runner catching-breathe

How to breathe properly while running?

When we think of running – we focus on Speed, Cadence, Heart Rate, Intensity but we overlook one of the most important focus areas – Breathing. From the moment you begin your run till you complete & post it – you are inhaling Oxygen (O2) & exhaling Carbon dioxide (CO2). Breathing is a constant process which is taking place, yet we seldom pay attention to the way we breathe.

Running efficiency/economy is achieved only when we run with a specific breathing pattern and with the correct technique. Chronic over breathing is a common phenomenon in our modern society. We breathe two to three times more air than required without being aware about it.

1. Do you breathe through your mouth during your daily activities?
2. Do you hear your breathing during rest?
3. Do you see more movements from the chest than from the abdomen when observing your breathing?

If you answered YES, to any of the questions above it suggests there is a tendency of over breathing. It is how you breathe during your daily life that determines how you breathe during your physical exercise. If you breathe better, increase the amount of CO2 inside us, then you can deliver more oxygen to our muscles and organs – including the heart and brain thus heighten our physical capacity.

How to breathe properly while running

At high altitudes – in the mountains, the air is thin which directly results in reduced atmospheric pressure of oxygen. The body adapts to this by increase the number of red blood cells (RBC). The increase in RBC’s is the fuel to your running. Increase of RBC translates to improved oxygen delivery to muscles, a reduction of lactic acid and less risk of inflammation and injury. Simple breathing techniques to simulate high altitude training will aid in a sharper psychological focus during running as you become less conscious of the act of breathing.

Better breathing will transform your fitness, your endurance and your performance and also provide you various health benefits. Majority of runners if asked today will be mouth breathing or a combination of nasal/mouth breathing. But a more efficient and scientifically proven way to breathe is Nasal Breathing. Since our ancestors’ times & even the Tarahumara – the famous running tribe – all of them use their nose to breathe during exercise. We also need to learn to Breathe Light to Breathe Right.

How to breathe properly while running

Patrick McKeown in his book “The Oxygen Advantage” talks about something called the BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) score. It is measured by holding your breath with your mouth closed. If you BOLT is:

1. 10 seconds: Able to walk slowly.
2. 20 seconds: Able to walk quickly/jog lightly.
3. 30 seconds: Able to jog at medium to fast pace.
4. 40 seconds: Able to run quickly

To improve on this BOLT score:
1.Warm up well – walk & perform breath hold every 1 min for 10 mins.
2.Simulate High Altitude Training during the Run
3.Practice Breathe Light to Breathe Right – 3 times a day for 10 mins.
4.Breathe through Nose – day & night.

By increasing your BOLT score, you will experience lighter breathing and be able to train at a higher pace for longer distances while breathing through the nose. We need to train our body to “Do more with Less”.

3 ways to reduce air intake during running are:
1. Relax your body & inhale less air into your lungs.
2. Increase exercise intensity while nasal breathing.
3. Practice breath holding during running.

Switching at first you may find it difficult, and it may slow down your pace for the first few weeks but over time as the body adapts to this change and with continued practice you will notice that your performance will surpass previous levels.

Nasal Breathing

A higher concentration of RBC & higher BOLT score can also lead to:

-Improving the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood
-Increasing your VO2 Max (Maximal Oxygen uptake)
-Extending your endurance potential


Once you are comfortable with nasal breathing you can work on synchronizing that with your Cadence as well.
Some variations are:

  • Inhale 2, Exhale 2 (4 steps)
  • Inhale 2, Exhale 1 (5 steps)

All Elite athlete runners live & train at a high altitude, forcing the body to adapt to exercising with less oxygen and therefore forcing the body to adapt to exercising with less oxygen hence increasing the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity. Most Kenyan & Ethiopian runners follow the practice of “Live high & Train low”. E.g. Live at 2500 mtrs & Train at 1500 mtrs so that they can train at their maximum work rate.

Breathing correctly while running or even in your daily routine has various health benefits. There might be several health issues which you may be facing – with the nasal breathing techniques you can resolve or reduce them by a great extent. Several people who have had asthma & cardiovascular problems have overcome them with nasal breathing.

So, what are you waiting for? Be more conscious of how you breathe & incorporate Nasal breathing 24×7 to transform your running & life.

To know more about the benefits of Nasal Breathing I would highly recommend – Patrick McKeown’s book – Oxygen Advantage.