A Breath of Fresh Air

Toddlers do it 20-30 times per minute. Older children and adults usually do it 12-20 times per minute. So that’s 17,000-30,000 times per day!

And all without even thinking about it…

Breathing is one of the bodies most natural functions (along with other more unsavoury ones) so how come as runners we worry so much about it?

I can’t catch my breath when I first start to run

Firstly, don’t panic, it’s perfectly normal to feel out of puff when you set off. That’s because there’s a mismatch for a short time between the oxygen your legs require and the oxygen your heart and lungs are able to deliver. It takes a little time (anything from 2 to 10 minutes) for the body to respond to the muscles’ additional oxygen needs. This deficit causes you to breathe hard and your heart rate to go up. So don’t give up, particularly if you’re just starting out on your running life and have not yet broken that 10 minute goal! Keep going and your breathing pattern will start to settle down. You will also naturally start to breathe through your mouth.

The most important thing is not to worry about it…the more relaxed you are the more your chest, back and chest relax, and your lungs can fill to their fullest capacity. So as we’re always suggesting, try to run with someone and have a chat….it might just take your mind off the fact that you may be sounding like a steam train!

Getting out of breath when I’m training

There’s no getting away from it – pushing yourself harder, feeling your heart rate increase and getting out of breath on interval, hill and tempo runs can feel scary at first. But the fact is if we never push ourselves, we won’t get any fitter. The bottom line is that you are always in control. As we always remind people, it doesn’t matter where anyone else is or what they’re doing, but use that person in front of you (or hearing them hot on your heels!) to push yourself a little harder – you’ll know your own limits. Personally speaking though, I would probably let Usain Bolt go past in any interval session.

As you get towards the end of some of your long runs you might also feel your breaths becoming more frequent. This is because your muscles need more oxygen to help with the conversion of carbs (or fat) into energy. “At rest, your lungs will be taking in 10-12 litres of air per minute. When you run, depending on how big you are and how fast you’re running, this increases by four to eight times” says Alison McConnell, Professor of Exercise Science at Bournemouth University and author of Breathe Strong, Perform Better (Human Kinetics).

Remember that Jog On HELIUM BALLOON! Focus on good posture, run tall, keep your head up and relax those shoulders. A slumped posture can actually decrease your lung capacity. A good exhale can also really clear those lungs and make room for more oxygen, so try not to ‘panic breath’. More on that to follow…..

Rhythmic Breathing

The more air you inhale, the more oxygen is available to be transferred through your circulatory system to your working muscles.

There has been a vast amount written about foot strike in relation to breathing when running. The advice varies from always striking your same foot on the exhale, to exhaling whilst you’re striking on both the right and left foot, to always alternating heel strike on the exhale. See how it can get a little complicated?!

A study by Dennis Bramble, Ph.D., and David Carrier, Ph.D., of the University of Utah, explained that the greatest impact stress of running occurs when your footstrike coincides with the beginning of an exhalation. This means that if you begin to exhale every time your left foot hits the ground, the left side of your body will continually suffer the greatest running stress.

To expand on this point, Coates and Kowalchick (2013)recommend a longer inhale than exhale. Why the longer inhale? Your diaphragm and other breathing muscles contract during inhalation, which brings stability to your core. These same muscles relax during exhalation, decreasing stability. With the goal of injury prevention in mind, it’s best to hit the ground more often when your body is at its most stable—during inhalation. They suggest trying 5 count – inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two. It just might kill the art of conversation, so if you’re going to give it a whirl either let your running partner know, or try it on your own!

So what’s the best way to breath?

Breathing is a natural thing and doesn’t require a second thought, right? Or maybe it’s something we do need to practice…..

We can all agree that the more air we breathe, the more oxygen is available for our working muscles. It’s widely agreed that the majority of people only use the top third of their lung capacity when breathing. It stands to reason that if we practice a deeper kind of breathing, often referred to as ‘belly’ or ‘diaphragmatic’ breathing, it will help when we run. The other downside of breathing from your chest, apart from the diminished oxygen intake, is that the intercostal muscles in the chest are smaller and will fatigue more quickly than your diaphragm will. So to help maximise that expansion of those lungs and therefore the intake of air, it requires a little practice.

Here’s how to learn the technique:

·       Try lying down or sitting first

·       Place your palms lightly on the bottom of your ribs, with the tips of your fingers almost touching

·       Take a deep, slow inhalation through your nose, raising the belly, expanding the ribs out

·       You should feel the ribs move sideways and forward, and your abdomen bulge forward. Your fingertips will move apart

·       Lower your belly and allow your finger tips to meet again as you exhale (either through your nose or mouth)

and exhale


So being out of puff when we first start out on a run, or during some hard interval or hill training for example, is perfectly normal.  If there’s any additional chest tightness, coughing or wheezing however, please seek medical advice as this may be asthma, or a related medical condition.

Run tall and relaxed. Don’t forget that helium balloon or reaching for that high shelf for the gin/chocolate you’ve hidden. Run with others and have a chat – it helps in sooo many ways! Try counting steps and breaths if you want to give it a go – see what works for you, after all we’re all different. Practice a deeper type of breathing. If you don’t feel it helps when running, it can help with increasing your lung capacity generally and can be a great stress buster. Don’t worry about getting out of breath – this is a sign we’re strengthening our heart muscle and lungs, and therefore a way of getting fitter.

You are the boss (even if we like to think we are when we’ve got our whistles to hand!) and you are in control. Happy running everyone (phew….).