How to breathe when running – all about breathing

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How to breathe when running - all about breathing-min

One of the most common questions asked by all beginners in running is – how do I breathe when I run? But this question is also important for those who have been running for a long time.

Is it redundant to talk about how important breathing is for human survival?

It is obvious and undeniable. The average human cannot survive without air for more than three minutes. However, sometimes we seem to underestimate that wonderful substance called air.

Breathing in itself is an automatic action and in the vast majority of cases, it takes place without our will. But isn’t the fact that we can consciously influence how we breathe fascinating? Don’t you have many questions and possibilities, especially when it comes to training? How much of a difference do you think how we breathe makes?

The process of breathing

When we run or exercise, we can notice how our cardiovascular, respiratory, and musculoskeletal systems are perfectly connected and synchronized. A deficiency in any of them will inevitably affect other systems. Any changes in one will affect the others.

If we understand what happens in our organism from the moment we inhale to the moment we exhale, we will also understand why it is so important how we breathe.

When we inhale and fill our lungs with air, we begin the basic process of gas exchange. A certain amount of oxygen is then transferred to the blood. Via the most important formations of the lungs – the alveoli. This transfer is made possible by the dense capillary network with which the alveoli are connected via the lung membrane.

Oxygen is then bound to hemoglobin in erythrocytes and thus. With the help of blood circulation, is further transported to the tissues that need it. In the case of any physical activity and effort, it is primarily the heart and muscles.

In the heart and muscles, oxygen is used for chemical processes without which such muscle contractions would not be possible. During the process of oxidation of nutrients, in the cells, oxygen is consumed, and energy, water, and carbon dioxide are obtained. After that, carbon dioxide leaves the cells and then returns to the lungs. Through the blood and is exhaled, thereby completing one cycle of breathing (inhalation – exhalation).

What affects the quality of breathing

Attention should be paid to several important factors that affect the quality of breathing:

  • Lung capacity;
  • Pulmonary ventilation (frequency ie frequency of breathing * depth of breathing);
  • Alveolar ventilation – part of the inhaled air that participates in gas exchange. i.e. oxygen that manages to pass from the lungs to the bloodstream;
  • The number of erythrocytes – the ability to transport oxygen molecules to the necessary tissues.

Types of breathing

Ideal breathing is breathing in which the whole body, the whole organism participates. This breathing is energetic because it actively involves the initiation of energy flows throughout the body. And enables the absorption of a large amount of life energy.

Most people do not breathe with the whole body, but only with individual parts. Thus there are the following types of breathing:

  • “Upper” breathing, in which only the upper part of the chest participates. Only the collarbone and shoulders are raised, the upper ribs are bulging, the diaphragm moves with difficulty and is limited. This is the most inefficient way of breathing;
  • “Middle” breathing in which all the ribs work, diverge and the chest expands. But the rest of the body remains immobile;
  • “Lower” breathing, breathing with the “stomach” or diaphragm. Using the diaphragm when breathing means that when we inhale, this muscle contracts. Pulling it down and thus allowing the lungs to expand further. The diaphragm also helps the intercostal muscles. Which additionally expands the chest and the lungs can be completely filled with air. When you combine these mechanics with the process described above, it’s clear to you that this kind of breathing can make a big difference. Both in everyday life and during exercise.

Exercise for learning “lower” breathing

You can learn and master “lower” breathing in just a few steps:

  1. Lie on your back and relax;
  2. Try to keep your chest and shoulders still;
  3. Breathe slowly and deeply into your stomach. Imagine that you have a balloon in your stomach that needs to be filled with air;
  4. Exhale. Take care to exhale all the air, without tightening the abdominal muscles;
  5. Try to maintain the rhythm of your breathing at all times.

Now that we understand the mechanics of breathing, let’s see how we can influence that process, its quality, and how it affects the performance of sports activities.

How to breathe when running? Breathing while running

In continuous activities such as running, rhythmic breathing is of particular importance.

Rhythmic breathing can play a key role in injury prevention, and here’s how.

When you hit the ground with your foot, the force of the impact is equal to 2-3 of your body weight. And the stress caused by the impact is greatest at the moment when the foot touches the ground at the beginning of the exhalation phase. During exhalation, the diaphragm and the muscles surrounding it relax. Thus contributing to a decrease in the stability of the central part of the body (core). Reduced stability at the moment of the strongest impact creates the most favorable conditions for injuries. Always landing on the same leg at the start of exhalation creates the following problem. One side of the body constantly absorbs the greatest impact when running. It “wears out” over time and makes it susceptible to injuries.

Rhythmic breathing, on the other hand, aligns the steps with inhalation and exhalation. Creating an even, odd arrangement so that we alternate landing on the left and right foot when exhaling. The greatest stress is distributed on both sides of the body in this way.

This situation can be compared to, say, carrying an overloaded backpack on only one shoulder. With all this weight on one side of the body, you will physically have to compensate for this stress by putting more strain on the back and hip on one side of the body than the other. However, if you put the backpack on both shoulders, you will distribute the load and thus significantly reduce the load. You will position yourself in the best way to handle stress and protect your body. The same goes for running.

It is logical that if one side tirelessly suffers more stress, it will also become “worn out” and there will be a much greater risk of injury.

At the same time, rhythmic breathing enables short periods of rest, i.e. breaks, for both sides after absorbing the impact, thus preventing premature fatigue.

Coordination of breathing and steps

Eastern cultures and religions emphasize the importance of breathing and pay great attention to practicing breathing and concentration exercises. Those who practice yoga, meditation, relaxation and martial arts use breathing to connect mind, body and spirit.

