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The phrase “as natural as breathing” doesn’t always apply when you’re huffing and puffing as the miles slog by. For beginners, trying to inhale and exhale while running can feel like a completely foreign pursuit. And while experienced runners may be more comfortable in this regard, there’s still a lot to learn about managing your oxygen and finding the best way to breathe while running.
It’s an absolutely crucial skill to master. With every breath you take while running, your lungs bring oxygen into your body to be used by your muscles while getting rid of carbon dioxide. The following tips will help you master this basic function.
Mastering the Best Way to Breathe While Running
If your breath feels out of control, you’re probably running too fast. “Breathing is the most basic form of measuring your effort—people get fancy with heart-rate monitors, but your breath will tell you how hard you’re going,” running coach Tom Kloos explains. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be breathing heavily (during interval or hill workouts, for example), but the majority of the time, if you are struggling to get air in, you’re likely pushing more than necessary. Simply dial the pace in and relax.
Utilize both your mouth and nose.
“Some people have an idea that you should only breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, but that blocks air intake,” Kloos says. “I blame yoga for that myth.” When running, you want to be breathing through both airways at all times. This will maximize your oxygen intake—and make everything feel more normal.
Take off your headphones.
Get in touch with how your inhalation pattern sounds and feels. The best way to do this is, of course, to listen. “If your breathing is starting to become audible, that’s a precursor to becoming completely out of breath,” Kloos explains.
It starts in the core.
Because it’s an automatic function, the more you try to breathe, the more your breath can turn abnormal. If you are huffing and puffing and still gasping for air, you’re likely engaging in shallow breathing, “sucking air into your cheeks and spitting it right back out.” Kloos recommends making sure your core is expanding rather than your cheeks—feel the breath in your diaphragm. Focusing on the out breath will help, he says.
Stand up straight.
“If someone is slumping over, that’s going to affect how well the lungs work,” Kloos says. As you run, keep your shoulders back and your head up to allow for unrestricted airflow.
Count your steps.
For a normal run (aka, not a super-hard effort), there’s a natural breathing pattern that coincides with your foot strikes: two steps on the in breath, two steps on the out. “That’s a threshold pattern, so if someone is breathing faster than that on a normal run, they are running too fast,” he explains.
Keep at it.
Because oxygen is critical for performance, training to be in tune with your breath is important for athletes of all levels. “It’s constant work,” Kloos says. The better you understand what your breath should sound like when you are running easy versus running hard, the better runner you will become.
Consider how environmental factors affect your breathing while exercising.
“For most people, lung function is not a limiting factor for exercise—your body knows how to breathe,” says Tony G. Babb, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist who specializes in pulmonary function at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
But certain environmental factors can play a role in how your lungs work for you during a run.
Altitude: At increased altitudes, the air pressure is lower than it is at sea level, which decreases the density of oxygen in the air. This makes it more difficult for your lungs since less oxygen enters your lungs with each breath. In order for you to bring in more oxygen, your body increases its respiration rate and depth of each breath.
Babb recommends that if you are planning to run a race or do a long run in a location at a higher altitude, first spend two or three days living at this altitude—sleeping and doing everyday activities—before your competition. This will help your body gradually adapt to the difference in air pressure. When you run, slow down your pace at first until you adjust to the new altitude.
Temperature: Extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures can both affect breathing while exercising and contribute to irritation of your lungs. Cold air is often dry air, which can irritate the airways of anyone with a lung condition or respiratory illness. Simply wearing a neck gaiter that covers your mouth will help warm and humidify the air you breathe and help prevent respiratory symptoms for most people, Babb says.
In the case of extreme heat, avoid running outside on Ozone Action Days, which indicate high levels of ozone near the ground. Breathing ozone can cause immediate symptoms, especially in individuals sensitive to air pollution. “If it’s a high ozone day, you might feel a burning sensation in your lungs and that breathing is more difficult,” Babb says. “If that’s the case, you really should not be out running in that weather.” Apps like AirNow can help you determine the air quality for a given day. In general, an AQI measurement of 150 or more is when you should be wary about running outdoors.
Asthma: For the average allergy sufferer, seasonal allergens such as pollen and ragweed can lead to a runny nose and itchy eyes, but they won’t have a direct effect on lung function. For people who have allergic asthma, however, inhaling allergens triggers a response in the immune system and causes passages in the airways of the lungs to become narrowed or inflamed. Strenuous exercise can also trigger asthma symptoms for many asthma sufferers, which makes the combination of running and allergy season particularly troublesome.
If you notice coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath during a run, talk to your doctor to diagnose what might be causing your symptoms and develop a plan to keep them under control.
But rest assured, for beginner runners, breathing while exercising will naturally get easier. As you keep improving as a runner, your muscles will become more efficient in using oxygen, which in turn will mean your lungs won’t need to work as hard.