How to Breathe While Running
Updated: Sep 6
Have you ever wondered how breathing exercises can help your running performance, and how you should be breathing while running? We at BIX have spoken with Aigul, a certified Breathwork instructor and trail runner based in Hong Kong.
In this interview, she is sharing her own experience of breathing while running, helpful breathing techniques, and tells us about the physiological difference in breathing between men and women.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you decided to become a certified breathwork coach?
My name is Aigul and I am a multilingual community builder, trail runner, and conscious Breathwork instructor hailing from the Ural mountains in Russia. I previously reported on environmental issues for the South American media outlets, and worked across Hong Kong's startup scene and zero waste scene as an event organizer. Apart from my breathwork practice at Respira Breathwork, I head events and Green Queen BIZ at Green Queen Media.
Photo credit: Marek Koys
My decision to become a certified breathwork coach came out spontaneously when I was running Moontrekker in a pair with my friend, Claire Mordret a couple of years ago. Despite all the prior training, I felt exhausted and not in the mood right after starting off in Mui Wo. Claire did her best to motivate me but nothing helped and I was about to quit. At some point, she asked me to focus on a specific sequence of breathing and to not think of anything else - I had a stressful week at my previous job, my relationship was getting worse and my self-confidence was below the ground as we say in Russia. So I focused on that breathing pattern and started feeling better and even energized. When we crossed the finish line at Cheung Sha beach, we discovered that we became female pair champions. It was my first podium finish in Hong Kong and I literally had a mental shift overnight (pun intended). I took many decisions that night, and becoming a breathwork coach was one of them.
2. What are the benefits of breathwork for general well-being and for runners in particular?
Oh, so many! Breathing is everything and it's connected to each and every single system in our body! It's not something new - as kids, we used to breathe the right way.
90% of people breathe vertically (using their chest and shoulders most of the time) and not using their lungs at full capacity. When we relearn to breathe "low and slow", we make a huge improvement for our immune system and digestive system. Our heart rate goes down, our posture gets better and we are more efficient as runners. 3. Are there different breathing techniques to be used for an intense run versus an easy run?
Yes, absolutely. Normally, we breathe faster during an intense run and tend to do it through the mouth. I normally do a sequence of 3:2 (3 inhales, 2 exhales) for an easy run and change it either to 2:2 or 2:1 for an intense run. As runners, we use our inhale muscles a lot more - hence, the difference in numbers. 4. Are there different breathing techniques to be used for uphill running (or hiking) vs. downhill running?
It really depends on each person but I noticed some common patterns. As we go uphill, our heart rate also goes up and we start breathing harder and feel air hunger - this is when we need to be more energy-savvy and build a pace. I tried many techniques here and I'd say anything works as long as there are a pace and specific sequence and you add one long exhale every 3-4 cycles. As we run downhill, we tend to suck in our belly and sometimes forget to breathe at all!! I'm still looking for that 'perfect exercise' but I noticed that longer exhales work well (our belly also narrows at the exhale). 5. Under what circumstances would you recommend mouth or nose breathing?
There are many debates now on nasal vs mouth breathing. General and unanimous advice are to breathe through the nose all the time - that's our first line of defense and it helps us to save more energy and 'last longer'. Nasal breathing provides us with 10-20% bigger oxygen uptake in the blood - when we exercise our body uses more oxygen. Mouth breathing works well during the sprints when we need to give a final push. 6. Under what circumstances would you recommend chest or belly breathing?
Belly (diaphragm) all the way! It's our primary breathing muscle. Look at the kids below 5 years old or your pets - they know how it's done! Of course, our chest also takes part, say 3-5%. Our goal should be breathing with our diaphragm. 7. Are there breathing exercises that can be done while running?
I wouldn't call them exercises but rather breathing sequences (3:2 or 2:2 or others). Ideally, we should train our breathing muscles daily and be able to breathe optimally while running - and not thinking about switching to a specific breathing pattern. 8. What breathing exercises can be done at home to improve running performance?
I'd say most of the exercises are great to do anywhere where you feel comfortable. Breathwork is the most accessible and easy tool for everyone. I teach The Breathing Class method (TM) by Dr. Belisa Vranich who trained as an instructor. It's a sequence of exercises that involve movement. The one I'm mastering now is called Bellows Breath and it comes from yoga: Make a big inhale through the nose and exhale slowly for 15 seconds. Do 2-3 rounds and increase the exhales overtime. 9. Could you share any tools or gadgets that can help to improve your breathing in general?
Yes, I'm using O2Trainer now (a gadget) for inhaling muscle training and balloons - they help with exhales. I don't use any apps - tried a few but I'm generally not a heavy app user. I'd say start with 2-3 techniques that you'd be committed to do daily and take it from there. Try them, play with them, choose your own routine, and what works best for you. 10. Is there a physiological difference in breathing between women and men? If yes, would you recommend specific breathing exercises for men & women?
Oh, absolutely. Women are more prone to dysfunctional breathing... It's because of our cycle - the luteal phase is the hardest one when CO2 levels drop by 20% due to hormonal changes - that means faster breathing, increased heart rate, and more tendency towards fatigue. I wouldn't say, women need specific breathing exercises here but maybe focus more on calming ones.
Thank you Aigul, for the interview! :-)