With Every Breath

Breathing is something most of us do without giving it much thought.

When running, your breath obviously can become a much more conscious thing, especially when you put the foot down and push the limits of your fitness.

I’ve been asked plenty of times about how you should breathe when you run and I don’t think I’ve ever really given a very good answer. I thought about why that may be and realized that it is probably because personally don’t focus on my breathing. I just let it relax and do whatever it needs to do. This however wasn’t always the case and thinking back to when I started running, my breathing was very much in the forefront of my mind.

So, with some prompting from my readers and some overdue pondering from me, here are my suggestions, tips and ideas on how to breathe when running.

In for 3 steps, out for 3 steps, or should it be in for 2 seconds – hold – out for 2 seconds?

Whatever pattern you decide to follow, it will go out the window the second you hit that first hill.

Breathing in a set pattern however, may have some real benefits if you can make it work for you.


If your running course is reasonably flat and you can maintain a fairly constant effort, a breathing pattern can help you ensure that your breathing cycle and oxygen exchange is efficient. The other benefit is that it can help you get into “THE ZONE”. You know, those times when you are running and your mind and your body seem to go into a semi-trance and it all just happens without you having to force it.  Breathing techniques are used widely in Martial Arts, Yoga and other meditation based practices for the purpose of focusing the mind, deepening the state of relaxation and oxygenating the body’s cells. It holds true that effective breathing can dramatically improve your experience of running.

While I don’t necessarily focus on my breathing too much, I have spent about two thirds of my life studying and teaching Martial Arts, which forced me to learn how to control my breathing, so this has no doubt been a big influence for me. Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend decades in a dojo to be able to run without hyperventilating, but there certainly are some things you might like to consider when it comes to how you can make your engine hum along a little easier.

When I’m coaching or writing training programs for people, I often prescribe a particular intensity for them to run at. This generally falls into one of three categories. These being: Easy Run, Moderate Run or Hard Run. Your Easy Run is the standard pace for your weekend long run. For this, the effort should be comfortable enough to hold a conversation. If you are breathing too hard to talk, you are running too hard. You may not be able to talk non-stop, but your breathing should be relaxed enough that you can talk without needing to pause often.

For Moderate Runs your breathing will be a bit faster but speaking should be possible for a few words at a time. Your breathing should be able to be heard by someone that is running along next to you. If it can’t, you may be breathing too shallowly.

Hard Runs require an effort somewhere near the top of your capacity. You are not likely to be able to hold a conversation that requires more than a grunt or perhaps a “sorry!” as you accidently cut someone off.  Your breathing will be short, fast and audible.

This takes care of breathing intensity, but what about pattern?

Some research that came out of the University of Utah suggests that our breathing pattern may actually be the cause for many running injuries relating to poor form or technique. The researchers (Bramble and Carrier) say that if we breathe in a rhythm that continuously has the exhalation starting at the same time that a particular foot strikes the ground, that we are going to create injury. The explanation for this is that when we begin the exhalation or out-breath, our core muscles are relaxed and thus create an unstable pelvis and lower back. If this happens for example, every time our left foot hits the ground (which will load your body with at least 2-3 times your body weight), we will continuously overload the structures on that side of the body due to the poor core stability. Their suggestion for overcoming this problem is to breathe in a pattern that is out of synch with your gait. For example, breathe in for 3 steps and breathe out for 2 steps. This means that you will constantly alternate the foot you are landing on at the start of your exhalation. This will serve to half the stress being placed on each side of your body.

If you need to run faster, the breathing pattern could change to breathe in for 2 steps and out for 1 step. Or even in for 2 steps, out for one step, in for one step, out for one step, then back to in for 2 steps, out for one step, etc. This will allow your breathing rate to increase to a pace that fits with a faster running cadence.

What if you are someone that just gets puffed way too easily?

It may be that your respiratory muscles aren’t as efficient or as strong as they could be. To improve this, try running every now and then at an easy pace with your mouth shut. Just breathing through your nose forces your respiratory muscles to work harder to get the required amount of air in. You may need to run slower to begin with or only use the nose breathing for short periods at a time, but as a training technique, it can give you a taste of what it would be like running at altitude where getting enough oxygen into your system is difficult.

Another alternative would be to run with a Buff™ or similar over your mouth so that you have to literally suck the air in through the cloth. This forces your body to better utilize the oxygen that you do get in.

This technique is not something you may like to try if you are running a hard session, nor is it something you would want to push too hard if you are an Asthmatic. If used well, it will however serve as a great tool to strengthen your heart and lungs.

If you head out for a run one day and you suddenly find it more difficult to breathe comfortably, It may be that you are in the early stages of getting a Cold and your respiratory pathways are restricted. Alternatively it may be that the muscles you use to help you breath are particularly tight from coughing or from other forms of exercise that may have overworked them. Massage and Vacuum Cupping Therapy will often resolve this issue.

One more bit of advice, particularly for beginners, is to just let your breathing happen.

I see too many people trying not to breathe too hard or too loud due to being self conscious or not wanting to sound out of breath. Well, that’s a surefire way to get out of breath. Your breathing rate is triggered by the amount of carbon dioxide in your body. If you feel the urge to breathe harder or faster, it is because your body needs to get rid of some of that CO2. Let it happen. When exhaling, remember also to open and relax your mouth so that you aren’t restricting the movement of air out of your mouth. This will only slow down the elimination of that CO2. As your fitness improves and your respiratory system strengthens, your breathing rate will naturally decrease anyway.

Above all else, remember that your breathing serves a purpose. Particularly for distance runners, we spend a lot of our time operating in aerobic mode where oxygen is essentially the most important ingredient in the process of our energy production. Test and experiment with these ideas to find what works for you. But if it all gets too stressful, just remember to take a deep breath and…


Run long,


Shaun Brewster.

Leave A Reply (1 comment so far)

  1. Christina
    4 years ago

    Great topic and something I have been wondering about lately. I have a question about maybe (or maybe not) not breathing fast enough. If I am running at what I believe is my 5km race pace, my heart rate shows I\’m working (high 170s/low 180s, max is 190), but if I breathe any quicker than 3 in and 3/2 out I feel like i\’m hyperventilating. Is this limiting my performance, and is breathing faster something I should try get used to and may help speed endurance? Or is it a matter of everyone being different and just not over think it?

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