How should a runner breathe?

Usually a beginner’s experience of running is dominated by shortness of breath and not surprisingly,  one of the first questions the novice asks is: how can I improve my breathing?  The shortness of breath is due to inadequate supply of oxygen to the muscles and inadequate removal of carbon dioxide, which results in stimulation of carbon dioxide sensitive nerve endings in the walls of the arteries and drives the expiratory centres in the brain stem, creating a sensation of shortness of breath.  However for the novice, it is rare that breathing is the bottleneck in the pathway that transports oxygen to the muscles where fuel is oxidized releasing carbon dioxide which is then transported back to the lungs.  The bottleneck is usually in the cardiovascular system: the heart is unable to pump blood at an adequate rate and the capillaries within the muscle are inadequate to deliver the blood effectively to the muscles. The tyro distance runner soon learns to focus on improving cardiovascular function, and monitors his/her progress by recording heart rate.  Breathing itself ceases to be a focus of attention.

After a period of several months the progress in increasing fitness slows down.  Although capillary development continues slowly over a period of years, the increases in aerobic capacity are only perceptible on a timescale of months.  The athlete scarcely remembers those early days when the most pressing question appeared to be how to improve breathing.  By this stage, many are preoccupied with an attempt to identify the training program that will eke out further improvements in the capacity of the heart to pump blood and of the muscles to extract and use the oxygen delivered by that blood.   A few athletes get diverted into experimenting with changes in style – such as changing from heel strike to landing on the mid-foot or fore-foot.  Despite the intense discussion about running style on blogs and forums, there is remarkably little evidence that adjustments of style lead to major improvement in performance.  Very few give a second thought to the possibility of improving the efficiency of oxygenation the blood in the capillaries in the lungs or the removal of carbon dioxide from the lungs.  Yet the few published scientific studies of the effects of training directed at improving breathing technique indicate that this can produce worthwhile additional improvements in performance in well-trained athletes.

Training to increase ventilatory capacity

For example, Leddy and colleagues (2007)  used a technically complex device that  allowed hyperventilation while carbon dioxide level was maintained constant, to train a group of experienced runners to breathe more deeply.  After  10 hours of training spread over 4 weeks, the runners had increased their ventilatory capacity and achieved a 50% increase time to exhaustion during  treadmill running test at 80% of VO2 max on the day after training, and also on further testing 1 week later.  Furthermore 4 mile run time decreased by 4% and this improvement was maintained for a period of at least 3 months.  The findings demonstrate that experienced runners can be trained to increase their ventilatory capacity and that this increase is associated with improved running performance, sustained for several months after the completion of the training.

Although the procedure used by Leddy was too cumbersome for everyday use by amateur runners, the findings suggest the possibility that simply focussing on breathing more deeply while running might result in better performance.  In fact I had discovered many years ago that the most effective strategy to maximize my speed in the final few hundred metres of a long distance race, such as a marathon, is to devote my conscious attention to breathing a deeply as possible in the final Km.  Typically during a race such as a HM or marathon I breathe at a rate 3 steps per inspiration and 3 steps per expiration for most of the race; during the final Km I increase the breathing rate to a 2:2 pattern.   While the capacity to increase pace at the end of a marathon is important if the main goal is to beat an evenly matched opponent, when the primary goal is to record a fast time, the average pace during the first 41 Km is more important than the pace in the final Km.  So it is more pertinent to ask whether or not efficiency when running below lactate threshold can be improved by more effective breathing.

