It should be easy really. We take air into the body to oxygenate muscles and organs, then we breathe out all of that nasty waste gas called carbon dioxide – no? No, carbon dioxide (CO2) should not be considered a waste gas. It is, in fact CO2 that determines how much oxygen is delivered to the cells. The Bohr Effect states that more oxygen is released in those tissues that have higher CO2 values. This is true for healthy people with a normal breathing pattern.

You are well-aware that over-eating and drinking too much can be bad for your health, but do you ever consider that you could be breathing too much? If you over-breathe, you get rid of too much CO2 and therefore, the haemoglobin in the blood holds on to the oxygen, reducing delivery to the muscles, brain, heart and other vital organs.

How do you know if you are over-breathing?
A panic attack is an extreme case of over-breathing, but lower-level symptoms such as feeling tired a lot of the time, disrupted sleep, constantly sighing or yawning, brain fog and lack of concentration, feeling weak or agitated could suggest you are a chronic over-breather.

How to address the issue
It’s important to address your breathing in everyday life. Look at reducing the amount of air you breathe to that required for whatever activity you are doing. Resting requires less breath than running. Reduced breathing at rest will translate to easier breathing when running.

Breathe rhythmically, in and out through the nose in everyday (and night) life and also in the majority of your running training. This will help reduce stress hormones and balance all of the body’s systems. Nasal breathing may take time to get used to, particularly if you are an habitual mouth-breather. The trick is to do things slowly and not force the breath. It’s also advisable to take a tissue out with you when running as the nose may start to run as well!

The benefits of nasal breathing
Set a comfortable pace. If it gets too much, slow down or walk. Start with just a few seconds or minutes, building the time gradually with each run. Total nasal breathing utilises nasal nitric oxide (NO), a gas which is produced in the nasal cavities. NO is essential for maintaining good health. It dilates the air passages in the lungs and does the same in the blood vessels, helping to maximise body oxygenation. Research also shows NO helps prevent high blood pressure, lowers cholesterol and keeps the arteries young and flexible. Mouth breathing bypasses this important gas.

Total nasal breathing has also been shown to create an aerobic training effect. This is a much better monitor than the often-used ‘hold a conversation’ technique. In fact, holding a conversation when running is not a good idea. Not only will you be mouth-breathing, but you’ll also be taking short, sharp breaths when you should be focusing on rhythmical breathing.

The benefits of rhythmical breathing
Rhythmical breathing is important in terms of stress on the body. You may be aware of heart rate variability (HRV) stress tests on the latest sports watches and various apps. In order to reduce stress, balance hormones and produce a state of homeostasis, not just in running but everyday life too, smooth, rhythmical breathing should be adopted.

Breathing tips to improve running performance

  • Breathe through your nose 24/7 and in the majority of your running.
  • Breathe smoothly and rhythmically 24/7 and in all of your running.
  • Keep a constant cadence when running (foot turn over/strides per minute) of 170-180bpm and find a comfortable breath ratio (e.g. 3:3 (in for 3 out for 3) or 3:4 etc). Make sure this is not forced.
  • Movement should follow the breath rather than visa versa.
  • Rest quietly for 10-20 mins each day, bringing attention to the breath. Follow each breath in and out focusing on the cooler air coming into the nasal cavity and slightly warmer air leaving. Soften the ribcage with each exhale and reduce the breathing without holding the breath. Sense that your are breathing just the amount of air required in this resting position. You should not hear the breath or see excessive movement in the ribcage.
  • Warm up with breath holds. Nasal breath as you walk. Take a small breath in and small breath out then pinch your nose to hold the breath. Count the number of steps you take until you feel the first urge to breathe. Then breathe in and out through the nose. The breath should settle in 2-3 breaths. If it takes longer, or you feel the need to take a big gasp of air, you’ve held for too long. This is not a test to see how long you can hold the breath. Continue for 10 minutes with breath holds every minute or so.
  • Warm down with breath holds. Nasal breathe as you walk. Take a small breath in and small breath out, then pinch your nose to hold the breath for 5 steps. Then breathe in and out through the nose for about 10 steps. Practice for 3-5 minutes.

Held back by injury?
Breathing exercises are an ideal way of maintaining, and even improving aerobic and anaerobic training without putting excessive stress and strain on the body. This is ideal if you are recovering from injury since you can get a similar response to high intensity interval training (HIIT) and high altitude training.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Breath hold exercises should not be practiced if you are pregnant, suffer from any heart or lung conditions, have high or low blood pressure. If in doubt, please consult your GP or medical practitioner. Reduced breathing and total nasal breathing exercises are suitable for everyone. As with any exercise, stop if you feel dizzy or faint.

For more information on breathing exercises get a copy of The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown

Gray Caws is a Master Chi Running Coach, Director of Chi Running UK & Ireland, Certified Oxygen Advantage Instructor and Specialist Personal Trainer. He coaches people of all ages and abilities, improving performance by first building the foundations of efficient breath and movement. He teaches one-to-one and group workshops in London and has travelled extensively delivering workshops, adventures and retreats. The Chi Running Costa Brava Adventure and 5 Elements of Mindful Movement Retreat in Italy are now regular yearly events and he has recently returned from Muscat, Oman coaching Chi Running and breathing technique to beginners and elite club runners alike. He runs regularly and has completed a number of 1/2 marathons, marathons and ultras.