Breathing is automatic. That is, until you go running.
It's incredibly common for people to adopt unhealthy and performance-wrecking breathing patterns while running, says Meg Takacs, a certified run coach and founder of Run With Meg. You might breathe too fast, hold your breath for long intervals or huff and puff at an erratic rate.
"Air is fuel; you gotta have it," she says. And to get the most of it to your body and muscles, you need to learn the right way (or more accurately, ways) to breathe when running.
Regardless of your natural inclination or preference, here's your straightforward guide to figure out how to breathe while running.
Should You Breathe Through Your Nose or Mouth While Running?
The Benefits of Mouth Breathing
Because you can take in more air through your mouth, most runners breathe through their mouth
"You want to look at your breathing passage ways as if it were a straw," Takacs says. "Your nose can only inhale so much air since it's a more narrow passage. Mouth breathing allows for more air to enter your lungs because you can tap into deep belly breathing instead of shallow chest breathing."
Plus, breathing through just your nose can lead to a clenched jaw and the tightening of your facial muscles. And you want your energy going to your working muscles, not your face. Mouth breathing helps keep this from happening.
"I coach endurance runners to run with a relaxed jaw and deep belly breathing through the mouth," she says. "Look at your inhaling and exhaling like a rhythmic cadence that filters/circulates air in and out." (More on belly or diaphragmatic breathing below.)
The Benefits of Nose Breathing
"Nasal breathing is important for the inhale as the hairs in the nose help to clean particles out of the air and also helps to warm the air for a smoother entry into the lungs," Lauder-Dykes says.
That also makes it ideal for when air temperature and humidity levels are extremely low. Those training outside during winter months may find this helpful. And people who have asthma may also benefit from nose breathing while running, as breathing through the mouth may make the condition worse.
Nose breathing is also an option for more advanced runners who want to add an element of mindfulness to their workouts. Doing so can also help to slightly slow down the rate of your exhalations, making it easier to breathe slowly and deliberately.
"Breathing forces you to be more present and mindful of what you're doing," Takacs says. "You can almost automatically feel more fatigued if you get lost in short, shallow chest-breathing because you're depleting your body of oxygen. Mindful breathing is all about controlling the narrative between your brain and body!"
Using Diaphragmatic Breathing When Running
When you run, the muscles of your upper back, shoulders and neck often tighten, and can lead to shallow breaths that originate from the chest. That's the opposite of the type of deep breathing that you want, which comes from the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the abdomen from the chest.
"Deep belly breathing increases the amount of oxygen that goes into your lungs (VO2 max), therefore helping you run more efficiently because you have more fuel to work with," Takacs says.
Aim to breathe deeply into your abdomen and focus on keeping your arms loose and upper body relaxed. Instead of simply letting your chest to rise and fall, your stomach should expand and contract with each breath. This encourages slow, deliberate breathing and can prevent hyperventilation.
Just make sure you're maintaining proper running form. "You want to keep your body stacked head over ribs, ribs over hips and hips over foot landing on the floor," says Lauder-Dykes, who doesn't recommend belly breathing while running for this reason: "If you're belly breathing and pushing out and in your belly button and diaphragm, your rib cage will flare forward and your hips will extend backward, and you'll lose that body alignment."
But if you've been practicing diaphragmatic breathing during meditation (or other parts of your day) and feel confident you can maintain body alignment, try this:
"Practice breathing in and out through your mouth, with a steady cadence, every other minute while running for 10 minutes," Takacs says. "You'll start to feel better and like you have more power during the minutes you breathe in through your mouth, and your body will learn to adapt to that since it feels better."
Breathing Patterns for Running
When you exercise, your body produces more carbon dioxide, so it's important to exhale this carbon dioxide to keep the oxygen balance in your body at healthy levels. Your exhalations should be about as long as your inhalations. Breathe out slowly and steadily rather than quickly blowing out all your air.
Or try pacing your breathing with your footfalls, Takacs says. Respiratory rhythms should be based on the number of steps you take, according to the American Lung Association.
"Inhale every two strides, exhale every other two strides," she says. "Keeping a steady breathing cadence allows the air and blood to circulate at an economical pace. Once your body acclimates, it'll become second-nature."
Also take into account your level of exertion. "The pace of the inhales and exhales will be mainly dictated by the intensity of your run," Lauder-Dykes says. "The more intense, the more oxygen you'll need, which will require a faster breathing rate. I think a common mistake is taking too short inhale and exhales, generally you want them to be longer and more powerful."
Some runners prefer just to breathe naturally, letting the breathing take care of itself without worrying about it. Many would argue that establishing a set pattern or rhythm to the breathing is more efficient and enables you to run your fastest race, but in the end, it's up to you.
No specific method works best for everyone, and there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to your breathing during a race or sporting event. Experiment with different breathing techniques while running until you find one that works best for your body, then go with it.