Fractional breathing

I was therefore intrigued when Rick raised the issue of breathing patterns on his blog a few months ago.   He provided a link to an article by a Russian chemist, Alexander Streltsov (1992), reporting that breathing efficiency could be improved by a technique called fractional breathing: a breathing pattern in which the duration of inspiration is longer than expiration.  The runner makes 4 consecutive inspiratory efforts followed by an expiration, thereby prolonging and deepening the inspiration.   The rationale for the method does not make much sense to me.  Streltsov states that the reason from prolonging inspiration is to ensure that the inspiratory period matches the time it takes for oxygen to attach to haemoglobin (approximately 0.8 seconds).  His argument appears to imply that oxygen can only be transferred to blood during inspiration.  While it is true that the alveoli expand during inspiration and deflate during expiration, they do not deflate entirely due to a natural lubricant called surfactant, which reduces surface tension in the alveolar walls.  The volume of air in the alveoli rises to a peak at the end of inspiration and falls to a minimum at the end of expiration, but the average volume during expiration is not greatly different from that during inspiration.  Furthermore the concentration of oxygen rises and falls during the breathing cycle but the average value during inspiration tends to be similar to that during expiration.  Therefore, oxygen exchange can occur during both the inspiratory and expiratory phase.  As I understand it, the efficiency of oxygen transfer will be maximised by ensuring the concentration of oxygen averaged over the entire cycle is a high as possible.  One of the most important issues is the fact that during the first part of inspiration, the air reaching the alveoli is the stale dead-space air that had remained within the bronchial tree following the previous expiration.  So breathing will only be effective if the volume of air inspired in each breath is much greater than the dead-space volume.  This certainly suggests that deep breathing is likely to be more effective, but does not provide a clear justification for unequal breathing. However it is possible that extending the duration of inspiration will result not only in maximum filling of the lungs but also in a rapid expulsion of air during expiration, so perhaps fractional breathing is an effective way of maximising the depth of breathing.

Steltsov provides some quite impressive evidence for improvement of respiratory efficacy achieved by several international Russian athletes when using fractional breathing.   For example, middle-distance runner, Olga Nelubova, decreased her HR from 118 to 111 when running at an easy  pace (3 m/sec) in the low-aerobic zone, after only 4 days of training in the new breathing technique – a far more rapid improvement than would be expected simply to the cardiovascular improvement produced by 4 days of aerobic training.

My experiences with  fractional breathing

Despite being unconvinced by the explanation proposed by Streltsov to justify his proposed technique, the data suggest that his technique is worth further examination.  I decided that it would be worthwhile to try fractional breathing myself to see if it improved my efficiency.  Because I anticipated it would be easier to regulate my breathing while exercising in the low aerobic zone, it seemed sensible to start with a training program in this zone.

Steltsov maintains his technique can be applied to various forms of aerobic exercise.  Because I can assess heart rate at a fixed work-rate most precisely on the elliptical cross trainer I decided to start with a brief training program on the elliptical cross trainer.  I employed a testing procedure consisting of 26 minutes at a power output of 100 watts, after a standard 6 minute graded warm-up and a 4 minute ‘HR stabilization’ period at an output of 100watts.  The demands of this test closely resembled the demands of the low-aerobic recovery sessions that I have performed intermittently over the past two years, and during which my HR had achieved a reasonably stable plateau in recent months, so I could reasonably attribute any improvement during a brief respiratory training program to the respiratory training itself, rather than to a general increase in fitness.

The primary measure of efficiency was heart rate averaged over the 26 minute period.  Before I began the breathing training program, I recorded HR during three sessions using my usual pattern of breathing in the low aerobic zone: namely three steps per inspiration and three steps per expiration.  Then I did four 40 minutes training sessions on consecutive days,  in which I practised fractional breathing, taking 4 steps during  inspiration and 2 steps during expiration. After four training sessions I found it fairly easy to maintain the 4:2 breathing pattern.  It should be noted that unlike the Russian athletes described by Streltsov, I did not produce an overall slowing of breathing rate.  In the week following training I performed three test sessions: two using my former 3:3 breathing pattern and one using the fractional 4:2 breathing pattern.  I included tests using both the unequal and equal patterns to test whether or not the inequality was essential for achieving the benefits. Then six weeks later, I did a further test session, using my usual 3:3 breathing pattern.

