Strategies to help runners breathe comfortably

Top Singaporean marathoner Mok Ying Ren shares some tips on how one should breathe while running.
Top Singaporean marathoner Mok Ying Ren shares some tips on how one should breathe while running.PHOTO: ONEATHLETE

How should I breathe when I run? This is a question often posed to me at forums.

Our first breaths were taken at birth and the act of breathing now comes naturally to us. Sometimes, we do not even realise it when we breathe, although it becomes (painfully) obvious when we run and our speed appears to be limited by our breathing as demand for oxygen intake increases.

BREATHE LIKE YOU SWIM

Before my competitive running journey, I was involved in swimming and triathlon for about 10 years. Regardless of your swimming speed or stroke, you have to maintain a regular breathing pattern. Your breaths should follow the rhythm of your strokes.

It is also important to take deep breaths when swimming. If you take short, shallow breaths, you will not be able to keep your face submerged for long. But, once you start taking deep, full breaths, swimming becomes more comfortable.

The same regulated and deep breathing technique should be employed in running.

What if you do not or are unable to swim? Fret not, there are some other strategies which you may try to help you breathe better.

COUNTING STEPS

A strategy to regulate your breath when running is to count your steps while running for each breath that you take. There is no science behind establishing what your breathing/running tempo should be. You should be able to find your most comfortable tempo through trial and error.

We naturally inhale longer than exhale - check your own breathing right now as you read this article.

For easy runs, you may start off with a tempo of four steps for inhalation, and two steps for exhalation. As you speed up, the inhale-exhale step ratio can be reduced to 2:1 or even 1:1.

Being aware of your breathing rate allows you to gauge your intensity. If you are unable to catch your breath or hold a conversation during your easy runs, you are running too fast. Slow down and regulate your breathing to a comfortable inhale-exhale step ratio.

BREATHE DEEPLY

It is easy to misunderstand the phrase "breathing deeply" in the context of running.

  • #AskMok

  • JASON

    I understand the need to breathe into the diaphragm but my chest will feel a little compressed and breathless, meaning I have to take a deep breath into my chest to feel better. Any way to overcome this?

    ANONYMOUS

    I can be running at zone two but why am I always feeling out of breath?

To breathe deeply does not mean that you take in a huge amount of air and hold it in, as if testing how long you can hold your breath.

What it actually means is that instead of taking small gasps of air, you should fill your lungs adequately and naturally. There should be a slight rise in your chest with each inhalation, but your abdomen should not bloat. This may be difficult to understand and execute, but if you follow the inhalation-exhalation step ratio of 4:2 for your easy runs, you should be able to achieve nice, deep breaths.

MOUTH OR NOSE?

The mouth and the nose are mere openings to the same space - your lungs. Regardless of how it enters, air will go through your windpipe and into your lungs. Essentially, there is no difference to your respiratory system, whether you inhale through your mouth or your nose.

You may, however, experience a physical difference. In cold and dry climates, it is advisable to breathe through your nose as it moistens the air. If you breathe through your mouth, your throat will dry up quickly, and likely induce dry coughs.

You may find it more natural to utilise your mouth for breathing when running at high intensity, as the mouth allows you to inhale more quickly. Do not fight this tendency to breathe through your mouth and let it occur naturally.

Personally, I inhale through my nose during easy runs, and through my mouth during faster runs.

The most crucial aspect of breathing is self-awareness. When you are in the "zone", you will experience a harmony between your running steps and your breathing, making your runs more enjoyable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 18, 2018, with the headline 'Strategies to help you breathe comfortably'. Print Edition | Subscribe