Why is it so Hard to Breath When I Run? Tips for Better Breathing

Why is it so Hard to Breath When I Run? 4 Tips for Better Breathing

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If you can’t breath when you run, you are not alone. Breathing effectively can be tough for even the most seasoned runners. And like most things in running, there are no simple answers. There are all kinds of tips, tricks and advice out there about how you can improve your breathing, but until you experimented with different techniques, you’ll never know which works best for you. Everybody is different and reacts differently to the stress running puts of our bodies, so it’s hard to say with accuracy what works and what doesn’t - you just have to take the advice floating around out there from experts and other runners and experiment until you find what makes you feel best.

As someone who ran competitively for many years, it’s frustrating to me when I read forums and articles that say things like “if you breath this way, you will feel better.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried breathing a certain way, or eating something, or adjusting my stride as advised by a coach, online article or other source only to find that it made me more uncomfortable or fatigued.

So in this article, I’m not going to tell you how you should breathe. But, I am going to talk about different breathing techniques and strategies that I, and many others, have tried so that you can gather information, hit the pavement and experiment until you find what really works for you.

First and foremost, you should identify whether or not your shortness of breath is a health hazard (I've linked to an article from Medicine.net that shows the symptoms) . If you literally cannot get air to enter your lungs and have to stop moving completely to recover your breath, you may be suffering from athletic-induced asthma. Even if you don’t think you have asthma or have never experienced symptoms of asthma in your life, this common condition can develop at any time, even if you have been running for years or are in excellent shape. I experienced this condition as a high school senior, after I had already been running long distance for several years and believed I was in the best shape of my life. If you think you are suffering from athletic-induced asthma, see a doctor. They will usually prescribe an inhaler that can be used before or during exercise. I’ve also found that taking oxygen supplements (linked to softgels on Amazon) helps alleviate the feeling of shortness of breath when taken before exercise.

On the other hand, if you can get air to enter your lungs but just feel extremely tired, welcome to running. Here are some tips to help you cope with the worst part of this sport.

Nose vs. Mouth Breathing

A lot of people say you should always breathe through your mouth when you run. They claim that breathing through your mouth is more effective for delivering oxygen to your muscles than breathing through your nose. While this often becomes automatic when you are fatigued, they say that it’s important to always remember to breathe through your mouth even when you are jogging or lightly running.

That’s all fine and probably true, but I personally cannot do this. I have tried and I simply can’t. I breath through my mouth naturally when I start to push myself, but on casual runs, I just can’t. My throat gets dry, I’ve swallowed bugs, and it just feels uncomfortable to me. Breathing through my nose when I’m jogging makes me feel relaxed and able to focus on why I like to run in the first place - mental and physical health. Not feeling like dying. Anyway, try the mouth technique, it seems to work for many, many people and may make breathing while running feel easier. If it feels like you have to force it and you find yourself naturally returning to nose-breathing when you aren’t thinking about it, then let it go.

Chest vs. Belly Breathing

The point of this little debate is to avoid shallow breathing. Shallow breathing is often described as “chest breathing” or breathing deeply into your lungs so that the rise and fall of your breath is in your chest. You can achieve a deeper breath by practicing “belly breathing” or concentrating the rise and fall of your breath in your abdomen. This is a common practice among singers, so that they can hit those looong notes without losing their breath. Chest breathing is considered a weak form of breathing because it’s too shallow to bring in maximal oxygen and doesn’t fully expel your lungs when you exhale. Shallow breathing is usually the cause of cramps, which occur when your muscles aren’t receiving enough oxygen. Try this technique when you get a side stitch or fany other type of cramp/tightness. You can also try it before exercising. Make ten deep belly breaths part of your pre-run stretching or warm-up routine to help prepare your muscles for the run.

A solution to dry mouth/throat

Dry mouth/throat is a common complaint that runners have when they try to breath through their mouth or breath deeply during running. This especially becomes a problem when the weather cools down or the air is particularly dry. An easy fix to this problem is to chew gum or suck on a hard candy. This will help generate saliva to reduce dryness. You can also suck on a small rock or pebble if you want the effect to last without having to chew - just make sure you wash it first and that you don’t swallow it! Tuck a hard candy or pebble under your tongue to keep it in place if you run with your mouth open.

