How to Breathe When You Run – Part 2

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

Last week, I explained the first part of Balanced Runner Key #8, Breathe downward, taking an odd number of steps per breath cycle. This week I’ll tackle the second half, that stumper of an instruction regarding steps per breath cycle.

By “breath cycle” I mean one inhalation and exhalation. By steps I mean footfalls. Most people breathe in and out across an even number of steps — inhaling for 2 steps and exhaling for 2 steps, for example. However, this means you’re always exhaling on the same foot.

About six years ago I began to realize that exhaling on the same foot all the time ends up mattering more than you might think. My first clue was a question a runner asked me about “leaking” a little when she runs — a common issue for women who’ve had babies, due to the muscles of the pelvic floor never fully recovering after childbirth. I experienced that myself briefly after I had my son, giving me a chance to really understand the problem firsthand.

The leaking happened at footstrike, but especially on the footstrike that started my exhale, so I started paying attention to what was happening then. I noticed I was using the impact of my landing to drive the air out of my body in a big whoosh. Perhaps you’ve heard someone doing that — it’s a pretty noisy exhale and not at all uncommon. I realized that relaxing so that my landing pushed the air out of my body caused me to lose support throughout my torso, including in my pelvic floor (which incidentally is structurally a diaphragm as well and is sometimes even called the “pelvic diaphragm.”) However sustaining my exhale so it didn’t start suddenly or end so fast made me feel lighter on my first exhaling foot strike and I found I could maintain my overall buoyancy, so to speak. (Ladies with leakage issues, give this a try!)

That was my first inkling that exhaling on footstrike had an effect. I also noticed I always did it on the left foot — perhaps the legacy of my high school marching band days, when we always stepped with the left foot on the downbeat — and I began experimenting with alternating the foot I exhaled on. In other words, I switched from inhaling 2/exhaling 2 to inhaling 3/exhaling 2. That’s 5 steps per breath cycle, an odd number.

It worked nicely and gave me a gliding feeling and improved endurance. I’ve tried it with the inhale longer and also with the exhale longer, and I’ve found that having the inhale longer is better for my endurance. This article by Mark Cucuzzella may explain why. I also have discovered I prefer a 7-step breath cycle (4 in, 3 out) to a 5; if I’m breathing downward as I described last week that suddenly becomes easy and breathing more often feels forced.

In the years since then I’ve found with myself and my clients that alternating which foot your begin your exhale on powerfully reduces movement asymmetries. So if you’re regularly having discomfort somewhere on one side of your body, you will feel it reduces over the course of a run in which you breathe this way.

A few years ago, Runner’s World published Running on Air by Bud Coates, and though frankly I haven’t read it yet every excerpt I’ve come across has been excellent and agrees with what I’ve found myself. I highly recommend you read this excerpt. The video on the page is also excellent, including his comment that that it’s right for the chest to move in belly breathing.

The Feldenkrais Method is full of breathing lessons to help you feel how to use your diaphragm and its connection to the movement of your spine, ribs, pelvis, and limbs. In the coming year I plan to record some to help you learn to breathe more easily and fully, supporting good core action and efficient running.

6 thoughts on “How to Breathe When You Run – Part 2”

  1. It’s helpful to come round to thinking about breathing again. I usually do 3 breaths out and 2 in when I remember to do this. Maybe I could increase my cadence to do more breaths per cycle. I was thinking also that making sure I inhale properly would help the asymmetry to because I observed that breathing in properly on each side seems to make the shoulders level. So all good, but I do find both the inhaling and the odd numbered breathing to be tricky.

  2. I’m going to find out whether or not I tend to always use either an odd or even number of steps when I run (and when I bike). I do know that I tend to think of my pedaling on my bike in groups of three.

  3. This sounds feasible, and I’ve been trying it over my last few runs (4 in, 3 out feels best to me too), but I’m wondering what your response is to this:

    Apparently the author of the original study (Bramble) disagrees with Coates that it proves there’s a link between an even breathing pattern and injury–and even suggests, based on a later study, that 2-2 might be better.

    I know that just because a study hasn’t proven something conclusively doesn’t mean it’s not true, but I’d be interested to read your response.

    • I forgot to ask too whether you recommend breathing through your nose or your mouth. I know Mark Cucuzzella breathes exclusively through his nose, but I’ve read other articles that suggest you should use your mouth because your body needs as much air as it can get.

      I’ve experimented with this, and it *feels* like my breathing is better regulated (a bit smoother) when I breath through my nose, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m getting enough air. I guess it depends on your level of exertion. I just don’t want to interfere too much with what my body does naturally.

    • Yes, Sarah–definitely through your nose most of the time. At very intense efforts you can breathe through your mouth, but that shouldn’t be too frequent or else you’ll end up overtraining and increasing your injury risk and your stress.

      I wasn’t as clear on that when I wrote this post–it’s several years old–but I’m quite clear on it now.


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