• Helen Phillips

How should I breathe whilst running?


Are you confused about how to breathe when you're running? Or concerned about how to control your heavy breathing and pounding heart as you get going?

Read on, as I explain what's going on in your body and why and give you some tips for better breathing for running.

New Runners

New runners are often concerned about breathing, and they panic when they feel a bit out of breath. If you’re new to running, just relax and breathe as naturally as you can, your body will figure out the best way to get the air it needs. If you feel you cant breathe you’re probably running too fast. So slow down or take a break and walk.

As You Run Faster

As your running improves, and you’re looking to run faster, it’s still important to breath in a way that feels natural to you, through the nose or mouth. Lots of people find, as they get faster, that they breathe through the mouth when running. That’s perfectly ok, unless you’re frequently running in cold weather. When you breath through your nose the breath is warmed before it reaches the lungs, which doesn’t happen when you breath through your mouth. So on very cold days, if you’re out running, breath through a buff or scarf which has the same effect of warming the air before it reaches your lungs.

Is your breathing heavy when you start out?

It’s perfectly normal! When you start running your body needs more oxygen, which is needed by the body to burn fuel (either carbohydrate or fat) for your muscles to move. As you start running you’ll notice that your breathing will become heavier, as you’re breathing in more oxygen for the body to use, and your heart starts to beat faster, to pump blood that carries the oxygen around the body, to the muscles that need it.

When you start running the muscles that expand the rib cage for your breathing start to work harder, so more oxygen gets sucked into your lungs, and this can feel like a ‘heavy chest’. As your muscles get going and start to warm up this feeling goes away.

So, it’s always best to start with a slow warm up run, to get your lung muscles working to get oxygen sucked into the body and transported to your working muscles, before you pick up the pace and run faster.

What about when you get going?

As you get into your run and pick up your pace, your bodys demand for oxygen, to burn fat or carbohydrate fuel to power your muscles, increases.

As a result your breathing rate increases to draw more oxygen into your lungs, and your heart rate increases to pump blood carrying oxygen around your body to your working muscles.

If you find it difficult to control your breathing as you start to run quicker try to coordinate your breathing with your foot strike. Here’s how …

Start your inhale on your left foot strike, breathing in deep but naturally. Continue breathing in through your right foot strike and then exhale on the next left and right foot strikes, breathing deeply and slowly as you go. Find a breathing pattern that works for you and your pace, and over time this breathing pattern will start to feel more natural to you.

How can I improve?

You can improve your breathing, and the amount of oxygen that you take into your lungs by practising deep diaphragm breathing, breathing deep into your lungs or belly. This takes practice, so try it through the day first before you give it a go running!

You can also improve how much oxygen gets delivered to your muscles by increasing the number of red blood cells in your body, as it’s the haemoglobin in red blood cells that transports the oxygen around your body to be used by your muscles.

The good news is that exercise increases the amount of red blood cells in your body, so as you increase your running your body produces more.

I also recommend you make sure your diet is rich in iron, as iron is the key component in haemoglobin. Eating a diet rich in red meat and green leaf vegetables will help provide your body with vital iron so it can make more haemoglobin to make your body more efficient at transporting oxygen from your lungs to your muscles.

The other way you can improve the efficiency of getting oxygen to your muscles is by improving the ability of your heart to pump blood around your body.

The best way of improving your hearts pumping ability is by doing interval training to improve your VO2 max (VO2 max is running jargon for the ‘size of your engine’). That’s why good half and marathon training plans include intervals and threshold training (where you run at about 80% max speed) in the plans.

Another way of improving your power is to improve your heart’s pumping capacity is by doing long, slow runs at a conversational pace. Running like this also improves the ability of your body to burn fat as fuel, which is really important for a marathon or half.

A third way of improving is to add resistance workouts into your training. Resistance training helps to build stronger more efficient muscles, so your heart and lungs don’t have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to your muscles. This improves your running economy, which will help with your overall running endurance and performance.

Anything else?

Finally, when carbohydrate or fat is burnt in the presence of oxygen your body creates the ‘waste’ by product carbon dioxide, which needs to be expelled from the body.

In the same way that haemoglobin took oxygen to your muscles, it takes carbon dioxide from your muscles away, back to the lungs to be expelled in your exhale breath. So make sure that your exhale is as deep and controlled as your inhale for efficient breathing.

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