How to Breathe When You Run – Part 1

This post is part of the The Balanced Runner Keys series.

Many runners feel instinctively that breathing is at the crux of their struggles with running and have pressing questions about how to do it. This instinct is right on the mark: how you breathe when you run affects your ability to find a flowing and sustainable rhythm, pace yourself, balance the stress equally on both sides of your body, and cultivate a supple, versatile, economical running technique.

This is why I’ve included breathing in my Keys to Becoming a Balanced Runner. Balanced Runner Key #8 is “Breathe downward, taking an odd number of steps per breath cycle.” There’s a lot of information packed into that sentence, so I’m going to break the explanation into two blog posts. In today’s post I’ll tackle what it means to “breathe downward.”

If you google how to breathe while running you’ll get a bunch of articles on diaphragmatic or belly breathing, many leading off with a question like, “Are you a chest breather or a belly breather”? There are basically two ways to draw air into your lungs: to lift and expand your ribs or to draw your diaphragm downwards into your abdomen. Take a look at this video illustrating the mechanics of breathing to get a picture of what I’m talking about. (The relevant part is from the start to 0:56, after which there’s an additional bit about so-called “deep abdominal breathing” that’s irrelevant to our discussion.)

To be a “chest breather” means that you don’t contract your diaphragm downwards much when you inhale, relying on expanding your chest up and out. This is also called “paradoxical breathing,” particularly if you also push your chest downwards and your belly outwards when you exhale, and it’s associated with stress and panic, the “fight or flight” response.

To be a “belly breather” means that you primarily rely on your diaphragm moving downwards into your abdomen to draw breath in. This is why your belly expands when you inhale — not because air is actually going into your belly (it only goes into your lungs in either case), but because your organs get pushed outwards a bit by the downwards movement of your diaphragm. This is particularly beneficial because the lower parts of your lungs are more heavily vascularized, making it easier for oxygen to pass into your bloodstream. It’s also associated with being more relaxed.

In all my 22 years of working as a movement professional I’ve met only a few true chest breathers who inhale and exhale by moving the ribcage alone and never the abdomen. On the other hand, I’ve found an epidemic of people who breathe with their bellies but have chests as still as stone. Neither version is healthy; the so-called relaxed belly-only breathing is highly tense, in fact, and when I help clients who breathe this way feel how to allow gentle movement in their chests as well they relax significantly and often fall asleep!

As I learned from Michael Krugman when I studied the Sounder Sleep System, relaxed breathing is breathing that happens everywhere at once. Air is drawn into the lungs by the diaphragm moving and the ribs lifting and expanding. This is as true for runners as for anyone else — in fact, as your oxygen needs go up during running it becomes increasingly important to use your entire breathing apparatus rather than just part of it.

So why do I emphasize breathing downward? Because for breathing that is everywhere at once, the diaphragm needs to move fully and easily downwards with the upper body and the belly relaxed. In running you’re of course not going to be fully relaxed, but the level of muscle tone should be relatively even throughout the torso so you’re not restricting the movement of either area.

In reality, the subject of breathing is incredibly deep and has been the life’s work of many brilliant people including Carl Stough and Konstantin Buteyko, but this simple cue of imagining your breath going downwards along the inner side of your spine can help you feel what to do while running.

What you definitely should avoid is tensing any part of your trunk to try to get your breath to go in the correct place – for instance, contracting your chest to try to keep it from moving so you will belly breathe, tightening your abs in the belief it will do something positive for your breathing, or doing any intentional contraction of your abdominals to assist exhalation.

There is a virtuous circle between the full movement of your diaphragm and a well-balanced core action in running. Because your diaphragm attaches to your spine right around the area that you counterrotate (or twist) your upper and lower body, feeling an easy, expansive downward movement of your breath in that area keeps you from tensing your upper abdominal muscles, so that not only do they not interfere with your breathing, they also don’t restrict your core action. And vice-versa, runners who struggle to “belly breathe” and may even have trouble with asthma can relieve the restriction on their diaphragm by working on their core action with Feldenkrais movement lessons and supportive cross-training. The result will be much easier breathing, I’ve seen it over and over.

Next week I’ll explain the second part of the key, regarding the number of footfalls per breath cycle. Between now and then, give the downward breathing image a try and leave a comment letting me know how it goes!

7 thoughts on “How to Breathe When You Run – Part 1”

  1. Thanks Jae for this well thought out post which helps me to understand better what to look for in my breathing. I tend to hold in my upper abs and then wonder why I’m breathless. After reading this I’m excited to see your next post on breathing. I’m finding the downward breathing does activate the core I’m sure it is possible to forget how to just let go and breath deeply after an injury. This whole series of the Balanced Runner Keys has been invaluable. Thank you.

