September 21, 2019

How to Breathe While Running (Nerd Alert!)

How to Breathe While Running

One of the girls on my cross country team didn't have a very good race on Tuesday. I thought she did great, but she refused to talk to me after the race, so I wasn't sure what the problem was. Her mom later told me that she was upset because she said she had a cramp in her side during the race. Her mom said that she thinks it may have to do with her breathing, and asked if she should be breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth.

I haven't done an informative post on my blog about running in a long time, so I thought it'd be fun to write about this! (I may have written about it before, but if I did, it was a long time ago; so here it is again).

Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is actually a very common misconception (for running, anyway--I think there are reasons to use it in other situations). There is a super nerdy explanation for it (seriously--breathing, something that is literally as old as time, has a "right way" and a--well, let's call it an "inefficient" way when running (I don't want to call it wrong, but it's definitely not the best way). I'll write more about the nose vs mouth part at the bottom of the post.

In 2014, I was invited to the Runner's World Headquarters in Pennsylvania (along with several other running bloggers). We had a weekend of seminars all about running and I met some of the coolest people known to the sport. I was so geeked out! It was fantastic, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to learn everything I did.

Anyway, one of the seminars was given by Budd Coates. If you're not familiar, he is pretty much one of the most amazing runners in the sport. I'd never heard of him at the time, but I discovered that I was learning from a major running LEGEND... all about how to breathe while running.

Budd Coates describing how to breathe while running

First, a short bio: Budd's marathon personal record is 2:13:02. That's not a "half" marathon--I'm talking a full 26.2 miles. He ran TWENTY SIX POINT TWO miles in 2 hours and 13 minutes. Insane!

Also, he has run a sub-3:00 marathon in each of FIVE decades. Imagine that... every 10 years older and running sub-3:00? For five decades? Unbelievable.

Oh, and not to mention that he qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the marathon not once... but FOUR times. No biggie!

So, here is what I learned about How to Breathe While Running. Who better to learn from than Budd Coates?

When it comes to injuries, most runners will have problems with just one side, whether it's a stress fracture or runner's knee or hip flexor, etc. The possible reason for this is that we may be exhaling exclusively on that side. (I discovered that I was a 2:2 runner--meaning that I would inhale for two counts and then exhale for two counts. You'll see below why that's a problem.)

There was a study done by some very smart doctors at the University of Utah who discovered that the most stress to your body occurs when you begin to exhale. This is because when you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, making your core (abdominal muscles) less stable. The impact of your foot strike (equal to 2-3 times your body weight) plus less stability in your core is basically a recipe for injury.

So, when you are exhaling on the same foot (left or right) for every breath while running, you are putting significantly more stress on that side of your body.

And that is how Budd came up with the brilliant idea of rhythmic breathing. He wondered if he could develop a rhythm that would allow him to exhale on each foot alternately throughout the whole run. It worked perfectly for him--no injuries and running his fastest marathon times.

The rhythmic breathing is done by an odd/even pattern to alternate the foot that absorbs impact on the exhale. You also must make sure you're using your diaphragm to take deep breaths and maximize oxygen intake rather than short shallow breaths.

To do that, you need to make sure that when you inhale, your diaphragm engages and moves downward, which makes your chest puff out a little (because there is more room for air in your lungs). Because it's impossible to run (or even live, duh) without oxygen, more = better when you're challenging your cardio system during a run.

Rhythmic breathing works like this:

Inhale for an odd number of steps and then exhale for an even number (one less than the odd number). For most runners, this is a 3:2 ratio (inhale for three steps, exhale for two steps) because we do most of our running at an easy pace--or at least we should be! (Read this post about the easy run. It totally changed my running for the better when I finally practiced what I preached.)

When you spend more time inhaling than exhaling, you're minimizing the amount of time exhaling (where your body absorbs the most stress). That way, you are getting the most oxygen out of the least amount of stress.

So, for a 3:2 ratio, inhale for three counts and then exhale for two counts. I always count it in my head like, "1-2-3-1-2"... but you can do whatever you'd like. "In-two-three-out-two". I would practice it while sitting or lying down before trying it during running. But I found that when I did it while running, it felt very natural. I had to concentrate on it for a few runs, but once I got the hang of it, I do it all the time now. I don't have to think about it--it just comes naturally.

Now, when you are running faster, your breathing is going to get faster. So, you can change the ratio to 2:1... inhale for two counts (steps) and exhale for 1 count. When I do my super slow runs to keep my heart rate low, I even do a ratio of 4:3 (inhale for four, exhale for three). It takes some experimenting to find out what works best for you; but like I said, most runners will use a 3:2 ratio.

There is another rhythm that is slightly more complicated, but I'll throw it out here just in case you want to try it. This is for very hard work (sprinting to the finish line, etc). The rhythm is 2-1-1-1. You would inhale for two steps, exhale for one, inhale for one, exhale for one. And repeat. I haven't even tried that, but it was one of the rhythms that Budd suggested.

And to answer the question about breathing through your mouth or nose? The best answer is both! We will maximize our oxygen intake by inhaling and exhaling through both mouth and nose. But if you have to choose one or the other, the mouth is the way to go. You can experiment with this to feel the difference:

1) Close your mouth and keep it closed. Then breathe in through your nose. Notice that you aren't getting very much air? (While holding still or sleeping, it's comfortable; but when running, it feels like you're suffocating.)

2) Pinch your nose shut and then breathe through just your mouth. Much easier than breathing through your nose, but I think it feels like my nose is stuffy or something.

3) Now, relax your mouth in an open position, and breathe regularly. You'll probably notice that you breathe in and out through both your nose and mouth most of the time anyway without even thinking about it! But you'll definitely notice that you get the most air this way.

Also, is this not the coolest race shirt?! I did a half-marathon for cystic fibrosis, and this was the race shirt we were given. It's my favorite race shirt I've ever gotten!


  1. Thank you Katie!!! This gives me a lot to think about! I havechromicinjurues on my left side and thePT (that I’ve been seeing for 18 mos) hasguessed im just weaker on that side. Things to think about! I did my first 20 mile run yesterday!!! I ran the valley floor st Yosemite National Park!!!! Chicago marathon in 3 weeks!

  2. Katie, thanks for always being informative! I searched your blog for breathing while running and here is the help I need! Thank you!


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