In the two baseline tests prior to training, average HR during the 26 min at 100watts was 116 and 117 BPM.  In the two tests in which breathing pattern was 3:3, in the week following the four training sessions, average HR during the test was 111 and 110, while in the test in which the breathing pattern was 4:2, the average HR was 108.  Six weeks after the training, average heart rate during the test when breathing with a 3:3 pattern was 111 bpm.  These results indicate an improvement of approximately 6 percent after training.  This improvement was maintained for six weeks. Furthermore after training, my efficiency was only marginally better when using the 4:2 fractional breathing pattern, than using my usual 3:3 breathing pattern.  It appears I had increased the effectiveness of breathing, probably by increasing the depth of each inspiration and the forcefulness of expiration.

Interpreting the evidence

This evidence is little more than anecdotal, but it is of noteworthy that the magnitude of the improvement in my HR was similar to that achieved by the Olga Nelubova. It is not clear whether or not I achieved improvement by exactly the same mechanism as the Russian athletes. Unlike Olga Nelubova, I exhibited no overall slowing of my respiratory rate.  My breathing rate was 27 breaths/min before and after training, whereas Nelubova’s rate was 33 before training and 21 after training.   The main reason that I did not adjust my overall breathing rate is that on the elliptical machine, it is easiest to maintain a constant work-rate by employing a constant cadence, and I naturally adjust breathing rate to be an integral multiple of step rate.  Therefore producing a gradual change in breathing rate as training proceeded would have required an unnatural decoupling of step rate and breathing rate

The fact that I exhibited a similarly improved performance when tested using a 3:3 pattern indicates that unequal duration of inspiration and expiration is not essential, though it is possible that the use of an unequal pattern during training promoted both deeper inspiration and more forceful expiration and hence increased the efficiency of the training.   I was definitely more conscious of my abdominal wall moving out during inspiration and inwards during expiration both during training and in the testing sessions.   So, I suspect that in my case the major factor contributing to the improvement was simply due to moving a larger volume of air during each breath.

Exercise in the low aerobic zone is not directly relevant to racing.  However if conscious focus on breathing improves efficiency of exercise even in the low aerobic zone, it is likely that even greater benefits would be obtained in the mid and upper aerobic zones that are characteristic of marathon  racing.   Streltsov reported benefits throughout the aerobic range.

It would be premature to draw any definitive conclusions, especially as it is unclear how similar the mechanism of change in my breathing were to that in the Russian athletes.  Nonetheless at this stage I am inclined to think that it is worthwhile paying greater attention to breathing technique

References:

Leddy JJ et al (2007) Isocapnic hyperpnea training improves performance in competitive male runners Eur J Appl Physiol 99:665–676

Streltsov , A (1992)   The endurance reserves, http://www.iaaf-rdc.ru/eng/news/0027e.html

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23 Responses to “How should a runner breathe?”

  1. Mike Hardy Says:

    I’m always excited to see another post from you, though I’ve only been following your blog a short while. I’m a cyclist that treats my training similar to the way I imagine you treat your running – always an experiment or three in progress, and taken seriously though it’s all in fun.

    With regard to breathing, I’m very curious about breathing changes’ possible effects when exercising at a cardiovascularly limited rate – either threshold or VO2max.

    It makes intuitive sense that you could lower your HR at a given W output by breathing more effectively as you can imagine you’d need less bpm if your SaO2 was higher coming out of the lungs. I’ve noticed that myself by simply over-ventilating while at a steady output – bpm always drops. It is noteworthy how much it drops with this protocol at the same breathing rate but the mechanism is likely the same?

    At the threshold or VO2max though it’d be very interesting to see if this had an effect or whether having achieved VT your lungs are at the limit of O2 uptake regardless of technique.

    Judging by the empirical effectiveness of EPO and transfusions (which I presume are moving the oxygen transport limit, but not the heart or leg limiters) if there was a technique-related gain to be made at VT it’d be worth a lot.

    I have a lot of threshold/VO2max activity coming up, and I can try the cycling equivalent of the 4:2 pattern (forceful/short exhalation basically). I’ll see what happens and post back if I remember.

    • canute1 Says:

      Mike,
      Thanks for your comments.

      I think the benefits of adjusting breathing pattern are likely to be greater in the upper part of the aerobic zone (a little below the point at which lactate levels rise rapidly) than at VO2max.

