Why Do I Have Trouble Breathing When I Run?

You’re running and you’re gasping for air. Is it just because you’re running really hard or is there actually a problem with your breathing? Here’s a quick test:

Stand up, take a big breath in, hold it and observe:

  1. did you lift your shoulders?
  2. did your abdomen expand or pull in?
  3. did your back arch at all?

For even more information, do this test in front of a mirror with your shirt off and watch to see if your belly moves in or out when you take a big breath in. Also, do your lower ribs stick out or become more prominent?

If your belly pulled in and/or you answered yes to any of the other questions, you were using a chest breathing pattern–a form of dysfunctional breathing–and chances are good you’ll do something similar when you’re running or for any other reason your oxygen demand goes up.

Another way to assess whether your shortness of breath when exercising is just a fitness issue (you’re running really hard) or a dysfunctional breathing pattern is to take the Nijmegan Questionnaire. You can find it here.

The questionnaire is a widely used and very accurate indication of dysfunctional breathing. I also recommend you do my quick test, though, because without feeling and observing how you’re breathing it’ll be difficult to change!

I’ve been researching this question over the past year and a half as I’ve worked on a paper on how to help athletes with dysfunctional breathing with Joanna Zeiger, Ph.D., sports scientist, coach, and Olympian in triathlon, and Justin Griewe, MD, clinical assistant professor of Allergy and Immunology at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio.

I’m excited to tell you that a paper I co-authored, The Impact of Mental Toughness and Postural Abnormalities on Dysfunctional Breathing in Athletes, has just been published in the Journal of Asthma. You can read the abstract here, and I’ll be blogging more here about what’s in the paper so you can make use of the information.

But what is dysfunctional breathing and how can you be sure it isn’t asthma or anything else?

Dysfunctional breathing is a chronic change in breathing pattern. It’s a separate phenomenon from respiratory conditions such as asthma though the two often occur together.

The main sign is dyspnea, or breathlessness, without wheezing or any kind of high-pitched sound when you breathe. It may include hyperventilation, deep sighing, or a sensation of air hunger.

If you do wheeze or hear a high-pitched whine when you breathe, you’ll first need to evaluate whether you have asthma and, if so, address that. Then you can move on to deal with any remaining difficulty with your breathing pattern.

In healthy breathing you depend primarily on your diaphragm moving downwards. I explain and demonstrate in this video:


By contrast, the most common dysfunctional breathing pattern is often referred to as “chest breathing,” because instead of allowing your diaphragm to move downwards to bring in air, you primarily expand your chest instead. You might go so far as “paradoxical breathing” in which you actually pull your belly in when you inhale.

We all do this when trying to button a tight pair of jeans–it’s got its uses. 🙂  But if you’re doing it all the time or doing it when exercising, you’re going to struggle with breathing and have trouble getting enough oxygen.

In the video above I recommend a Feldenkrais lesson from my library of free resources to help you learn to free your diaphram to work better in running and life. It’s just a starting point but I’ve observed it’s very helpful immediately, so do give it a go:

This may be called "dysfunctional breathing" but it's really just something you do and, like all the other things you do, you can learn to do it differently. Your body wants to breathe well, and with some attention and the right learning experiences you definitely can.

Furthermore, the things you change in order to improve your breathing also improve your running form. You'll notice that effect when you do the lesson above. So the benefits of working on this go beyond simply not having to struggle with your breathing when you run--you'll move better, feel better, and perform better comprehensively.

Stay tuned for more on this subject!

2 thoughts on “Why Do I Have Trouble Breathing When I Run?”

  1. Yes, I am guilty of partially chest breathing when exerting. However, I have had no problem breathing during my training twice a week for an hour in a hypoxic chamber set to various altitudes between 8000 and 11,000 feet.

    That said, I am blessed with large lungs and a running economy the same as a group of elite Kenyans. I do have issues with my blood though – fairly low red blood and platelet counts and a too high MCH where my blood cells are well over the top limit for size.

  2. Hi John,

    Just found your comment. Too high MCH may mean thay you have to little of vitamin B12, and this is combined with low amount of red blood cells. If you have no health problems related to this, I could advise to check the levels of ferritin, iron and B12 at least, and then take advice from doctor or dietitian



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