Optimizing Your Breathing Technique for Running Success

16 May 2024 1703
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Put a halt to breathlessness (jokingly intended). Everyone breathes indeed, but are you aware that deliberate breathing tactics can aid in enhancing your running proficiency? Indeed, studies reveal that breathwork isn't just about tranquility and focus; it can also help improve your athletic abilities. 

Right breathing practices also augment running performance and overall comfort. While your breathing pace will instinctively adapt to physical exertion, certain strategies can make you more proficient and help prevent common annoyances such as side stitches and cramps. Correct breathing amplifies oxygen intake and gets rid of carbon dioxide, a crucial procedure for turning glycogen into the energy that powers your steps.

However, all breaths are not the same. Depending on the severity of your run, the approach—via the nose, mouth, or a combination—can transmute to meet rising oxygen requirements. Understanding how to breathe while running dictates stamina, speed, and the overall running experience.

Proceeding, discover more about how respiration influences your running experience, the drawbacks of faulty approach, and how to breathe while running for your topmost performance.

Muscles require more oxygen to generate energy while running, thus competent breathing is crucial for performance. A proficient respiration process ensures muscles receive the maximum amount of oxygen feasible, making maintaining pace and stamina less strenuous. Diaphragmatic and chest breathing are two prevailing breathing styles, each affecting running performance differently. 

Diaphragmatic breathing is the best technique, while chest breathing is a physically expensive habit that many runners take on unknowingly. Taking shorter, shallow breaths from your chest makes it more difficult for your body to get sufficient oxygen, possibly leading to tiredness or even light-headedness.

Tactics such as slower diaphragmatic and rhythmic breathing through nose and mouth allow deeper breaths and increase oxygen intake to support muscles for enhanced performance, while hastened mouth breathing patterns can sometimes be better for faster runs and sprints.

Wrong respiration practices can adversely impact performance and comfort during runs. Shallow and quick breathing, also known as chest breathing, restricts your oxygen intake, which can rapidly lead to tiredness and that well-known heavy leg feeling. A poor breathing pattern is commonly the cause behind those annoying side stitches and cramps, which can sideline even the most proficient runner.

Specialists advise two fundamental techniques for breathing while running: diaphragmatic and rhythmic breathing.

Diaphragmatic or belly breathing is a technique that maximizes oxygen intake and is best for efficient running. While superficial chest breathing can lead to earlier fatigue, belly breathing encourages full oxygen exchange, which amplifies your endurance.

Pelc Graca applies rhythmic breathing, a strategy recommended by the American Lung Association for runners that facilitates efficient oxygen movement throughout the body. “Rhythmic breathing can coordinate the force of impact with an inhalation, which will provide more stability in our core muscles and diaphragm,” she elaborates.

This stability then minimizes the effect of running on your joints, bones, and muscles. Pelc Graca provides these tips on integrating rhythmic breathing into your runs using a 5-step (3:2) rhythmic pattern.

As your running speed heightens, you can transition to a 3-step (2:1) pattern, inhaling over two steps and exhaling over one, a technique favoured by experienced runner Michael Mazzara, CEO of Half Marathon Guide. “[Due to] lack of oxygen being supplied to muscles [often causing] fatigue... taking two breaths in ensures you're supplying enough oxygen for muscle use,” he explains.

Ultimately, it is best to find a rhythm and stick to it, advises Mazzara, who emphasizes on overall breath control and sticking to a rhythm that allows you to breathe without difficulty. “Most of the training adaptations for running occur in Zone 2, which is characterized as a conversational pace, so steady, controlled breathing is really significant for knowing you're exerting the right effort,” he adds.

While technique is important, there are a few other ways to optimize your breathing when you run. Effective breathing when running involves being conscious of your posture, the weather, as well as your warm-up and cool-down routines.

Paying attention to your posture is fundamental for optimal respiration while running. With proper posture, there is more room for your diaphragm and lungs to enlarge for deeper and more efficient breaths consequently supplying a steady stream of oxygen to power your best run. This is not possible if you slouch or hunch as that restricts your breathing, diminishes oxygen intake, and potentially results in quicker fatigue and discomfort.

Sarah Pelc Graca, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), experienced marathoner, owner, and head coach at Strong with Sarah Health Coaching, says the best running posture is when your spine is neutral and your core muscles are slightly engaged. “Use your glutes, quads, and hamstrings to propel you forward with each step. Although your core muscles are slightly engaged, don't think of 'clenching' or 'squeezing' your abs, as this will restrict the movement of your belly and diaphragm as you breathe,” she adds.

Cross-training with posture-focused exercises, such as yoga or Pilates, is a smart way to improve your running posture and support your breathing efficiency. 

You can sneak in some additional work that improves your lung capacity and breathing efficiency by adding specific exercises in your warm-up and cool-down routines.

Warm-up: Begin with dynamic stretches that open the chest and engage the diaphragm, such as arm circles and torso twists. Follow up with a few minutes of brisk walking or gentle jogging to gradually increase your heart rate and breathing.

Cool down: End your run with a slow jog or walk, gradually bringing your breathing and heart rate down to a resting state. Incorporate deep breathing exercises, such as inhaling deeply for four counts, holding for four counts, and exhaling for four counts, to help clear your lungs and relax your body.

Weather conditions can impact your breathing and overall running experience, so it’s wise to know how different conditions might affect you. Cold air has less moisture and can be harsh on the respiratory system, causing airways to tighten. Some people might experience uncomfortable symptoms such as a runny nose or dry throat. Pelc Graca recommends wearing a scarf or mask over your nose and mouth during cold weather to pre-warm the air before it enters your lungs. 

High-humidity air can also make it feel harder to breathe since the moisture makes the air feel heavy. This can lead to a higher heart rate and quicker time to exhaustion, especially if you’re sweating. In hot and humid weather, stay hydrated, reduce your pace, and try to run during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening.

Another factor to be wary of is polluted or high allergy environments. Air quality can affect your breathing. On days with high pollution or pollen counts, it might serve you better to keep running indoors or travel to areas with better air quality.