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What to Know About Breathing When Running

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on June 23, 2021

Most people take breathing for granted. We don’t usually have to think about breathing because our bodies do it automatically. But learning to breathe properly can be useful when you’re exercising. It can increase your endurance and help your heart to pump oxygen-filled blood to your working muscles.   

How Your Lungs Work

Your lungs are a major part of your body’s respiratory system. We inhale oxygen and exhale a gas called carbon dioxide. The oxygen you breathe goes into your lungs and is sent out into your blood. From there, the heart pumps your blood into the rest of your body through blood vessels called arteries. ‌

This oxygen-filled blood replaces blood that’s filled with carbon dioxide in your body’s cells. The carbon dioxide-filled blood makes its way back to your lungs where it can be refreshed with oxygen, and the process repeats itself. 

Your muscles need more oxygen when you exercise. It’s normal for your breath and heart rate to increase when you’re running or doing a lot of exercise. Activities that increase your heart and breathing rate may be called cardiovascular exercise. The increased rate helps your body to meet the demands of your exercise. 

How Breathing Affects Your Body During Exercise

It’s common for people to get out of breath while running or doing cardiovascular exercise. Learning how to breathe properly during exercise can increase your stamina and help you get better results in the long term. This is especially true for aerobic activities like running. ‌

Most breathing techniques involve an important muscle called the diaphragm. Your diaphragm is a large, flat, dome-shaped muscle located under your lungs. It separates your chest muscles from your stomach. When you inhale and fill your lungs with oxygen, your diaphragm contracts, or flattens. As you exhale, it returns to its dome-like shape. 

You might not reach your full exercise potential if you don’t practice breathing with your diaphragm. Poor breathing may also lead to cramps.‌

Other factors, like poor posture, can affect the amount of oxygen you take in while exercising. It’s important to keep your body in the right position during any exercise. 

Breathing Tips for Runners

Before you run, practice breathing with your diaphragm. This is also known as belly breathing. You might like to organize your breathing to fall in rhythm with your footfalls while you're running. But you might still get a cramp if you aren’t using your diaphragm. 

You can perform this diaphragm breathing exercise lying down comfortably or sitting up: 

  1. To start, place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand just below your rib cage. 
  2. Slowly breathe in through your nose so that you feel your stomach expand against your hand. Try not to move your hand against your chest. 
  3. Bring your lips together tightly so they form a rounded shape. This is called pursing your lips. Breathe out through pursed lips as your stomach muscles tighten and flatten. 

Once you become comfortable with diaphragmatic breathing, use it next time you go for a run. Follow a breathing pattern that's in time with your footstrikes. It can help keep you stabilized and divert some of the force of impact caused by running. ‌

You can use a 5-step or 3-step pattern while running. Which pattern you use depends on your speed. ‌

Five-step pattern. Use a 5-step pattern when you’re running or jogging at a moderate pace. You’ll take three steps as you inhale and two steps as you exhale (3:2).  ‌

Three-step pattern. As you pick up the pace, transition to a 3-step pattern. Inhale for two steps, exhale for one step (2:1). 

Exercising With a Lung Condition

Some medical conditions can restrict your ability to breathe freely, and create difficulties when you exercise. In these cases, regular exercise is important as it can help improve symptoms. But always talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program. ‌

Asthma. Most people with asthma can exercise efficiently if their symptoms are well-managed. Your doctor might prescribe an inhaler containing steroids to help manage any symptoms. Some people with asthma go on to become athletes. ‌

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a chronic disease caused by inflammation in your lungs. Your airways can become damaged. Try slowly breathing out through pursed lips to help you control your breath more effectively. ‌

Lung Fibrosis. This means your lung tissues are scarred or stiff. People who suffer from lung fibrosis often have a hard time reaching full lung expansion. Taking slow breaths can help you while you exercise. Talk to your doctor to find out more about exercising in your individual case. 

How to Start an Exercise Program

Warm up. Start by warming up the muscle groups you plan to use. Use movements that involve those muscle groups and increase the pace as you feel your body temperature rise. 

Stretch. Stretching your warm muscles will improve flexibility. 

Build your stamina. Start slow, and increase the intensity over time. You might find that you can push yourself to run or walk a little farther each time you exercise. It’s normal to get out of breath, but don’t push yourself too far until your stamina increases. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

‌American Lung Association: “Breathing Basics for Runners,” “How Lungs Work.”

Breathe: “Your lungs and exercise.”

‌Cleveland Clinic: “Diaphragmatic Breathing.”

‌Healthy Kids Running Series: “3 Breathing Techniques To Help You Avoid Side Cramps While Running.”

Physiotherapy Theory and Practice: “A comparison of tidal volume, breathing frequency, and minute ventilation between two sitting postures in healthy adults.”

‌University of Delaware: “BMEG442: Engineering Exercise and Sports.”

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