How to Breathe While Running? and Why Its Important?

Breathing is an important running factor which can influence your performance. While running, you might be wondering which the best running technique is.  Since there is extensive research on the topic, it’s worth noting that most of the techniques have various physiological and psychological benefits.

The science behind breathing while running

Breathing techniques while running are exponentially different to regular breathing. Basically, the human body needs more oxygen to sustain the high-intensity movements. In simple numbers:

  • While running, the lungs can pump up to 16 times more oxygen
  • Oxygen consumption rises from 250 ml to 5.000ml
  • Breathing frequency increases from 12-16 up to 50 breaths per minute

There is scientific evidence to support the idea that the more demanding the activity, the more we tend to breathe through the mouth as it may seem easier. A few US studies show that this is based on the simple airflow with less resistance. This means that while up to 70% of the inhaled air circulates through the nose while resting, the percentage drops to 27% with intense physical activities such as running.

Muscle activation in the respiratory system

Research tells us the respiratory system will engage two major organs to facilitate air flow. These organs are the lungs and the heart. The lungs ensure the oxygen is captured and sent into the body. The heart pumps the oxygen into the muscles. Carbon dioxide is then exhaled through the lungs.

The diaphragm is the most important muscle in the respiratory system. It plays a crucial role as it is situated the chest and abdominal cavity. The diaphragm contracts during inhalation and pushes towards the abdominal cavity. This can be best seen with deep breaths when the diaphragm pushes towards the abdominal cavity. The air itself fills the lungs however and not the abdomen.

Correct breathing while running

A 2009 study found that proper breathing can improve running results within 4 weeks. The study arguments that respiratory training combined with endurance training provides a small performance boost for runs of up to 5km (3 miles). The combination of these exercises reduces the impression of effort and significantly improves the out of breath feelings.

Breathing rhythm

There are some general breathing techniques which apply to runners. One of the essential mechanisms which need to be mastered is the inspiration on the strike. When your foot reaches the ground the gravity will move body mass towards the ground. This is a good moment for inspiration as the process will move the diaphragm downwards. The problem with this simple techniques is that runners can’t breathe in with every strike as it would be too often. This is why they can breathe in smaller amounts of air to work along foot strike.

This approach has also led to the development of the injury theory. The theory states that in time you will get used to exhale on a single foot, which will become subject to injury to the lower muscle activation in the abdominals while the diaphragm relaxes. While there might be some truth behind this theory, breathing techniques have diversified over time and many runners use rhythms to boost performance and maximize oxygen consumption.

A simple technique can be with the 2:2 ratio. This technique finds runners breathing in two times while also striking two times with the left and right foot. The rhythm might be different for every runner but it could be best suited for moderate speeds.

Another good technique comes with the 3:3 ratio. This technique requires runners to strike three times, one left foot, one right foot and then the left foot again while breathing in and then repeating the 3 movements while breathing out. This technique can be useful in moderate runs or in warm-ups for most runners.

When you sprint you will have fewer to take deep breaths. This is why a 1:2 ratio or 2:1 ration might be more suited for the process. The 1:2 ration finds runners performing one step while breathing in and two steps while breathing out. The 2:1 ratio find runners performing two steps while breathing in and 1 step while breathing out.

Focusing on the right technique

These types of rhythms are further influenced by the breathing mechanism itself. While it is mostly recommended to breath in through the nose and breathe out through the mouth, respiration might not feel synchronized while running. There are some advantages to breathing through your nose like have more filtered or warmer air in the lungs. But at some point, this technique may not offer enough oxygen volume to sustain intense running like sprinting.

There often is a debate between deep abdominal or belly breathing and shallow chest breathing. Most professionals recommend deep breathing as it provides a more complex approach while maximizing oxygen intake. Basically the deeper your breath the more lung capacity you will use. This means oxygen will stay in the lungs longer than with shallow chest breathing.

What runners are not told

All of the above breathing techniques focus on maximizing oxygen flow capacity and increasing breathing frequency for up to 60 breaths per minute. While this will benefit the running performance it will also open up the runner for some specific issues.

CC BY by Emanuel Leanza

Since you will be needing more oxygen while running you will be at risk of inhaling more harmful substances. The European Lung Foundation notes that after long-term running some people may develop asthma or bronchial hyperresponsiveness. These conditions are caused by the environment in which people run. The cold air can have an influence as can certain cleaning substances for indoor runners.

Although research is just beginning in this field, a study has found that top athletes can suffer from exercise-induced asthma. In the UK, one-third of cyclists can be affected and up to 70% of swimmers have been identified with asthma. So while breathing rhythm is a good way to maximize oxygen intake, it may also be a good way of discovering any disorders.

One athlete reported serious breathing problems while running at high altitude for the first time. If you`re in the same situation it might be worth comparing yourself to other runners` breathing performance to look for early signs of any problems. In some rare cases, runners may be required to go to extreme lengths to cope with these issues. One of the methods used by runners can come with bronchodilators which are still permitted by anti-doping regulations.

Conclusion

As a general rule, runners should maximize their oxygen volume intake while breathing through the nose and through the mouth. It seems that most professionals are starting to recommend breathing through the mouth, especially for high intensity running like sprinting.

Deep abdominal breathing is also preferred due to its complexity and oxygen availability through the length of the lungs.

To maximize personal results runners might need to experiment different breathing rhythms. Most breathing rhythms are based on the coordination of inhaling, exhaling and foot strike.

Finally, runners should be very cautious with every breathing technique and especially the environment. As research for exercise-induced asthma develops, it seems that more and more runners are prone to the condition. Regardless of the breathing rhythms, runners should be very selective with the running environment which has a significant impact on the health of the respiratory system.

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