Run. Breathe. Run. Breathe. It seems as natural as – well – breathing. But sometimes it just doesn’t seem to come easily and you wind up winded and having to stop running in order to catch your breath. Sound familiar?
Running – in fact any kind of exercise – requires oxygen. You see, energy is released to do work when the cells in our body consume simple sugars in the presence of oxygen. The more work you do, the more oxygen you need. Since there’s only about 20% oxygen in air, unless you want to carry supplemental oxygen like an Everest mountaineer, you have to move more air in and out of your lungs when you’re running. So what can you do to get more of that air in and out of your lungs without feeling like you’re climbing a mountain without supplemental oxygen?
First, you should get in the practice of keeping your head and chin up, with your shoulders back. This will help to keep your chest as open as possible. I’ve seen many runners heading down the trail with slouched shoulders, eyes directed down at the ground just a few feet ahead of them. This compresses the chest and can even inhibit airflow down the windpipe into the lungs. Maintaining good posture while running will not only feel better, but will increase your available lung volume. More lung volume equals more oxygen.
Next – when breathing – focus on breathing deep down into the abdomen. As babies, we were all ‘belly-breathers’ with our abdomens rising and falling deeply with each breath. Somehow, as we grow up, we started breathing primarily in the chest. This actually gives us less lung volume as air might not even reach the bottom of our lungs on every breath. Breathing deeply, focusing on moving your belly in and out on each breath will make even more lung volume accessible. In addition to increasing oxygen uptake, belly-breathing can help prevent cramps during running.
One question that is asked quite often is ‘how often should I breathe?’ It’s a great question and the answer is: it depends. It depends primarily on your perceived level of exertion (LOE). LOE is a subjective scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the level of exertion required for sitting on the couch and 10 is full-out, everything you’ve got. A 10 LOE is not sustainable for more than 1-3 minutes.
For much of your running, you should be breathing on a 2:2 ratio, which is to say that you take two steps while inhaling, and 2 steps to exhale. At this pace and level of exertion, you might be able to talk, but your conversation will be made up of a lot of single syllable words, and broken up as you catch your breath.
During long slow runs or easy runs, a 3:3 ratio is more appropriate. That is inhale over 3 steps and exhale over 3 steps. At this ratio, you’ll be able to carry on a conversation with another runner – or on a cell phone if you’re running connected. This breathing pattern is appropriate for those who are running for fitness or weight loss, as the LOE is consistent with aerobic activity. Even a 4:4 ratio can be suitable for low LOE training.
At a very fast pace – say during interval or hill training – you might move to a 1:1 ratio where you are breathing in and out with every step you take. This breathing pattern is only for very high LOE activities and is not sustainable for much longer than 3 minutes.
Should you breathe through your nose or your mouth? Some recommend breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. This is a good approach for easy runs, where you want to maintain a low LOE. Breathing in through the nose is calming and helps to maintain a low heart rate. However, as you increase the pace, it will become impossible to maintain this pattern. During higher intensity runs, I usually inhale and exhale through both my nose and mouth. This gives me the maximum capability for moving air and fueling my body.
Try these tips. If you’re still having difficulty managing your breathing, you may be running too hard on too many of your runs. Back off the pace, learn to manage your breathing and you’ll have more enjoyment from your running. If you still find breath management challenging, consider hiring a running coach or trainer to work with you directly while you master this new skill. This hasn’t always come naturally to all runners, and you might be surprised to learn that most seasoned runners have had to spend at least some time learning to manage their breathing.
Jim Oldfield helps non-runners become runners. Like many, he was conditioned to believe he couldn’t run. Today, he runs for fitness and health and enjoys sharing the gifts of running with others. He writes about running for fitness, running for weight loss and running just to feel good. Go to http://runningiseasy.com for a FREE mini-course and discover the best success tips for beginning runners.