Many runners struggle with breathing. Yet, breathing while running gets little attention. I’m not sure why because in my experience many runners experience breathing difficulties.
I’ve often heard,
“I struggle to breathe throughout my run.”
“Breathing is my biggest challenge.”
“I feel like I’m breathing through a straw!”
The good news is that over time, most runners are able to solve their breathing problems, although, not necessarily without some aggravation, and sometimes more is needed than modifications in training, time, or technique.
I’ll try to impart, here, what I have learned, as well as the advice of a friend of mine, Milt Bedingfield. Milt has a degree in exercise physiology, and at my request he recently wrote a guest article for my blog about this very problem.
Over the years, many runners have told me that breathing issues are the greatest obstacle for them. Hopefully, we can answer some critical questions here.
There is no magic pill here; however, if you feel that you are not able to suck in enough air, if you feel you have respiratory limitations, here are some things you can try, and one or all of these ideas may help. Of course, first rule out medical issues as well as the issues Milt mentions below my comments.
1. Perhaps the most important consideration is to breathe through your mouth or mouth and nose. Yes, I know, you may have heard exactly the opposite, but that is an outdated idea. When I was in school, they always told us to only breathe through our nose when we ran in P.E. Those were the same coaches that would not allow us to drink water during or after P. E. because it would “cause abdominal cramps.” How incorrect was that? Turns out cramps are often caused y dehydration. So, they were telling us the exact opposite of the correct thing to do. The instruction to breathe only through your nose is just as foolish In fact, MOST people who try to do that will have great difficulty. So, do not strive to breathe only through your nose. Think about it. Your lungs don’t care where you get the air!
2. Make sure there is a rhythm to your breathing. Some people will breathe by inhaling for two foot strikes and exhaling for two foot strikes. It could be 3/3, 3/2, 2/3. Experiment to determine what works best for you, but do work towards some way of getting your breathing in sync with your strides. This will help you relax, too.
3. Breathe from your abdomen. To work on this, pay attention to where you’re breathing from. Many people only breathe from their chest. When relaxing at home, lie on the floor or a couch and watch your chest and abdomen. Practice using your abdomen to breathe, just as singers do. That should help.
4. Practice deep breathing when you are at home lying down. Inhale as deeply as possible and exhale fully. In yoga classes this is called a deep cleansing breath. Will that help with running? I’m not sure. Most runners try several things – everything they can think of – to improve their breathing. Something or everything helps, but it’s difficult to determine whether one single thing made a difference or not.
5. Work on your posture. Make sure you’re carrying your head high, and shoulders back. That will open up your chest to provide the easiest posture for breathing. I highly recommend a deep tissue massage to help with this. Tell the massage therapist that you struggle to breath when you run, and you want them to make sure your abdomen, chest, back, and shoulders are nice and loose to facilitate breathing.
6. Related to posture, another element of form that will make a difference is the way you carry your arms. Many people keep their arms in front of their body and only move them slightly. You need to be sure to keep your arms at a 90% angle – or slightly less – and make sure to pull your elbows back past your body. Make sure your arms are relaxed and swinging easily with your shoulder as the fulcrum and be sure the swing is forward to back. This relaxed functional arm swing when combined with low shoulders and a high chest will be conducive to breathing.
7. Try swimming. Seriously, think about it. There is no other exercise that restricts you to breathing at certain times; therefore, if you spend time swimming, it will improve your lung capacity and your respiratory function, and that just might improve your breathing while running. It certainly cannot hurt, and swimming is excellent cross training, anyway.
8. Warming up. Milt mentions this below. Anybody, even a highly trained athlete, will huff and puff and struggle to breathe if starting off running at a faster pace than would be considered a warm-up pace for that person. For a newer runner, a warm up pace would be a walk/run, and for a beginner runner, a warm up definitely needs to be a walk. The slower, more gently you warm up, the more comfortably you’ll breathe during your run. Sometimes, I find that beginning runners just assume they should be able to breathe comfortably right off the bat, but here is the thing: For them, any running is demanding. Running at all for them is like running hard for a veteran runner. But don’t get me wrong, every runner of every level needs a thorough warm-up, for a wide variety of reasons.
9. Maybe the issue is really endurance. More often than not, this is the problem. Sometimes when I work with a runner who complains of struggling with breathing, it turns out that the main problem is that the individual just needs to build more endurance. The person has not developed different paces and is running fast enough to be in oxygen debt all the time. A new runner often has just two speeds, walking and running. Because any running is taxing, they very quickly start to struggle with breathing. The best course of action is to start with a one-mile warm up, then do a walk/run for the rest of the workout. Maybe, next do a mile of one minute walking and one minute running. Then do one minute walking and two minutes running and continue to build that way but stopping before ever running enough to huff and puff. In this way it is possible to gradually build the necessary endurance that will likely prevent what the running considered a ‘breathing problem’ which was in fact, an endurance problem.
The great majority of runners will find that doing a better warm up, building endurance, breathing through their mouth, and improving their running posture will cure their breathing problem.
Now, here are Milt’s comments as regards breathing:
Milt points out, and wisely so, that if you have trouble catching your breath or have shortness of breath, the first thing to do is get checked out by a physician to rule out any health issue that might be causing it. One thing your physician will evaluate is whether you could have exercise-induced asthma. If that turns out to be the case, it shouldn’t stop you from running. WebMD provides a list of Olympians who competed despite having asthma. Runner Jackie Joiner Kersee is one of them as well as NBA star Dennis Rodman. So, be sure to get checked out.
Assuming there is no medical reason, Milt offers these possible explanations:
1. You may be starting out too fast and getting into “oxygen debt.” Failure to properly warm-up can “…result in the inability of your aerobic system to ramp up in time to provide adequate energy for your working muscle cells.” This can cause “…breathing to become more rapid but shallow, leaving you feeling breathless and panting.”
2. Running too soon after a meal may be another problem. “Seventy percent of your blood volume is shifted to your gut area after eating,” leaving little blood to “…deliver oxygen, nutrients and energy to the muscles being used when you try to run.”
3. Running in hot weather can have the same effect. “When temperatures are high and your body heats up, large amounts of blood, that under much cooler conditions circulates through the lungs and muscular system, leaves the main circulatory system and travels through very small blood vessels under the surface of the skin,” to cool the body. Again, this diverts blood away from the muscles, resulting in less oxygen being delivered, causing “aerobic metabolism (without oxygen) and the production of lactic acid. When lactic acid accumulates in the blood, it causes rapid and shallow breathing.
4. The early stages of an upper respiratory infection can be a cause, exposure to cigarette smoke, or over training.
Okay, between the two of us, I think we have presented a comprehensive piece of information here.Please let me know if these comments have helped and if they’ve triggered any questions.
Learn more about exercise-induced asthma here: “Exercise-Induced Asthma“