Getting Enough Oxygen: How to Breathe While Running

Many people struggle to learn how to breathe while running. Some people are natural born runners. Others pick it up as they grow older. They’ll lace up their running shoes, head outside and begin their journey. As they run, though, they may feel short of breath and find themselves inhaling and exhaling in irregular breathing patterns. 

Let’s Talk Breath

Controlling your breathing is a challenge for most runners. Prior to hitting the trails, beginner runners should audit their breathing rhythm to see if they have the lung capacity to complete the run. To do this, they can perform a variety of breathing exercises that will help them assess their breathing rhythm and ensure they have the proper breathing technique nailed down.

Why Is Breathing While Running So Challenging At First?

Stop what you’re doing. What sort of position is your body in right now? Are you seated, standing? Slouched over, slumped back on the couch? Well, believe it or not, the way in which you breathe is affected by the positions you spend most of your day in. 

Slouching over can cause our breathing to get shallow. Instead of performing diaphragmatic breathing for deeper, more valuable breaths, everything stays up in our chest, creating little to no value for our overall aerobic capacity.

When it comes time to run, you’ve programmed yourself to take short shallow breaths. This can make you feel like you’re gasping for air even on the simplest jog or warm up run. That’s why preparing yourself for proper breathing while running takes place way before your run begins.

Breathing for runners comes down to regularly expanding your lung capacity by training at mid-high heart rate zones regularly and thus, constantly improving the body’s ability to utilize oxygen and release carbon dioxide more efficiently. 

Thankfully, we’ve outlined a few breathing exercises below that you can try to improve your breathing rhythm. There’s no need to scan social media or search on Google for these running tips. Our strategies are great for new runners at all fitness levels trying to learn how to breathe properly while running. 

Let’s take a look at a few ways new runners can improve their breathing mechanics.

Breathing Exercise #1: Deep Belly Breathing

Figure out how you breathe with a breathing audit. Since breathing is an involuntary action, you might not really know how you breathe unless you stop and think about it. To figure this out, perform a deep belly breathing exercise. 

Deep belly breathing is a simple three step process to assess your current breathing technique. All you need to do is lie down on your back, put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly and take a few breaths. Take note where most of your breaths are happening—either in your chest or your belly. 

Man laying on ground with hand on chest and belly

To activate your diaphragm, perform this deep breathing drill. Start with a large inhale through your nose that fills your chest, mid-chest and then belly. Reverse the cycle when you exhale through your mouth—not your nose. Repeat these deep long breaths (hands still on belly and chest) for 10 repetitions.

This puts the diaphragm in motion with rhythmic breathing that fills your entire lung cavity with the maximum oxygen possible.

Breathing Exercise #2: Nose Breathing

Now, it’s time to use what you’ve just learned and implement it on your next run. Before you go out for that next run, spend a few moments practicing breathing only through your nose. You can do this by closing your mouth and taking 8-10 breaths using just your nose.

You’ll notice the belly breathing (instead of the shallow chest breathing) kicks in right away. 

To more fully rely on nose breathing, try breathing only through your nose for the first and last five minutes of one of your easy runs. If you’re not used to breathing this way (especially during exercise), there’s a good chance that the nose breathing will make you feel like you can’t get enough air. This is totally normal.

Woman in sunglasses running race

To help calm you down, adjust your pace and effort level to accommodate the nose breathing. Slow down and take control. If you feel that you’ve mastered it, though, you can make the breathing exercise more challenging.

As you get more comfortable, increase to 7-10 mins at the beginning and 7-10 mins at the end. Once that feels doable, try running the first 30-40 mins of your run using just your nose to breathe. You can also speed up the nose breathing. Try running 1 mile at a faster pace, breathing only through your nose.

Breathing Exercise #3: Match Your Breathing and Cadence

The last piece of this puzzle is simply matching your new breathing to your running. The bottom line is that runners should do what every running coach has ever told them: inhale and exhale with each foot strike. This can result in efficient breathing that is in rhythm with your step.

Woman in sunglasses running

To achieve this, start running in place at a moderate pace. Next, count how many steps it takes to inhale and exhale. There’s no right number here; it’s important to just make note for yourself.

Consider this your breathing baseline. From here, start playing with changing the number of your breaths on command.

For example, if you were inhaling for four steps and exhaling for four steps, try inhaling for four steps and exhaling for six steps. Play with this for a few minutes in place.

Consider this a new “gear shift system” for your running. Depending on the speed and intensity of your run, race or marathon, you should be able to match your breathing to your movement.

You’ll notice that at a quicker pace, the number of steps per inhale/exhale may decrease. During an easy run or a slower long run, it may increase.

There is no right number of steps per inhale or exhale. There is only the right amount for you.

This drill is for you to figure out what you need at various speeds and intensities. With this training, you’ll be able to shift into a familiar breathing mode to complete a high-intensity run in a methodical, rhythmic way. 

Breathe Easy, Breathe Often

Taking time to assess and adjust your breathing is an essential part of training. By doing so, you can increase your oxygen intake and decrease your chances of side stitches or side cramps while maintaining your pace for the duration of your run. 

No matter your skill level, there is always room for improvement in breathing while running. Whether you are preparing for a half marathon, 5K or any type of cardio, try incorporating at least one of these exercises into your running training each week. By doing so, you’ll be prepared once the gun goes off and you take your first breath.