      In the upper part of the aerobic zone, where voluntary increase in inspiration is possible, the increased delivery of oxygen will delay the transition from aerobic energy production to anaerobic production as power output increases. Thus the onset of the rapid rise in lactate will be delayed. This would be expected to produce substantial improvements in performance in races run below or at lactate threshold.

      Although your comparison with the effects of transfusions that increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood suggests that deeper breathing might also be expected to allow greater power output near VO2 max, I suspect that it there will be little scope for increasing depth of breathing simply by changing breathing pattern in this zone. Respiration is driven by not only by arterial chemoreceptors that respond to blood CO2 but also by chemoreceptors responsive to acidity. Above lactate threshold the rapid increase in acidity of the blood is likely to provide an increase in respiratory drive that overshadows any effect that might be produced by attempting to alter the breathing pattern. In other words, I think you are right to suggest that the depth of breathing will be maximal regardless of breathing technique.

      In conclusion, I suspect that the greatest benefits of altering the breathing pattern will be for races such as the marathon, HM and 10K (or the cycling equivalents).

  2. Rick Says:

    Canute,
    I’m glad you wrote this article, as I’d almost forgotten about my breathing!
    Early April last year when I tried the fragmented breathing I got some encouraging results in training, but when a couple of weeks latter I ran the London Marathon I found it to hard to concentrate on holding pace and think about my breathing pattern, so I reverted back to my normal breathing for the rest of the race!
    In the months that followed I did work on deep breathing- diagram breathing, which I think helps put the body in a more relaxed state as opposed to shallow breathing into the upper chest which can bring about a state of anxiety,nervousness and high heart rate.
    Through this winter I’ve forgotten all about my breathing so your article is a timely reminder for me to get back to improving my breathing.
    Do you think its possible just to concentrate on deep breathing and let your own pace decide the breathing rate?
    Also do you feel practising deep breathing on long runs will improve the ability of the lungs to supply oxygen and make the breathing system stronger?
    On EPO there is a good video of Greg Lemond talking about drugs in cycling.
    About 10 mins into the video he says he is shocked when he sees riders in the Tour talking on their mobile radio’s without getting out of breath or showing signs of distress as they climb the big mountains at high speed!
    Lemond states that a lot of the pain when climbing is the result of basically running out of qxygen!
    Anyway if we can improve our breathing this could also affect the central governor as the body would be under less stress and so our in-built governor would allow us to push even harder ?

    • canute1 Says:

      Rick,
      Thanks for drawing my attention to Streltsov.

      Your suggestion that the benefit from deeper breathing might be due to greater relaxation, possibly leading the central governor to be less restrictive, is interesting. Slow diaphragmatic breathing is a well know procedure for inducing relaxation. There was a study by Benson demonstrating that mental ‘centering’ (by focusing on a location behind the navel) was associated with more efficient use of glucose though only a slightly decreased HR during very low intensity exercise (eg HR=100bpm). As centering is intended to promote relaxation, it is possible that the mechanism of the improve deficiency was relaxation though there was no reduction in adrenaline release. So I remain unconvinced about the mechanism. I will review this issue in more detail in a future post.

      At this stage I believe the most important factor is likely to be improved oxygenation due to deeper breathing, such that the volume of each inspiration is much greater than the dead-space volume. If this is the mechanism, then the main requirement is an effective procedure for ensuring that breathing is deep. I suspect that focus on diaphragmatic breathing is the most effective way to do this. Consciously lengthening the respiratory duration might help provided it is not excessive, but the rate of filling of the lungs will slow at the end of a long inspiration. An attempt to prolong the inspiratory period longer than that necessary to produce ‘near complete’ filling of the lungs will be inefficient. As the respiratory centre in the brain stem (which receives information about blood CO2 and acidity from nerve ends in the arteries) tends to adjust your breathing rate in an optimum manner, I think that it is probably best to avoid seriously over-riding the natural attempt of the respiratory centre to increase breathing rate as work rate increases. I would certainly not prolong inspiration to a point that was uncomfortable. It might even be best to focus only on breathing from the diaphragm and let your brain-stem look after the respiratory rate.
      With regards to the question of whether or not training increases effectiveness of breathing, the observation that the improved efficiency was maintained for three months without further training in the Leddy study suggests that the benefits of increased ventilation can be maintained. I suspect that this is due either to development of the habit of using the diaphragm and/or increased strength and endurance of the diaphragm.
      The Lemond video confirms that increasing the ability of the blood to carry oxygen is very helpful during endurance sports, so it makes a lot of sense to do everything reasonable (and legal) to get as much oxygen into the blood as possible. The evidence so far suggests that focus on deep breathing is worthwhile though it is unlikely to be as effective as illegal EPO

