These breathing exercises for runners can improve endurance and prevent injuries.

By By Shannon Bauer
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Photo: Getty Images / Todor Tsvetkov

Running is a relatively easy sport to start. Just lace on a pair of shoes and hit the pavement, right? But as any beginner runner will tell you, you quickly realize that your breathing has as big an impact on the success of your runs as your stride or foot strike.

"Your breathing brings oxygen to working muscles, and inefficient breathing can lead to problems in endurance and performance," says Brian Eckenrode, D.P.T., assistant professor of physical therapy at Arcadia University and coordinator of their running injury clinic. Breathing patterns are individualized, he added, so it may take some trial and error to find the one that is optimal for you.

It's worth noting that if it ain't broke there's probably not a huge need to fix it. However, if you are struggling with your breathing while running or are prone to injuries, experimenting with your breathing pattern is worth exploring. Since proper breathing improves your running economy-the energy it takes to run-mastering these exercises may be the key to increasing your endurance and your pace, Eckenrode explains. (Related: Why All Runners Need Balance and Stability Training)

Nose Versus Mouth Breathing

Let's get one thing settled: When it comes to breathing for runners, there's no one "right" way, says Eckenrode. You can choose to breathe through your nose or your mouth (or a combination of the two). But typically when running, breathing through your nose is great for warming up and cooling down because you're bringing in air at a lesser rate, which forces you to slow your pace and calm down. On the other hand, breathing through your mouth may be preferred for workouts or races because you bring in the most amount of air in an efficient manner.

Master Belly Breathing

Runners who are chest breathers are not using their diaphragm efficiently to help stabilize the spine, which can lead to lower-back issues, says Eckenrode. It can be difficult to maintain proper breathing while you're running, so begin practicing before you even decide to hit the pavement. Lie flat on your back, with one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Take slow, deep breaths and see what part of your body rises when you inhale. You want to transition to breathing from your belly with your diaphragm rising when you inhale and lowering when you exhale. Belly breathing, also known as alligator breathing, allows your lungs to take in more oxygen with each breath, says Eckenrode. Try this exercise lying down, then seated, standing, and eventually in dynamic movements. When you breathe from the diaphragm you stabilize your core, spine, and pelvic floor as well. Help your body to intuitively return to belly breathing by checking in during weight training exercises like squats and planks. Lunges can be an especially helpful move to try out while belly breathing. Since you're performing the move one leg at a time, it allows you to mimic running where you alternate foot strikes.

Once you've switched to the belly breathing method, start incorporating more exercises for your core. Lie on your back with your legs in a 90-90 position (hips at 90 degrees, knees at 90 degrees), then focus on belly breathing while slowly lowering one leg toward the floor. Return to starting position and alternate legs. The goal of this exercise is to keep your trunk stable and use your diaphragm to control your breathing. You can then advance to alternating arm and leg motions in the same position. (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait-and Why It Matters)

Track Your Intensity

Once you've mastered belly breathing during dynamic warm-ups, you can start to incorporate it into your runs. Eckenrode suggests starting with tracking intensity rather than your mileage-building efficiency in your breathing will then increase your endurance. Set checkpoints (like every few minutes or when you're stuck at stoplights) to take note of where you're breathing from. If your chest is rising, you need to adjust to taking belly breaths while you're in motion. It's important to note that your posture can also affect your breathing. Running upright will put your diaphragm in a better position to stay stabilized and bring in air so be sure to stay conscious of proper running posture. The longer you practice these exercises, the more intuitive the process will become. (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait-and Why It Matters)

Establish a Pattern

Similar to nose versus mouth breathing, there's no one size fits all breathing pattern while running, says Eckenrode. Some people will find an even 2:2 pattern (two steps inhale, two steps exhale) is best, while others prefer rhythmic, or odd, breathing (three steps inhale, two steps exhale). Your breathing pattern is also going to change with the intensity of your runs. But as you improve your efficiency, your body will be more likely to maintain your habits.

A good place to start is with 2:2 (or 3:3) breathing for easy runs and 1:1 for pushing your pace in workouts and races. 3:2 breathing causes you to inhale on a different foot strike (left, then right, then left, etc.), which some runners have found success with for easing side stitches or when they struggle with asymmetric loading injuries related to inhaling and exhaling on the same side of the body.

Eckenrode suggests not changing your breathing pattern while you're training for a race but rather experimenting during an off-season. (Related: 5 Common Mistakes Runners Make On Race Day) Again, start by practicing your new breathing pattern lying down, then standing, walking, and finally while running. Once you master belly breathing and find a breathing pattern that works for you, you'll discover running really can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other.

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