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Mar 16, 2022

Waiting to Exhale: How to Breathe While Running

Breathing while running comes naturally for some. For others, like me, it takes practice. Proper breathing is part of a runner’s overall form while on the pavement, trail, or treadmill. Knowing how to breathe is crucial to prevent overexertion, fatigue, and decreased lung capacity.

When I first started running, I struggled to maintain my breathing. I started with run/walk intervals to ease my way into running but often needed more recovery time between each interval because I was simply winded after each run. I felt I was on the verge of defeat. However, I was not quite ready to throw in the towel, so I visited a pulmonologist after a consultation with my primary physician.

Since I was a child, I suffered from seasonal allergies, which later in life would often develop into more severe upper respiratory infections such as sinusitis or bronchitis. After listening to me describe my symptoms before, during, and after a run, the pulmonologist scheduled me for a pulmonary function test (PFT). A PFT is a non-invasive test to show how well the lungs are working. The test measures lung volume, capacity, rates of flow, and gas exchange. The results can help rule out or diagnose and treat certain lung disorders.

My test revealed some minor deficits, but my doctor, a runner herself, assured me these deficiencies should not prevent me from enjoying the sport. She advised me to keep running and to keep practicing proper breathing techniques.

So, what exactly is a proper breathing technique? Experts say you should practice relaxed, rhythmic breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) as it’s better for efficient and maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max). Runners tend to take shorter inhales and exhales as they run. However, with each breath, we want our lungs to fill up with oxygen, as this oxygen is needed to flow to our muscles, providing us the energy to continue running with relative ease.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned on how to focus on your breathing while running. Remember, no two bodies (or set of lungs) are the same, so only use this as a guide.

  1. Start with a walk or a slow jog to warm up and focus on deep breathing, extending the belly as you inhale, taking in as much oxygen as possible. Then, as you exhale fully, you rid your lungs of the CO2 and make room for more oxygen.
  2. Practice good posture. Keep your head up, relax your shoulders, and your arms should be at a 45-degree angle, without being too close to your body. Running with a slumped posture can decrease lung capacity and make you tire faster.
  3. In my training, I’ve learned to hold my hands loose like I’m holding a potato chip and trying not to crush it. I think of it as I’m making the “okay” sign with each hand.
  4. Depending on your stride, your inhale and exhale may take between 2-4 strides each. If associating your stride with your breathing doesn’t work for you (it didn’t work for me), try counting. For example, count one, two, three, inhale; one, two, three, exhale. In this scenario, practice doesn’t make perfect, but it eventually makes it second nature!
  5. No matter the method or if you choose no method at all, just remember to breathe! Often when an activity gets intense, we tend to hold our breath. Making a habit of holding your breath can cause your blood pressure to rise, dizziness, nausea, fainting, or even a heart attack.

Proper breathing while running is a constant struggle for me as a fledgling runner, but with practice, I know it will get easier. As with any exercise, use caution, seek medical attention when necessary, and above all else, be gentle with yourself!

By: Danielle Barnes – @dannibsays (IG) @dannib413 (Twitter)

Danielle Barnes is a freelance writer based in Montclair, NJ. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Relations from Wayne State University. Her superpower is her ability to captivate audiences with her words whether it’s in person or on paper. Danielle enjoys devouring a good book, volunteering for causes she’s passionate about, staying active, and traveling the globe to see the world in all its glory.