How to Regulate Breathing While Running

Rhythm is essential in aspects of successful running.

Rhythm is essential in aspects of successful running.

Your body gobbles up oxygen in proportion to your physical exertion level. As a consequence, as you've probably discovered, the harder you run, the harder you breathe. This is simple enough in theory, but in practice, the ragged breathing common in newbies who are going close to all-out can lead to side stitches and other physical nastiness that can hinder both your enjoyment of running and your performance.

Low to Moderate Exertion

Jog at a comfortable pace -- one you feel you could easily hold for at least two to three miles. You should be able to hold a conversation at this pace, but not sing along at full volume with your MP3 player.

Match your footfalls to your breathing pattern. Try a four-in, four-out rhythm -- that is, four steps per inhale and four per exhale. If this leaves you feeling oxygen-hungry, go with a 3-3 rhythm.

Keep your cadence as close to 180 to 190 steps per minute, or 90 to 95 with each foot, as possible. This may seem overly quick if you're inexperienced, but such a tempo has been shown to be close to maximally economical across a wide range of paces and athletes.

Anaerobic Threshold

Estimate your maximum heart rate. You can do this simply by subtracting your age from 220, but this formula typically overestimates MHR in women, so using 206 - (0.88 x age) may give you a better estimation.

Run at a pace at which it becomes impossible to hold an ordinary conversation and speak in complete sentences. This effort corresponds with your lactate threshold, the speed at which your body begins to rely strongly on anaerobic metabolism, and occurs at about 85 percent to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. If you have a heart-rate monitor, you can verify that you are in this range.

Match your footfalls to your breathing, this time more aggressively than when you were running easily. If you are near or at your anaerobic threshold, a 2-2 pattern should be sufficient; if you have exceeded it, this may not work.

Sprinting and "Kicking"

Perform a set of 50-meter sprints in which you focus on elements of relaxation more than you concern yourself with speed. Don't clench your arms or your shoulders, let your arms swing as naturally as you can as you use them to drive yourself along, and keep your chest and hips forward.

Breathe using a 2-2 pattern. Because sprinting means taking more steps per unit time than maintaining a distance runner's clip, this should be close to one inhale-exhale cycle per second.

Continue to breathe deeply but at a high ventilation rate after you stop. Because sprinting is anaerobic, you need to repay the "oxygen debt" you incurred during the sprinting by drawing as much air into your body as you can in the immediate aftermath.

Items you will need

  • Running shoes and apparel
  • Stopwatch
  • Heart-rate monitor (optional)


  • Avoid breathing through your nose. Some well-meaning friends and coaches may try to sell you on this idea, but it typically leads to clenching the jaw and inadequate oxygen intake.

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About the Author

L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.

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