How to Breathe While Running (this might surprise you)

Running is a beautiful sport because of it’s simplicity. Just lace up your shoes and run (after a dynamic warm-up, of course).

Breathe While Running

You don’t need a team.

You don’t need a court, field, or arena.

Besides a good pair of running shoes, there’s no special equipment.

And you can run anywhere, in virtually any climate.

When I fell in love with running in 1998, its this simplicity that captured my heart.

You mean all I have to do is get to the finish line faster than the next guy? I’M IN! 

And the first eight years of my running career – in high school and at the college level – were marked by this simplicity. I had more than ten coaches over this time (including an Olympian) and we focused on the fundamentals.

Consider this: after eight years and 10+ coaches, there was never any discussion of:

  • Minimalism, heel-toe drop, or maximalism
  • Arbitrary heart rate zones or “limits” (Maffetone, anyone?)
  • How to breathe while running

While some of these are worthwhile topics, they’re the final 1% of training. Topics like these barely help your running – it’s much more important to focus on fundamentals.

Vern Gambetta (elite level coach and athletics consultant) eloquently answered a question about breathing in two simple sentences:

Vern has a way with words…

Today, I’m going to add nuance to his answer and discuss the best way to breathe while running.

There’s a whole slew of misinformation and misunderstanding about this topic so I’m ecstatic to set the record straight once and for all.

Should I breathe through my nose or mouth?

Your mouth. Always. It’s that simple.

While you’re running, you need as much oxygen as possible. The nose can’t get in nearly as much oxygen as the mouth so its less preferred.

The nose isn’t that efficient as the mouth because it’s smaller. It can help out, of course, but it shouldn’t be the primary way of breathing while you’re running.

There’s a very good reason why the best runners don’t nose-breathe – it slows them down.

We would be wise to model our behavior after the best runners. They’re good for a reason.

What’s the best ratio of breaths to steps?

There is none!

Sure, you can go find all kinds of wacky stuff on the internet. There are folks hocking breathing ratios, odd patterns, and citing “atmospheric pressure” and “injury prevention” as reasons for fiddling with your breathing pattern.

Really??

At SR, you know that I focus on what really matters. If you follow my training philosophy – worrying about what’s important and forgetting about minutaie – you’ll be a successful runner.

Strength Running presents one unified training theory rather than a collection of articles that are influenced by competing training ideologies. There is no conflicting information here.

You don’t have to hop back and forth and get confused by a collection of articles that disagree with each other.

And when it comes to breathing, just breathe naturally when needed mostly through your mouth.

If you’re just starting out as a runner, your body will figure out the optimal ratio through experience, trial and error, and a variety of workouts that challenge your breathing patterns in different ways.

The reason why I dislike specific ratios is that it’s distracting and difficult to implement.

Want to lose your enthusiasm for running? Try forcing yourself into a certain breathing ratio…

But I heard that even breathing patterns (like 2:2 or 3:3) increase your injury risk!

No, they don’t. 

There was a study done in 2013 at the University in Utah by Bramble and Carrier that studied the relationship between steps and breathing.

Unfortunately, it was used by Budd Coates (author of Running on Air) to prove that an even breathing pattern leads to runners always breathing out when the same foot hits the ground. This leads to always stressing the same side of the body, resulting in a higher injury risk.

But study author Dennis Bramble denies this. He found no evidence of this in his research and he was simply theorizing in the paper. Now he says, “I now think the idea rather improbable.”

This is yet another example of an entire “movement” being born out of misinterpreted science.

I can’t catch my breath when running. How do I breathe better?

Many beginner runners will find that every breathing pattern is impossible because they’re always out of breath.

If breathing is difficult – no matter what pace you’re running – this is just a signal that you’re out of shape. You need to gradually run more over time, build your endurance, and making running a consistent habit.

Once running is a regular part of your life, that constantly-out-of-breath feeling will subside.

A few years ago I was coaching a runner just like this. She had only been running for a few months after being a smoker for years. When we first started working together, her heart rate and breathing were higher than they should be on every run.

What did we do to fix the problem? Well, not much. We focused on running by effort, making sure that even if her breathe rate was high, the relative effort was where it needed to be.

After running consistently with a focus on buliding endurance, her breathing and heart rate normalized. She just needed to get through that initial transition period first.

My mouth gets dry when I breathe through it while running. Any advice?

If this is your problem, dehydration might be an issue. When you’re running in the heat of summer, it’s important to start every run well-hydrated (make sure your pee is pale yellow in color) and drink fluids for runs longer than about 75-90 minutes.

Anne Mauney MPH, RD and I cover fueling and hydration more thoroughly in this audio seminar.

There are also a few things you can do to make your mouth less dry while running:

  • Chew gum to stimulate the salivary glands into producing more saliva
  • Have a piece of hard candy or gummy bears if you don’t like gum
  • Stop periodically for water at the local water fountains

If you strongly dislike eating or chewing something while running, a compromise is to breathe through your nose during easy runs when oxygen demands are low.

But during faster workouts, races, or challenging long runs you’ll need that precious oxygen in your lungs!

Final Thoughts on How to Breathe While Running

I know that I’m suggesting you become a primitive mouth-breather when you run. But it’s more effective than nose breathing, hands-down.

There’s no need to worry about breathing through your nose, alternating between nose and mouth, or a specific ratio of breaths to steps.

Just breathe as much as needed, through your mouth, and worry about your performance – not this nonsense.

Of course, if breathing through your nose is a meditative or calming exercise while running then that’s fine. Enjoy yourself!

But the way I approach this topic – and indeed, how I approach everything with running – is how it relates to helping you run faster.

Now, a quick question for you:

Do you focus on breathing while running? What strategies do you have for helping new runners with this topic? Leave your answer below.

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