“How should I breathe while I’m running?” A google search of this question will yield many different opinions. Most of us view breathing patterns as a useful tool for gauging effort, but it’s not uncommon to have a patient ask about the how behind breathing. “Should I breathe through my nose?” “Should I try to slow it down and control it?”
Breathing is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS controls many of our daily functions, including breathing, digestion, and our heart beat. Many bodily functions happen automatically and without conscious effort. It would stink to consciously tell your heart to beat every time, right? Good thing these functions are not under our conscious control–otherwise we would die in our sleep.
Shockingly, breathing is more involved than simply inhaling and exhaling. Your body regulates the depth and speed of breathing based off internal signals from your lungs, blood and muscles. It’s essentially a supply and demand system.
The question is: if the system is autonomic (or automatic) should we mess with it?
Oxygen is a fuel source for your body, particularly at non-exhaustive exercise. The harder your muscles work, the more oxygen they need to run (so you can run). Your respiratory (breathing), muscular (muscles) and nervous (nerves) systems work together subconsciously ensuring all needs are met. Your body knows what it needs to sustain a given effort. Your breathing will vary with your pace and overall fitness level. As we become more fit, breathing becomes easier as the entire system becomes more efficient. External factors like altitude and temperature contribute as well.
Our subconscious has learned how to auto-regulate through millions of years of adaptation. Deep, faster breaths allow us to supply more oxygen to our muscles in an effort to meet the demand.
The natural urge during exercise is to breathe in and out through your mouth. Your body knows that a gaping mouth will bring oxygen into your lungs faster than two small nostrils. Mouth breathing is the most efficient way of getting oxygen to working muscles. Ideally you shouldn’t try to change this consciously. Remember, internal factors that have been refined over millions of years are far more efficient to determine oxygen supply and demand—just because you have control of your breath doesn’t mean you should exercise the right.
Our nostrils are equipped with a filtration system to catch debris—great for every day tasks, bad for sucking wind during harder tasks.
Of course, nothing is ever black and white. There are small, rare instances where taking control of your breath is required. For example, nervous, shallow breathing may be one instance where you may wish to override the “automatic” breathing system. Think of an individual hyperventilating due to nervousness or anxiety. Deep, slower breathes in through the nose and out through the mouth are beneficial to reset the breathing and restore oxygen levels.
Hyperventilation is never ideal. As a note, hyperventilation is NOT the short shallow breathes that accompanies a hard pace that you’re not capable of – but rather a nervous, anxious breath that accompanies a new distance or challenge. Taking several deep breaths may help reset your autonomic breathing, help avoid hyperventilation, and possibly even save your race.
For the most part, let evolution do its job. Avoid the old “in through your nose out through your mouth” stuff while you’re running. Your body is a fine tuned machine that has evolved over millions of years. Evolution will win out 99% of the time. Let your breathing be… it’s one less thing you have to worry about.
1. Cerny F, Burton H. Exercise Physiology for Health Care Professionals. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2001.