In martial arts, inner connection and concentration allow faster and more precise control of the body and movements. The same can be achieved when running. Focus and concentration are achieved first of all by managing your thoughts to harmonize breathing and steps. Thus, our awareness of breathing connects the mind and body and brings us to a state where you can best measure, feel and dose the effort of running.

Rhythmic breathing helps you to feel your run accurately and thus achieve better control.

Yoga teaches us that by controlling our breathing we can also control our body and quiet the mind. When we allow ourselves to be distracted by a particular pace, speed or number on the clock, we destroy this mind-body connection. We create space for tension and stress. We also spoil the flow of our running, which greatly spoils the enjoyment and our success.

Rhythmic breathing is soothing and the very awareness of breathing makes us feel relaxed. It allows us to stay as relaxed as possible, reducing any stress that can disrupt activity. Even if the first signs of tension and discomfort begin to appear, it is easy to mentally “push” them away and “kick them out” of your mind with a simple exhalation.

Get the beat

Many runners use a 2:2 pattern when running, which means they inhale two steps and exhale two steps. Some do it in 3 steps (3:3). In both cases, the result is the same – exhalation is always on the same side. A slightly longer inhalation will allow you to always start the exhalation phase on the other leg.

Why should the inhalation phase and not the exhalation phase last longer? Because when we inhale, the diaphragm and surrounding muscles contract, which contributes to the stability of the core, which we talked about earlier. These same muscles relax during exhalation, which reduces stability.

In order to prevent injuries, it is better for the body to have its stability during the longer phase – in this case the inhaling phase.

This can be achieved by using the 3:2 pattern, where the inhalation-exhalation cycle takes five steps. We inhale 3 steps, exhale 2. The simplest way to adopt this mode is by applying the following exercises.

Exercises for 3:2 pattern

Start on the floor. Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor;
Keep your hands on your stomach to make sure you are breathing properly;
Breathe through your nose and mouth simultaneously;

Inhale to the count of 3, and exhale to the count of 2. To make it easier for you, you can also try these: «Inhale-2-3», «Exhale-2», «Inhale-2-3», «Exhale-2»…

Concentrate on the flow of breathing, it should be regular and even, without unnecessary interruptions;
Once you’ve mastered this part, incorporate foot movements to mimic walking. Once you’ve learned this too, it’s time to get up off the floor and try this on the fly;
And finally, of course, try this technique while running.

If it seems to you that the inhalation is taking too long, try to inhale more slowly and evenly or speed up the pace. Also, avoid listening to music during this learning phase, it will only confuse you. Listen to your rhythm!

The 3:2 scheme works well when running at a slow or moderate pace.

But, if the load increases (speed, uphill, etc.) your body will need more oxygen, because the muscles will work harder. The brain will signal to the lungs that there is a deficiency and they need to work faster. Breathing will automatically become more frequent and deeper. It simply won’t be possible to take 3 steps to inhale and 2 to exhale with that effort. Then it’s time to switch to the 2:1 scheme, which works on the same principle, only the duration of the inhalation and exhalation phases is shortened – so inhale 2, exhale 1 step. Continue this breathing until the effort is reduced and you feel that you are able to return to 3:2. Match your breathing and effort when running.

To make sure there is no confusion, you will not be constantly counting your steps, trying to fit them into the phases of your breathing. Over time, you will adopt this pattern and very quickly it will become an automatic action. You may feel the need to check your breathing at the beginning or during the run, but this will be a natural action for you.

Breathing and strength training

With weight lifting, that is. with strength training the story is a little different. It generally implies a different work regime (in the sense of alternating periods of effort and rest), greater workload, and therefore the way of breathing is different.

In this case we encounter a couple of different approaches:

  • Classic inhalation – exhalation
  • Valsalva maneuver.

Classical approach

It is very important that you learn to recognize the phases of movement of the exercises you are doing during strength training. Here we are talking about the phases of effort and rest, that is, the concentric and eccentric modes of muscle work. The rule is that after effort, mainly muscle contraction, you exhale air, and during rest, eccentric phase – inhale. And this should be followed by all beginners, moderately experienced exercisers and those who do not work with excessive weights (maximum strength, 1-3 repetitions).

The technique that is the subject of a lot of controversy, and which is used (knowingly or unknowingly) by those who lift heavy weights, is the so-called. Valsalva maneuver. The Valsalva maneuver is the holding of a forced exhalation by the glottis (opening between the vocal cords). In this way, there is an increase in the pressure in the abdominal area which keeps the spine fixed and the whole central part of the body seems more stable. The pressure applies not only to the abdomen, but also to the entire torso. Therefore, holding your breath increases pressure, contributes to better stability, and thus prevents injuries. Also, many talk about a significant increase in strength.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But (there is always a “but”), this technique has its dark side. Namely, the same pressure that contributes to stability, on the other hand, exerts pressure on the heart, veins and arteries. The flow of venous blood to the heart decreases, and thus the stroke and cardiac output. The reduced amount of blood in the heart chambers is compensated by an increase in heart rate. And there is also a sudden jump in blood pressure. Dizziness, preretinal bleeding, and even loss of consciousness often occur (and imagine what happens next to someone who does this on the bench press).

Valsalva maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is used only in exercises with short-term load (characteristic of, for example, powerlifting disciplines). By professional athletes and experienced exercisers, who are sure of their health condition (primarily CVS) and know how to assess their capabilities. Otherwise: «Kids, don’t try this at home!»


The subject of breathing is much broader than this and we can talk about details and specifics for almost every sport. For now, we have scratched the surface and clarified some main concepts, factors and mechanisms of functioning. It is important not to underestimate the role and importance of the process itself, because, as we have seen, it makes all the difference in some situations.

What are your experiences? Have you tried the different variants and noticed any differences? Or maybe you found your own scheme? Share it with us!

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