  3. Ewen Says:

    Canute, thanks for a most interesting post. I admit when I first read Rick’s post I dismissed Streltsov’s fractional breathing, my reasoning being that elite runners don’t do this (or don’t talk about breathing methods) and when you see them in marathons they hardly appear to be breathing at all.

    What I find exciting from a personal standpoint is that if “improved” breathing produces a 6% improvement then that would bring my MAF pace down to 5:22 from 5:43 per km. I was wondering if you had maintained your previous HR of 116-117 after breathing training would your wattage improvement be 6%?

    Also, forgetting about the 4:2 method for a while, do you think the 6% improvement is possible by just concentrating on deep 3:3 breathing on all runs? Your point about beginners is apt as once a runner is over the initial stress of laboured breathing, they forget about breathing technique as there are other limitations to their improvement.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen
      Thanks for our comment. Although I did not test systematically to determine if I could achieve a higher power at the HR during the 26 min test achieved prior to training (that is at HR 117-118). I did find that after the breathing training, at power output 106 watts, average HR over the 26 minutes was 114, so I suspect I could have produced a power output of 110 watts at HR 118.

      With regard to your question about achieving a similar benefit from using a 3:3 pattern during the training phase, I think it likely that the most important thing to achieve is deep inspiration. The 4:2 pattern is unlikely to be essential although it is possible that a longer inspiration is the most efficient way to ensure a deep inspiration, at least in the low aerobic zone

      • Ewen Says:

        Thanks again Canute. I’ll try the 4:2 as well as deep 3:3 breathing, concentrating on deep inspiration. One thing I noticed yesterday was that it’s easy to revert to “shallow” or quiet breathing when there’s no obvious call for oxygen (running easily on the flat or on downhills), so the method needs some concentration to keep it going throughout a run.

        On a tangent, I was wondering about relative better heart-beat per km values on faster runs… Could this be because at higher speeds, deeper breathing is a necessity? Or at higher speeds there’s more elastic rebound from tendons and muscles? Or a combination of both?

        By the way, I haven’t been on Twitter long, so still learning the ins and outs. I find it good for finding many ideas and links from one place. Subscribing to Tweeters of “good value” is helpful. For instance, Haile Gebrselassie doesn’t say much about particular training days.

  4. Tweets that mention How should a runner breathe? « Canute’s Efficient Running Site -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ewen Thompson, RicksRunning. RicksRunning said: HOW SHOULD A RUNNER BREATH? https://canute1.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/how-should-a-runner-breathe/ […]

  5. Mike Hardy Says:

    I’ve been experimenting with this since commenting prior. It is clear HR goes down at a given W output (at least under threshold in research by all, and I observe it at all given power outputs – even over VO2max)

    What causes it? We’re casting around for that.

    I speculate that altering the balance between exhale and inhale, such that there is much more inhale tilts the average thoracic pressure towards net negative pressure. This would cause the heart to fill more rapidly/thoroughly, wouldn’t it? Could this also cause the capillaries in the alveoli to have higher relative pressure and thus perhaps expand for greater surface area / oxygen exchange?

    Obviously speculative, but something is causing the heart/lungs to have to work slightly less hard with the a 2ex:4in pattern for me (that rhythm works well with cycling), and if I go even 3:3 it doesn’t. I recall some saw improvement using 3:3 after the training and Canute – you mention deep inspiration may be the key there, that could have the same net negative thoracic pressure effect despite the even timing.

