Every morning in Africa a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're a lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Every Runner's Problem: How to Breathe

I know how it feels to be gasping for air and feel like your throat has turned into a straw filled with cement. I have PVCD (Paradoxical Vocal Cord Dysfunction). Its a big long name meaning that when I get stressed (i.e. breathe hard...) my vocal cords close and have spasms instead of open wider so I can breathe. My throat really does become a tiny little straw. Fortunately for me, PVCD is fully controllable. I have learned breathing techniques and relaxation skills that have made it so this is pretty much not a problem anymore. SO when I say I know how you feel, I really do.

Let's talk about how to breathe while running. It really is something you need to practice to get good at. A common myth people believe is that you are supposed to breathe through your nose and out your mouth. I don't know a single runner who does this. Breathe through your mouth!! You can get way more air!

Here's a few more quick facts before we get into the meaty stuff:
  • You can only run as fast as your level of breathing can support
  • Because carbon dioxide (CO2) is many times more soluble than oxygen (O2) in the lungs, the exhale is the key to efficient breathing
  • Rhythmic breathing, coordinated with the entire stride cycle, provides an exceptionally effective focus of awareness when running at all levels of effort

The most helpful thing for me when learning how to breathe was to focus on the exhalation factor. CO2 being more soluble than O2 means that it will "attach" to your red blood cells easier than oxygen will. You don't want that to happen. If your red blood cells are carrying CO2 to your muscles and body it isn't going to benefit you at all. Think about really exhaling all your old air before breathing in again. We tend to focus too much on the breathing in factor, when really the breathing out is just as, or more, important. A good way to practice this (as well as get some chuckles from your running buddies) is the "grunt factor". As you breathe out really hard you may make a grunting sound....That's okay! It is helpful to try the "grunt factor" a few times to teach or remind yourself to breathe out all your old air. (However, I do tend to find that if I grunt a lot I end up getting side stitches, so every thing with moderation).

"I am convinced that effective breathing is the necessary glue that holds your running style together. Breathing is the corner stone of building the foundation for efficient running."                                                                                                    -Dr. Tom Miller

You need to teach your body to belly breathe. As I was learning how to breathe more efficiently I realized I usually try to keep my stomach sucked in, you know, to look skinnier. We all do it, admit it. That means that we end up breathing shallowly, high in our chest. We need to learn to breathe deeply. Practice big deep breaths and watch or feel your stomach rise and fall. My coach had me "practice" this deep belly breathing for at least five minutes every single day. I can't even begin to tell you how much it's helped me. I strongly suggest you try it. It will teach your diaphragm to breathe this way without having to concentrate on it so much. Your next run will be so much easier as you begin to incorporate this concept.

The last thing I will focus on is developing a breathing pattern. Rhythmic exhales, coordinated with foot falls are the heart of each. Patterns that promote exhales on each side alternately seem to promote a faster turn over rate and reduce the incidence of side stitches. I personally do not follow this advice, though it is good. I find that I need to breathe more often than every third footstep. My pattern is every other foot fall I breathe in, then breathe out (so 2 footsteps in, 2 footsteps out). Other good patterns include 3-steps breathing in, 3-steps breathing out or 3-steps in and 2-steps sharply/quickly out. You need to experiment and decide which pattern works best for you.

A few more general guidelines....Focus on keeping your shoulders relaxed. As soon as you tense your shoulders, your arms become stiff and your breathing gets more labored. Stay relaxed. Breathe deeply. Listen to your breathing and make it consistent.

Try these things out and remember to practice breathing every day! Comment and let me know if this is helpful at all!

I must give credit where it is due. I used quotes and ideas from an article my coach gave me years ago. It was written by Dr. Tom Miller. I cannot find it's source on the internet, so it must be out of print.


  1. Well this would have been helpful to know 5 years ago! haha breathing is my main issue with running!

  2. I too struggle with breathing and think this is why I can not up my mileage. I will be testing these out on my next run!


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