Breathing Techniques for Runners

Edited by StephWrites, Sharingknowledge, Jen Moreau

Running has grown more and more popular over the last decade. From 2009 to 2014, the number of people who ran marathons worldwide increased 13.25%. Many people when beginning to run, experience difficulty breathing. All of us who practice running have had that feeling of being tired and out of breath. One of the main causes of running out of breath is the lack of physical condition. This sensation will naturally decrease as we get fitter. However, learning to breathe correctly will also help us not only feel more in shape but even run faster and help avoid injuries.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Oxygenating muscles

We all know how important oxygen is for our bodies. When we exercise, we need even more oxygen than usual. When we are training, our muscles require more energy, so they produce more ATP. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is the molecule in our cells that takes energy where we need it the most. Because we need oxygen to produce ATP, and we produce more ATP when we exercise; we need more oxygen when we exercise. Blood carries oxygen to our muscles and the rest of our body. About 98% of the oxygen we inhale attaches itself to hemoglobin molecules after dissolving in plasma. While at rest, only about 20-25% of the hemoglobin molecules release oxygen to the muscles. Most of the oxygen stays in the bloodstream as a reserve. As we exercise, we use up this reserve. To tell the hemoglobin molecules to release more oxygen, the body produces a substance called 2,3-diphosphoglycerate. This substance is produced as the PO2 in your bloodstream drops. PO2 means the partial pressure of oxygen, in other words, the individual pressure oxygen exerts in substances. As our muscle cells create more ATP, they also produce more waste products, such as hydrogen ions, or H+, and carbon dioxide, or CO2. The presence of these substances also tells the hemoglobin molecules to release more oxygen.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Breathing and Running injuries

The impact of our foot hitting the ground as we run is hard to our bodies. In fact, the force of that impact is equal to two to three times your body weight. The stress of this impact is even greater if your foot hits the ground just as you begin to exhale. This is because as your exhale, your diaphragm and the muscles around it relax, lessening your core stability. A less stable core means more of a chance of injury. This also means, that if you always exhale as you step with your right foot, the right side of your body will absorb more of the stress of impact, wearing it down and making it more likely to become injured.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Belly Breathing

If you watch a sleeping baby breathe, you will notice its belly rising and falling. Animals also breathe with their bellies. As adults, however, we tend to forget how to breathe correctly, and end up breathing with our chests. The diaphragm is a muscle that rests horizontally between the abdominal cavity and the thoracic cavity. The diaphragm contracts, or tightens and moves downward as you inhale, and relaxes when you exhale. The contraction of the diaphragm gives your lungs more space in the chest cavity in which to expand. Your intercostal muscles between your ribs pull them up and out while you inhale while giving your lungs even more room. Chest breathing does not allow you to take in as much oxygen as belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing. To discover if you are a chest breather or a diaphragmatic breather, stand or lie still with one hand on your chest and another hand on your belly. If the hand on your stomach moves more than the hand on your chest, you are already a belly breather. However, if the hand on your chest moves more, you are a chest breather and could benefit from learning to breathe from the belly as your run. The scientific name for diaphragmatic breathing is eupnea.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Rhythmic Breathing

Budd Coates, M.S. developed a technique called rhythmic breathing to use while running. His theory was that if exhaling as you strike with the same leg every time, will cause injury to that side. Therefore, you should distribute the impact stress evenly to both legs. To do this, Coates suggests first, make sure you are a belly breather; this will ensure your muscles are getting the most oxygen as possible. Next, establish a pattern where you time your breathing with your steps.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help
  1. 1
    Coates suggests starting with a 3:2 count; this means you inhale for three steps and exhale for two steps
    According to Coates, inhaling for a longer time than you exhale will reduce the chance of injury because your diaphragm, and your core in general, are contracted and therefore stronger while you inhale. When you follow Coates 3:2 pattern, if you begin inhaling as you step with your left foot, you will breathe in for three steps: left-right-left. And you will exhale for two steps: right-left. This way, your next 5-count series begins on the right foot. Inhale: right-left-right. Exhale left-right. As you can see, you are alternating which foot strikes the ground at the beginning of the exhalation, thereby distributing the impact stress evenly between the two legs.
    Was this step helpful? Yes | No| I need help
  2. 2
    If a 5-count breathing pattern is too long, or you run too fast for this pattern, you can try a 2:1 breathing pattern
    Inhale for two steps and exhale for one.
    Was this step helpful? Yes | No| I need help
  3. 3
    As you get faster or if you are working on sprints and need an even faster breathing pattern, Coates suggests 2:1:1:1
    This way you inhale for two steps, exhale for one, inhale for one, exhale for one, and then start over again.
    Was this step helpful? Yes | No| I need help
  4. 4
    Before Budd Coates developed his rhythmic breathing pattern, the common practice was a 2:2 or 3:3 pattern
    In other words, inhale for two steps, exhale for two steps. While this pattern can help control breathing, and focus the mind, according to Coates it can cause injury because you will always exhale while striking with the same leg.
    Was this step helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Another benefit to rhythmic breathing is that it focuses your attention on your breathing, which can distract you from any other pain or discomfort you may feel while you run. Running, therefore, becomes like meditation.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Breathing through the mouth vs the nose

Another common question many runners have is whether they should breathe through the mouth or the nose. Experts are actually divided on this question. One school of thought is that your muscles need as much oxygen as possible while you run. Therefore, you should inhale through your mouth. Others say you should breathe through your nose because it relaxes your body, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, makes us breathe slower, relaxes us, and stimulates the deep belly breathing suggested to get the most oxygen to the muscles. This school of thought claims that breathing through the mouth releases cortisol, a stress hormone, which can, therefore, increase our heart rate, tighten and tense our muscles, and raise our blood pressure. They say that breathing through the mouth makes us tire faster while running. There is also a school of thought that says we should inhale through both the mouth and nose at the same time to get the maximum amount of oxygen into our bodies possible. And then others say we shouldn't even think about our breathing while we run, we should just let it happen naturally and concentrate on other things like our cadence, speed, stride, etc. According to this school of thought, the brainstem, which controls breathing, can do so with such precision that we shouldn't try to interfere. Some benefits to nasal breathing are:

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help
  • The air passes through the nasal mucosa which stimulates reflex nerves.
  • The air is warmed or cooled (as necessary) in the nostrils and sinuses.
  • Breathing through the mouth accelerates water loss, which can lead to dehydration.
  • When you breathe through your nose it slows down your breath, giving your lungs more time to extract more oxygen.

Running is a very popular sport because it requires little equipment and can be done almost anywhere. As with any other sport, however, it is important to do it correctly so as to avoid injury. Each person is different, and a personal trainer or running coach can help prevent injuries. It is also important to remember that each person is different, so try the different breathing techniques and see which is best for you.

Was this helpful? Yes | No| I need help

Referencing this Article

If you need to reference this article in your work, you can copy-paste the following depending on your required format:

APA (American Psychological Association)
Breathing Techniques for Runners. (2017). In ScienceAid. Retrieved Feb 27, 2024, from

MLA (Modern Language Association) "Breathing Techniques for Runners." ScienceAid, Accessed 27 Feb 2024.

Chicago / Turabian "Breathing Techniques for Runners." Accessed Feb 27, 2024.

If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please ask a question for more help, or post in the comments section below.


ScienceAid welcomes all comments. If you do not want to be anonymous, register or log in. It is free.

Article Info

Categories : Humans

Recent edits by: Sharingknowledge, StephWrites

Share this Article:

Thanks to all authors for creating a page that has been read 476 times.


Thank Our Volunteer Authors.

Would you like to give back to the community by fixing a spelling mistake? Yes | No