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Aug 04, 2007

Proper Breathing for Runners

by elgerdh

www.runningforums.com Forum Index -> Articles archive

According to the text Physiology of Sport and Exercise by Wilmore and Costill the need to breathe increases in direct proportion to the intensity of work. A mild workload such as brisk walking prompts expansion of the lungs and deeper breathing. As the work becomes more difficult, the rate of breathing also increases.  Like when you start running. 

With the exception of conditions such as asthma, breathing should not limit your ability to run or perform exercise, even at hard efforts. The volume of air entering the lungs is not the problem; it is the body’s inability to extract and use enough oxygen to meet the increased demand that causes you to be out of breath (inspired air contains roughly 20% oxygen while expired air has about 16%).

Many beginning runners have been misled to believe that the proper way to breathe is to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. While it is true that air is dryer and cooler when inhaled through the mouth, this should not pose a problem unless you are prone to exercise induced asthma.

I call this nose breathing technique self-induced asthma, since inhaling through the nose severely limits the volume of air that can be delivered to the lungs. I suspect this technique has a negative impact on running performance similar to asthma, particularly as speed increases.

Runners should be inhaling and exhaling through both nose AND mouth to a set pattern or rhythm. According to Jack Daniels, a well-respected coach and author of Daniels Running Formula, most elite runners breathe to a 2-2 rhythm. They breathe in while taking 2 steps and out while taking 2 steps. At an easy pace they may switch to a 3-3 rhythm.

2-2 breathing rhythm

Left foot- begin exhale
Right foot- continue exhale
Left foot- begin inhale
Right foot- continue inhale

One problem with this approach is the habit of always inhaling or exhaling on the same footfall, which some experts and coaches believe could be one explanation for side stitches. If you are one of those unfortunate runners prone to side aches, consider periodically switching which footfall you exhale on, or even change your breathing rhythm to exhale on alternating right and left footfalls. That gets a little tricky since you’ll have to adapt an uneven 3-2 or 4-3 breathing pattern (breathing out for more counts than breathing in).

3-2 breathing rhythm

Left foot- begin inhale
Right foot- continue inhale
Left foot- begin exhale
Right foot- continue exhale
Left foot - continue exhale
Right foot- begin inhale

According to DePaul University Track Coach Bill Leach, uneven breathing cycles are effective because pressure in the lung is lower than the atmosphere, causing air to rush in quickly. You’ll want to take a little longer to exhale, since leaving residual carbon dioxide in the lungs can impede the delivery of oxygen on the next inhale.

It will help if you practice your breathing pattern while walking before you start running. Carry the technique over to easy jogging and finally during hard race pace running.

Before long your new breathing pattern will become second nature during races and hard training sessions.

written by Dave Elger, co-owner of the Wasatch Altitude Training Center, Mountain Green, Utah

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Article sources
  • Costill and Wilmore. Physiology of Sport and Exercise, Human Kinetics, 2nd edition, 1999. Jack Daniels. Daniels Running Formula, Human Kinetics, 2005.





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