Breathe in, breathe out. Simple as that, right?
It is true that if you are not following this advice, your run might not go so well. However, the science of running respiration is far more nuanced and interesting than you might think!
This article will explain some of the important processes your body undergoes while breathing during a run, and provide some tips for how you can influence these processes to your advantage.
Does Your Breathing Pattern for Running Matter?
The research into how the respiratory system responds to exercise has advanced considerably over the past decade, challenging previously held assumptions that the highly evolved and specialized respiratory muscles of humans show little sign of fatigue during activity.
Breathing accounts for up to 10-15% of energy demand during intense exercise, making it an area worthy of consideration in terms of performance.
Breathing technique for runners also becomes more important as your distance increases. Triathletes have been shown to have the ability to maintain a higher degree of breathing coordination at higher training thresholds than sprinters.
This also relates to the fact that during sprinting, leg muscle strength is the determining factor in top running speed, whereas, in endurance running, respiratory muscle function limits maximal exercise intensity and duration.
So just what aspects of breathing are responsible for the aforementioned influences on running?
The Science of Matching Breathing to Running Cadence
The method of performing a pattern of the same number of steps during each breath is called locomotor-respiratory coupling (LRC). Matching breath to motor control is done by people for all sorts of activities, like playing guitar or archery, in addition to running.
Specifically in running, though, the consensus with researchers is that runners naturally integrate our breathing with our steps so that inspiration and expiration - breathing in and out - occur at the most mechanically efficient phases of our running cycle.
What does this mean? If you’d like to try an experiment: Start in a standing position, with your mouth and your airway open. Now, jump up and down. You should hear short ‘puffs’ of air without trying to force breaths. You can also try standing and forcefully swinging your arms as if you were marching.
This phenomenon also occurs with each foot strike during running, and it’s called step-driven flow. These forces produced by each step, along with the swinging of your arms, greatly impact ventilatory flow through their impact on trunk cavity volumes and pressures.
Humans have a flexible range of LRC ratios. Some people run with a stride per breath ratio of 2:1, 3:1, or 4:1; others don’t couple their breaths to their cadence at all.
Set patterns of breathing are less important when running at our preferred stride frequency, or the cadence with the lowest energy cost. However, there is evidence for the benefit of a more consistent LRC ratio when running outside this range; for example, in a race where you need to pick up the pace.
Nasal Breathing Versus Oral Breathing for Running
At sub-maximal intensities, breathing exclusively through your mouth or your nose both have their pros and cons.
For example, nasal breathing removes contaminants by filtering the air, humidifies the air, and reduces hyperventilation. However, nasal breathing also increases cardiovascular stress because the reduced oxygen intake leads to an elevated heart rate.
In contrast, oral-only breathing can result in higher levels of oxygen intake, and higher ventilation volume and respiratory rate than nasal breathing. But, this method can lead to mouth and throat dehydration and increased pressure and effort during exercise.
The literature shows that during low to moderate intensity running, breathing mode does not significantly affect power output or performance, and so which method you choose is up to personal preference.
At higher or maximal intensities, however, we suggest taking full advantage of using oro-nasal breathing - i.e. just breathe with your mouth AND nose at the same time!
Chest Breathing Versus Diaphragmatic Breathing for Running
Similar to the concept of taking advantage of both your nose and your lungs to get oxygen to your working muscles, breathing into both your chest and belly will allow the greatest increase in lung volume, drawing in more oxygen-rich air.
Taking conscious control of your thoracoabdominal muscles to breath also reduces the impact loads on the soft tissues that get yanked around with the impact of running. Decreasing this torque on the diaphragm also results in less dreaded ‘side stitches’, known in the sports science world as exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP).
There are two main types of breathing exercises for running. There are breathing exercises that are done at rest to improve your breathing on your runs, and there are actual techniques to focus on and perhaps tweak your breathing when running. The following breathing tips for runners will incorporate both methods.
Focused Breathing Techniques During Running
- LRC ratios: The most widely used is the 2:1 pattern; this allows two steps for each breath in and two for each breath out. Try to strike your foot right as you start a breath, to assist ventilatory transition. Intermittently change your leading foot to avoid always landing on the same foot during transition, as this may result in increased injury risk on that side.
- Nasal breathing: Use this technique in lower intensity runs to humidify the air in cold temperatures, or to slow your breathing rate if you’re a beginner who gets puffed out easily.
- Belly breathing: While running, draw in your lower abdomen and focus on breathing into your upper belly followed by lifting your chest. This will help you get more oxygen while protecting against side stitches.
Inspiratory Muscle Training for Running
Training of the respiratory muscles has been shown to significantly increase performance and ventilatory efficiency.
Using an IMT device such as the Airofit provides resistance to your respiratory muscles by artificially narrowing the passage of air into and out of your lungs. Over time, this increases your respiratory muscle strength and endurance and reduces fatigue. See how it works here.
What About Asthma?
A subset of athletes who are more conscious of breathing while running are those with obstructive pulmonary conditions such as asthma. For these athletes, the breathing tips in this article should be preceded by these additional points:
- Avoid training in areas with environmental irritants such as allergens or pollution.
- Ensure proper adherence to medication guidelines and have any reliever medications on hand in case of an exacerbation event while training.
- Consult with your medical professional for any concerns regarding changes in your training that may affect your condition.
Set It and Forget It!
One important final tip. Research on motor control in endurance sports has revealed that the best physiological performance, measured by oxygen consumption, is achieved with an external focus of attention. Athletes who focused on their surroundings performed better than those who focused on their running technique OR their breathing.
So, take these tips, try them in training, and once you have the optimal balance, train it into an unconscious habit so you can focus on the environment and avoid fatigue.
We hope this article has helped you understand the science of breathing while running, and that the tips provided will help improve your performance.
Let us know your breathing tips for running below!