you’re gasping for air every time you break anything faster than walking pace. We talked to two experts on why breathing can feel so hard while running, as well as some tips and techniques you can try to help you breathe a little easier on your next run.
Meet the Expert
Why Is It So Hard to Breathe While Running?
The simple answer is when you’re running, your body is using up more oxygen. “Any time we ask our muscles to work, they will require more O2,” says Steve Stonehouse, USATF-certified run coach and director of education for STRIDE Franchise. Because running is a total-body exercise, your entire body requires more oxygen, which leads you to breathe more (and faster) to get it into your system.
MaryKate Welch, trainer and CPT at Rumble Boxing, says increased breathing is a sign of the physical stress/increased demand on your body while running. And while it’s very common, improper breathing can play a big factor in why so many people find running unenjoyable or even dread it. When you are breathing, you are inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, Welch says. Improper breathing (for example, shallow breathing) prevents your body from recovering and performing optimally. But the good news is, as with any skill, practicing breathing techniques can help you breathe more efficiently and effectively, and can ultimately help you feel and run better.
Should You Breathe Out of Your Nose or Mouth?
Nose vs. mouth breathing will likely come down to the individual and the pace, but Stonehouse recommends, whenever possible, to try to breathe through your nose. “Nasal breathing is a major line of defense from airborne pathogens. Our noses are specifically built to support the respiratory system. Your nostrils, hair, and nasal passageways assist in filtering allergens to prevent foreign bodies from entering your lungs,” he says.
Welch recommends breathing through both your nose and your mouth. “During casual paced runs, it is okay to breathe through your nose (or in through your nose and out through your mouth),” she says. But if you’re having a hard time carrying a conversation, try mouth breathing. As you pick up the pace or intensity, most people will notice that it’s much harder to breathe through the nose because you simply can’t get the oxygen needed, so it’s recommended to breathe mostly through your mouth.
Stonehouse agrees: “With lower-intensity exercise (e.g., long-distance running), try to breathe through your nose. Yes, it’s hard, but with training, you can get better at this quickly.” With high-intensity exercise (e.g., sprinting), mouth breathing becomes necessary because your system will need to get more O2 in and CO2 out faster.
10 Breathing Tips, Tricks, and Techniques to Try
No matter what, running will challenge your breathing, but here are a few tips and training techniques that may help you move more efficiently next time you hit the road or treadmill. Different methods will work for different people, so find one that is best and most comfortable for you.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
Stonehouse emphasizes to pay attention to not holding your breath while training. “I know this sounds crazy, but lots of people do this without meaning to,” he says. After all, the whole point is to get oxygen into your body, so inhale and exhale.
Focus on Your Breathing Patterns During Your Warm-Ups
The way you start your run can set you up for success. For your pre-run, Welch says to focus on bringing your heart rate up with the breathing patterns you'll be using in your run.
Track Your Breathing Patterns During Your Cool-Downs
End your run the same way you started it—with good habits. For your cool-down, Welch says to focus on taking your breathing patterns down to your steady daily pattern as your heart rate comes down.
Do Nasal Breathing as You’re Warming Up and Cooling Down
Similarly, Stonehouse recommends using your warm-ups and cool-downs as an opportunity to practice breathing through your nose. “Once this is manageable, try incorporating nasal breathing into your workouts as well. It takes time, but you’ll get it,” he says.
Practice Breathing Rhythms
“The goal is to replace shallow breathing with deep belly breathing,” says Welch. She suggests trying this breathing cadence during various types of runs:
- Easy runs: 3:3 (three steps while breathing in, three steps while breathing out)
- Medium runs: 2:2
- Maximum runs: 1:1
Master Belly Breathing
If you want to focus on just the breathing part, independent of running, Welch suggests practicing belly breathing on the floor. "It helps strengthen and isolate the diaphragm, which is the main muscle involved in breathing," Bain adds. Here's how you can practice belly breathing:
- Lie on your back, hands on your belly.
- Focus on expanding your belly as you inhale and releasing as you exhale.
- Once you have this mastered, advance to walking, and then to jogging, and then to your ideal running pace.
Maintain Proper Running Posture
The position of your body can help support healthier and more efficient breathing, says Welch. The next time you’re on a run, do a body check for these things:
- Keep your chest open and gaze forward.
- Soften your shoulders, keeping your core engaged and your spine erect.
- Land your strides with smooth control.
Learn What Feels Right for Your Body
“As you build aerobic capacity or endurance, your body will start to better understand how it should feel at an ‘easy’ pace, a ‘tempo’ pace, and even a ‘sprint’ pace,” says Stonehouse. “At STRIDE, we use ‘levels’ to specify where your effort should be and specify what your breathing should ‘feel’ like during these intervals. This awareness will significantly reduce the stress breathing related to certain exercise.” Basically, as you build endurance, you'll be able to gauge how your body should feel at different speeds, and it will be easier to run without breathing hard.
Do a Breath Workout
Stonehouse recommends doing 3–5 total cycles of the below to train your breathing.
- Five breaths where you inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds.
- 20 fast belly breaths (keep a smooth rhythm that you can control).
- Use nasal breathing only.
- End with two breaths with your slowest inhale/exhale possible.
Try “Dry-Land Swimming”
Stonehouse advises trying a "dry-land swimming" test, which includes multiple rounds of high-intensity exercises and breathing:
- 5 burpees/3 normal breaths/max distance loaded gait work (sled or farmer’s carry). Note how far you can walk before you need to breathe, and all gait work should be completed on the exhale breath hold.
- Rounds 1–3: Burpees are done all out (rest for 1:30–2 min. between these rounds).
- Rounds 4–6: Burpees are done as fast as possible with nasal-only breathing (rest to full recovery between these rounds).