Rhythm Breathing

Dry mouth/throat is a common complaint that runners have when they try to breath through their mouth or breath deeply during running. This especially becomes a problem when the weather cools down or the air is particularly dry. An easy fix to this problem is to chew gum or suck on a hard candy. This will help generate saliva to reduce dryness. You can also suck on a small rock or pebble if you want the effect to last without having to chew - just make sure you wash it first and that you don’t swallow it! Tuck a hard candy or pebble under your tongue to keep it in place if you run with your mouth open.

If there’s one thing that I have always enjoyed about running, and kept me motivated to keep doing it, it’s mental clarity. I love that it presents the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, think through some problems and relieve stress. This is why I both love and hate rhythm breathing.

On one hand, keeping track of your step to breath ratio can be annoying and make running feel the like the opposite of freedom - it can make it feel dull and calculated. Any yet so many people swear by breathing in rhythm, some even find it to be natural. While it can be a bit of annoying habit to keep track of, it does have many benefits, including reduction of side stitches, a great pacing technique, and can even help you reach a meditative state where running feels blissful and serene. I’ve found that when you get the hand of rhythm breathing it starts to feel more natural and less calculated, and can help you achieve a state where the mental benefits of running really kick in. I love this excerpt from a Runner’s World article “Running on Air,” on the topic of rhythmic breathing as a meditation technique:

“Rhythmic breathing creates a pathway to a deep centeredness. Practitioners of every style of yoga, martial arts, relaxation, and meditation use breath work to connect mind, body, and spirit. In the martial arts, this inner connection and centeredness allows more immediate and precise control of the physical body. The same can be accomplished in running through rhythmic breathing. You achieve centeredness first by focusing your mind on fitting your breathing to an optimal footstrike pattern. Then your awareness of breathing links mind and body and creates a smooth pathway to gauging the effort of running. Rhythmic breathing helps you feel your running, and that ability to feel your running allows you immediate and precise control.”

This state isn’t always easy to achieve, but many runners find they can access it easily through the practice of rhythmic breathing. In addition, rhythmic breathing can greatly reduce the frequency of cramps or side stitches, as it helps you center your attention on consuming oxygen and help you stay on pace.

Here's how it works. The basic formula goes like this:

Number of Steps per Inhale : Number of Steps per Exhale.

Try these common and recommended formulas:

  • 2:2 - This is the most common combination, as it is easy to do and keeping an even ratio helps many runners feel centered and stabilized. Try this ratio when you want to pace yourself, without becoming sluggish, or if rhythmic breathing is totally new to you.
  • 3:3 - This combo is great for jogging or casual runs where you want to keep your pace moderate and relaxing. Not recommended for tempo runs or for use during a “race pace.”
  • 2:1 - This combo is great for picking up the pace, or for a race tempo. Inhaling for longer than the exhale is recommended by many experts since your diaphragm and other breathing muscles contract during inhalation, which brings stability to your core. These same muscles relax during exhalation, decreasing stability.
  • 3:2 - Try this combo if the stabilizing effect of the inhale seems to work well for you. Many runners like this combo for moderate runs, helping them keep a good pace without becoming sluggish.
  • 3:1 - I like to use this combo during interval training, or fartleks, as some call it. It’s great for delivering oxygen to your muscles during the recovery portions of interval training or when you start to develop a side stitch or other cramp.
  • 1:1 & 1:2 - These combos are not recommended as they encourage shallow breathing that will not help your muscles receive enough oxygen. Many runners find that they retreat to these combos naturally when they become fatigued, and a common sign is a side stitch. You should DEFINITELY try rhythmic breathing if you suffer from side stitches or other types of cramps often.

The best way to get the hang of rhythmic breathing is to practice it while walking first, and work your way into running. It may also help to leave music out of the equation, since it will only confuse your rhythm and distract you.

Remember that the point of every adjustment you make to your running routine is to improve your fitness, relieve tension and feel good about running. Some adjustments take getting used to, like rhymic breathing, so don’t give up after just one try. But in the long run, if something doesn’t work for you, feels forced and uncomfortable, then simply let it go. The biggest myth you can believe when it comes to personal fitness, is to belive that something that works for someone else will work the same for you.

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