Proper breathing can make a difference in terms of your overall comfort and performance when running. While your body will probably do the right thing naturally, you may have some breathing habits that affect your ability to run efficiently.
It can be helpful to learn about different theories about the way breathing affects running and recommendations about the best way to breath during your running workouts.
Nose vs. Mouth Breathing
Some runners have heard they should breathe in through the nose alone and out only through the mouth. This breathing pattern is promoted in yoga and some martial arts. However, it is not always the most efficient method for a vigorous-intensity aerobic activity such as running.
Many runners find it most effective to breathe through both your mouth and nose when running. Your muscles need oxygen to keep moving and your nose alone simply can't deliver enough. In fact, you may notice changes as your pace increases.
The way that you breathe—through your mouth or through your nose—is often determined by factors including activity type and activity intensity.
When you run at an easily sustainable pace, you are likely to get enough oxygen primarily through your nose alone. This allows you to carry on a steady conversation without stopping to gasp for air through your mouth.
However, as your pace and intensity increases, your body needs more oxygen. You need mouth breathing to meet your body's need. While your nose can warm and filter incoming air, breathing through your nose alone won't cut it. This is when mouth breathing kicks in to help out.
For your faster, sustained runs (such as tempo runs or races), you should try to inhale more through your nose and exhale more through your mouth. Try to focus on exhaling fully, which will remove more carbon dioxide and also help you inhale more deeply.
As your pace and intensity level increases during runs, you'll notice that nose breathing often shifts to combined nose/mouth breathing to accommodate your body's increased oxygen demands.
Breathing During Sprints
During speed work, you might notice that you naturally shift to mouth breathing. It feels like you breathe in and breathe out fully through your mouth. This might lead you to wonder if mouth breathing is wrong for these high-intensity bursts of work.
Researchers have studied the effects of mouth breathing vs. nasal breathing during anaerobic work performed at high intensity. In a small study, researchers examined performance outcomes and heart rate when test subjects had to perform nose-only or mouth-only breathing.
They found that RER (respiratory exchange ratio) was higher when mouth breathing was used. RER is a measurement of your body's oxidative capacity to get energy. It can be used as an indicator of fitness level. They also found that heart rate was higher during nasal breathing.
However, because the researchers found that breathing mode does not affect power output or performance measures, they concluded that athletes should choose their desired breathing preference during high-intensity intervals.
Deep Belly Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing—sometimes called belly breathing—can help to strengthen your breathing muscles and encourage full oxygen exchange. This, in turn, makes the breathing process more effective and allows your body to use oxygen more efficiently.
Also, deep belly breathing allows you to take in more air, which may also help prevent side stitches.
You can practice belly breathing when your body is at rest.
- Pay attention to your upper body form. Your posture should be straight, with relaxed shoulders that aren't hunched up or slouched forward. Your head should be in line with your body, not jutted forward. You won't be able to breathe deeply if you are hunched over.
- Breathe in through your nose. Push your stomach out and, at the same time, push down and out with your diaphragm. Rather than your upper chest expanding, you should feel your belly expanding. This allows you to draw in more air with each breath.
- Breathe out slowly and evenly through your mouth.
When you are first learning belly breathing, try to practice a few times each day for about five minutes per session. Once you are more comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, it will be easier to incorporate efficient breathing practices during your runs.
Breathing and Footstrikes
Researchers have long known that most animals and humans practice some form of rhythmic breathing patterns when running. That is, they sync their breathing to locomotor movement—more specifically to footstrikes. Scientists refer to the patterns as locomotor-respiratory coupling or LRC.
Locomotor-respiratory coupling, also called LRC, is the practice of pairing your breath with your footstrikes. All mammals—including humans—practice some form of LRC, although humans exhibit the greatest degree of flexibility with the range of possible patterns.
Preferred Breathing Rhythm
While four-legged animals often breath at a 1:1 LRC ratio (one breath per footstrike), humans may use a variety of breathing patterns and even have the flexibility to use no LRC at all. However, studies suggest that a 2:1 coupling ratio is favored. That means for every two strides, you take one breath.
As a runner, this might mean that you fall into a pattern where you breathe in for two to three footstrikes and breathe out for the same number of footstrikes.
A research paper published in 2013 noted that runners naturally couple their breathing with their footstrikes in an even-foot pattern, which results in always exhaling on the same foot.
Some theories advanced in this paper led running experts such as Budd Coates, author of "Running on Air," to propose breath patterns that would alternate which foot was striking during inhalation and exhalation. For example, taking three footstrikes for every inhale and two footstrikes for every exhale.
While you can try this alternate breathing pattern, it may or may not have any benefits. Reportedly, one of the study authors thinks it is improbable that even-foot breathing patterns are detrimental.
If the idea of trying to coordinate your breathing with your footstrike seems overwhelming, don't worry. Research has also suggested that thinking too much about running and breath can lead to a decreased efficiency in running mechanics.
A small study published in a 2019 edition of Journal of Sports Sciences evaluated running economy in 12 subjects as they focused on internal factors (such as breathing mechanics) or external factors (watching a video). Researchers concluded that consciously focusing on breathing and movement can lead to a decrease in running efficiency and running economy.
Breathing During Races
While it can be relatively easy to fall into a breathing pattern during training runs, it can be harder to maintain steady breathing during a race. Race day nerves can increase your breathing rate before the race and can also make it harder to get into a rhythm during the race.
But establishing a breathing pattern might help you focus and get into a race-pace rhythm. For this reason, it can be helpful during your race to turn your focus inward and find your breath.
If you have established a preferred regular breathing pattern during training runs, finding this rhythm during your race may help to steady your nerves and induce confidence. As you sprint past another runner or run up a hill, your breathing pattern may change with the intensity. But returning to your stable breathing pattern can help get you back into a steady pace.
As you finish the race, it is likely that your breathing rate will increase. Trying to sprint to the finish line with tired muscles can cause you to increase your breathing rate and deepen each breath. However, research has shown that trained athletes can maintain their LRC or effective rhythmic breathing pattern.
And what happens after the race is complete? Expect your breathing to return to normal within about 10-20 minutes after you finish running. Your breath rate will gradually slow and mouth/nose breathing will return to nose-only breathing.
As your breathing returns to normal, heart rate returns to normal as well. With an increased fitness level, you'll notice that this process takes less time.
A Word From Verywell
As a beginner, try to run at a pace at which you can breathe easily. Use the "talk test" to figure out if your pace is appropriate. You should be able to speak in full sentences, without gasping for air. This is also known as a conversational pace.
As you add faster-paced tempo runs and speed intervals to your running repertoire, experiment with different breathing styles and breathing rhythms. Practice diaphragmatic breathing as well. It is likely that your body will find a rhythm that feels natural. However, try not to force a breathing pattern that feels uncomfortable.
Be mindful of your preferred breathing style and use it as one more tool in your toolbox to steady your nerves and run more effectively at races.