  2. Jae have you red the book “Running on air”? If not have a look at it, it’s very similar to your insight about breathing for runners.

  3. Hello. Thanks for the article. I must admit however that it challenges my own beliefs. If I understand correctly, you advocate that the good way for breathing in running is very similar to breathing in normal situation.
    I would say (according to both my own experience as a runner and to purely theoretical reasoning) that in the fast runinng it is much better to breathe mostly with the chest. You have mentioned that so called “paradoxical breathing” is often associated with stress and panic, but on the other side, as M. Feldenkrais has often pointed out, it is also commonly and purposely used in the martial arts. This is because such a way of breathing gives more freedom to the movement of the limbs.
    I find that such a freedom is quite important when the pace is fast. Probably it is directly related to the fact you have already mentioned, that diaphragm sits in the place where the counterrotations happens. I have a feeling that the full range of motion of the diaphragm during breathing cycle constricts the very rapid movements that are happening there.
    I do not want say that diaphragm should be held stiff or not move at all, but it seems to me that in the fast running, much more emphasize should be put on breathing in the upper part of the torso (when compared to breathing in normal situation). From a purely theoretical point we may note also that the diaphragm is a very big muscle and very rapid movements of it in the full range, will probably consume a lot of oxygen – so much that it might not be efficient.
    I also emphasize that I talk mostly about fast runinng. As the pace gets slower it should probably get closer to the standard way of breathe with the whole torso.

    Best wishes,

    • Thanks very much for your comments, Tomek! Let me begin by saying that I only write and teach about distance running and much of what I say is also applicable to middle distance, but I do not speak about sprinting. It’s too different.

      That said, one of the unique characteristics of humans is that our breathing is completely independent from our gait. The movements you make in running have no direct impact on the diaphragm. If, in addition to running, you tense your upper abdomen (which interferes with the movements of the limbs!), you will have difficulty allowing your diaphragm to move down, but this is not desirable even for fast running! Martial artists do it to stiffen their trunks to create and absorb impact but that’s not how running works. In fact, the higher your oxygen needs the more essential it is that you breathe everywhere, and especially with the lower part of your lungs. When I danced professionally I moved with a greater degree of tension in my torso and more freedom in my limbs than in running — ballet is similar to martial arts in this respect — but I and every dancer I ever met breathed in every direction, including abdominally, when we were dancing hard. As for the oxygen demand of contracting the diaphragm, since it makes more oxygen available by contracting one could at least expect to break even by using it. 🙂

  4. Yeah, I talk about distance running as well. By a higher speed I mean the pace which makes some significant demand on oxygen intake like >=80% hr max on something.
    I am not absolutely convinced that we can say that breathing is completely independent from our gait. If so, one could breathe in any fashion even during very fast running. If the diaphragm is connected to the ribs and the spine, and the ribs and spine are moving during walking or running, than these movements must be correlated I think. I believe that this is the reason for which we tend to coordinate our breathing frequency with our stride frequency very soon after we start running.
    I think that it is really good that you have experience as a dancer, as you have a much broader point of view than people who only run (like me). Just to be clear, I don’t advocate paradoxical breathing during running (however I would not be surprised if it turn out to be appropriate for all-out efforts). I have mentioned it just for suggestion that putting some more emphasize on breathing in the chest could provide some benefit for mobilty of the lower trunk. This is also what I feel when I run. At the same time I admit that I am very prone to suggestions and theoretical concepts and I have read somewhere else about breathing in the chest (Pose Method or Gordon Pirie’s book on runinng). So it is very nice to have some other authority advocating the opposite:)

    I think that the following questions should be addressed:

    1. The most basic question is: should we really put our attention on how we breathe during running (I am not saying about the rhytm, but where we breath)? During most activities breathing should self-regulate itself without our interference. We can do exercises or Feldenkrais lessons on breathing but then we should leave it alone and do some other things other than thinking about our breathing:) Maybe running should be the same? Or maybe we should attend to our breathing only as an awareness exercise?

    2. If we decide that putting some attention on our breathing could help, then how to do it? It is obvious that whatever we will do, we will use everything we have to some extent. Even if we would put our intention on breathing in the chest then diaphragm will be moving anyway and vice versa. I believe that here the answer will be different for each person as it depends on the habitual way of breathing.

    I think that it could be very helpful to develop some breathing awareness exercises that could be done DURING running. Then everyone could try several possible options without restricting to the one he thinks is correct. If you would have some suggestions how to do it, then I believe it would be particularly interesting:)

    Thank you for the discussion.
    Best wishes,


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