    • canute1 Says:

      Mike,
      Your suggestion that deeper inspiration will draw more blood into the chest and increase cardiac filling is interesting. Increased cardiac filling will stretch the heart muscle and produce a stronger contraction so cardiac output will increase. At rest, HR tends to increase during inspiration due to parasympathetic withdrawal but that effect is abolished once HR increases beyond 100 bpm, so in the lower aerobic zone, increased cardiac stroke volume should lead to the requirement for a lower HR for a given power output
      Nonetheless, I suspect that one of the major benefits of deeper inspiration is a lower proportion of stale air from the dead space.

  6. Rick Says:

    Thanks for your feedback on this subject.
    I’ll be working on controlled diagram breathing in the lead up to London.
    I’ll also take a keen interest to how you progress with your own breathing experiments.
    By the way Steve Magness just tweeted this;
    stevemagness

    Effect of inspiratory training on repeated running to exhaustion: http://bit.ly/fPcVCw about 2 hours ago via TweetDeck

    • canute1 Says:

      Rick
      Thanks for the link to the tweet by Steve Magness. The evidence that deep breathing improves running performance is getting stronger

  7. Helen Says:

    Thank-you…this is so interesting.
     How strange, when breathing is as fundamental as it gets, but I’ve given it such little thought? I think I’d seen breathing technique very important in sports where there are fixed breathing patterns,eg swimming and rowing, but I’d assumed that in aerobic running the oxygen was just there, and that discussions on breathing patterns were more about establishing a relaxed rhythm. 

    More food for thought….thank-you

    • canute1 Says:

      Helen,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree that one of the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing is relaxation of unnecessary muscle tension but, as you remark, there is food for thought – full benefits of deep breathing appear a little more complex

  8. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, It is interesting to speculate that lower beats per Km observed at higher power output might be due to deeper breathing.
    With regard to focus on breathing even when running slowly, I do not think it is essential, once deeper breathing has become a habit. Practising deep breathing during the warm-up can help. I try to practise ‘mindfulness’ – a state which enhnaces awarenss of breathing.

  9. Rick Says:


    Nothing is more important.

    I just had a discussion with a private client this morning about how you must always stay vigilant and aware when you slip into a shallow, stress breathing pattern.

    Because if you don’t “catch yourself” and “release and rewire” that pattern, it will get you. It will eventually take you down.

    Chronic hyperventilation that comes along with this short, chest based breathing pattern not only reduces the amount of available oxygen to your tissues, and creates excess stress and tension in your neck and shoulders, it also creates an alkaline environment in your blood.

    Some people may think “alkaline’s good, right?”

    In your tissues, yes. But when you’re blood becomes even a tad alkaline from shallow breathing, your hemoglobin holds onto oxygen much more fiercely so your tissues don’t get it!

    That means not only are you not taking enough O2 in, you’re also getting a double whammy from your hemoglobin’s reluctance to give it up to you!

    So make sure you master the art of breathing and I promise…everything will get better. It has no choice.

    • canute1 Says:

      Rick
      Thanks for posting the video by Dr Steve and also the quotation. I agree that continued reinforcement of the neuromuscular program that sustains diaphragmatic breathing is very important for maintaining good posture and goor aeration of the lungs during long races

  10. Rick Says:

    MESSAGE FROM Dr. Steve

  11. Rick Says:

    Breathing Techniques, Exercises and Aids for Runners from Joe English on Vimeo.

  12. Bob (Downtown Runner) Says:

    For about the last year I’ve been using a 3:2 breathing pattern. I don’t even know where I read about it but when I tried it I was “sold”. The odd number of strides is supposed to keep a “balance”.

    On days that I successfully keep to this breathing pattern I find I labor less, end stronger, and seemingly recover quicker. How much is in my mind is unknown…..

  13. alex Says:

    Interesting, I haven’t tried this but I will the next time I am running.

  14. braces for adults Says:

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!
    ! Finally I have found something that helped me. Thanks a lot!

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