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How to Breathe When Running and Does It Really Matter?

Should you synchronise your breathing to your steps, and should you only breathe through your nose? The evidence so far says you’re probably best off doing what feels good to you.

In general, breathing is a subconscious action. But when it comes to running many athletes wonder how to breathe, and if there’s a right or wrong way to do so.

Running is an activity that can make athletes feel out of breath, so it’s a fair question to ask. Besides, a big part of your performance is dictated by how fast you can deliver oxygen to your muscles, so optimising breathwork is an interesting area to study.

Research over the past few decades has looked into different breathing patterns and the effect the might have on running performance. So far, there’s conflicting evidence about the benefits of changing the way you breathe and the effect this might have on performance.

How to Breathe When Running?

The question about how to breathe when running has been explored for decades, with studies looking into the synchronisation of breathing rate and stride rate, breathing patterns and performance, and the effects of changing the way you breathe while running.

The idea that there’s a “right” way to breathe persists to this day, with many coaches encouraging runners to focus on their breathing.

Before we get into the details of the areas of research, the evidence currently suggests that you’ll probably see bigger returns by focusing your energy in other areas of your training rather than trying to optimise your breathing.

Synchronised Breathing and Running

The breathing patterns of many animals (horses, fish or birds) are tied to their cadence, which means that, as they move, they contract and expand their breathing muscles and are forced to match their breathing in accordance.

Much like many animals, some athletes, both novice and experts and at slow and fast speeds, (subconsciously) synchronise their breathing rate to their cadence rate.

Numerous studies have explored whether synchronised breathing can make movement feel easier or burns less energy, with conflicting results.

Some studies suggest that this subconscious movement synchronisation improves movement efficiency, but others suggest that trying to force yourself to breathe at a certain rate does not, and can if fact have the opposite effects.

A 2018 study suggested that trying to consciously control your breathing can have very different effects than subconsciously letting your breathing rate adapt to your running rhythm. The study had runners focus their attention on a video, running form, or their breathing.

If found that when people focused on their form, their running economy decreased by 2.6 percent. Thinking about their breathing (which resulted in runners taking deeper breaths and significantly slowing their breathing rate) made them 4.2 percent less efficient.

Sometimes, it’s best to leave breathing to do it’s own thing.

Nasal Breathing and Running

Nasal breathing, which simply involves breathing only through your nose, can be beneficial for people running in polluted areas. The nose is an incredible system that acts as a filter to prevent toxic air particles penetrating our respiratory tract – something the mouth doesn’t do as efficiently.

In terms of performance benefits however, there’s very little evidence to prove that nasal breathing trumps over oral or oronasal breathing.

Nasal breathing aims to get the people who practice it comfortable with the feeling of being just short of breath. It achieves this through reducing the volume of each breath – trained through controlled pauses and maximum pauses in breathing – and is said to develop a tolerance for feeling “air hunger.”

However, while studies have cited benefits in regard to oxygen efficiency (how much movement your produce for a given amount of oxygen), a clear performance benefit from nasal breathing has not yet been found.

A 2017 study that researched the effects of nasal or oral breathing on anaerobic power output and metabolic responses recommends: “As breathing mode does not affect power output or performance measures during completion of a high-intensity anaerobic test, preference of the participant should be the determining factor if a choice is available.”

How to Really Breathe When Running

Breathing seems to be an aspect of running training that is mostly best left to happen subconsciously.

If you only started out with running, you’ll figure out your best breathing ratio through experience, trail and error and a variety of sessions that challenge your breathing patterns in different ways.

Humans are pretty good at picking the right breathing rate or style without thinking about it.  

When training in really high intensity, it’s easier to get lots of oxygen in by breathing through your mouth and nose, rather than either one on its own. You might need to do this depending on your training.

And if you find yourself gasping for air at the start of a run, the reason is far more likely to be because you started off too fast than because you’re breathing wrong.

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