I am often asked about the best way to breathe when you run. Should you breathe through the nose or the mouth? Should the breaths be long and deep or short and rapid? To be honest I have not paid all that much attention to breathing while running. Through the forums over at the Barefoot Runners Society I found myself in the midst of a few discussions about running and breathing, which led me to consider the subject more than I ever really thought I would, and I thought it a good idea to share.
For me personally breathing has always been easy. I guess I have been running so long that I developed a great comfort and control of my breathing so I have not paid much attention to it. The funny thing about that statement is without being fully aware of it I preach and teach breathing all the time to my clients. I’ve spent years studying and testing the body and how it uses oxygen for exercise performance. When I’m on a run with a client I will almost always at some point tell them to get their breathing under control. I will hear them taking short, choppy breaths, and I will cue them to take a deep breath and get their lungs under control. I do this because I know that short, hard breaths mean they are laboring, and a good deep breath will help get them calmed down and allow efficiency to reenter the picture.
With all that said my typical answer to the question, “How should I breathe when I work out or run?” is almost always, “Do you pass out when you do either of those? If not, then don’t worry about it.” My rationale comes from an old coach I had back in high school. His answer for when to breathe while lifting was to not worry about it unless you are passing out. If you pass out while lifting, then you need to breathe more, and if you don’t then you’re breathing just fine. I know it’s a simplistic view, but there is some truth to it. The premise is that you might be over-thinking things and just need to do the work without thinking so much. The real truth is that you can benefit a lot from paying attention to your breathing, and I have somewhat misled people all these years with my short and “smart” answer. Anyone that I work with realizes pretty quickly that I put an emphasis on breathing, even if I don’t realize I’m doing it.
For me, it’s easy. If I start to feel like I’m laboring, or if I feel my heart rate rise, I will take a deep breath and fill my lungs, hold for a second, and exhale fully. In that short instance, I will feel my breathing strengthen, my heart rate drop, and my effort level go down as my efficiency rises. For me it’s simple, but what I did not pay enough attention to is that it is not so easy for others. Why not, though? Why can’t everyone just learn to take a deep breath and calm it all down when they are out on a hard run? The answers more than likely are connected to lifestyle and education. Yoga can be a great teacher of understanding your breathing and its powers. I’ve done Yoga for years and never once paid attention to my breathing while doing it. I have been missing out. I always passed it off as some Yogi hocus pocus and figured if I just did the poses I would get what I needed from it. I recently read a great article about breathing and applied some of the techniques it taught in a 30 minute session of Yoga. Wow, was it more intense! I was fairly amazed out how different things were when I took the instructor’s cues on breathing while holding my poses. There is something to be said for purpose-driven breathing after all.
I then took those tips out on a run and quickly found myself hyperventilating. I went back to my old pattern of taking a deep breath and got under control. I then tried to follow the advice again and found myself light-headed. Why would the advice be so helpful to my efforts in Yoga but not in running? I tried on a couple of occasions along that run and had zero luck. I went back, reread the article, and tried again the next day with the same results. I wondered how the breathing advice in the article could help the author run so much more efficiently, but it made me nearly pass out from lack of oxygen. The answer for me is that I already breathe properly when running. My breathing is deep and through my diaphragm when I run. My deep “centering” breaths are proper and help me control my heart rate because I am breathing the right way when I run. When I focused on it and tried to do what the article said, I was actually messing my breathing up, and it yielded terrible results. In a weird way I now know what the average person feels when they can’t figure out how to breathe properly out on a run. This experience and new knowledge has already helped me with my clients in terms of knowing how to better coach them on breathing. Gone are the days that I take breathing so lightly in conversation, and telling people they are good as long as they don’t pass out will never happen again.
You can and will gain a lot from controlling your breathing while running and in your everyday life. So how do you do it? What is the right way to breathe? I would tell you, but I would only be stealing my friend’s thunder. Instead of hearing it from me I will let you hear it from the source that helped me better understand my own breathing deficiencies.
The link above is to an article written by NakedSoleNate, a member of the BRS and a very proficient breather through his years of practice in Yoga and Kung Fu. It’s a short and quick read that I know you will enjoy as well as learn a lot from if you’ve ever had trouble controlling your breathing out on a run. So go give it a read and let me know what you think.