Q+A: How can I stop getting breathless when I run?

Our experts answer real-life questions

Posted: 9 September 2000
by Alison McConnell

Q I seem to experience problems in breathing when I run. I often feel breathless after hard efforts. I’d welcome any advice on how to improve my breathing or about correct breathing techniques.

A Above your lactate threshold (running uphill or sprinting, for instance), your breathing increases to help compensate for lactic acid production; this can trigger a huge increase in breathing effort and breathlessness (the sensation of not getting enough air).

Two more serious causes of breathlessness are asthma or a related condition known as airway hyper-responsiveness to exercise. Both can occur at any age. You can easily screen yourself for them by using a device called a peak-flow meter; these are quite widely available and cost around £10. You measure your peak-flow before your run and then every 10 minutes afterwards for about 30-40 minutes. If you have any narrowing of your airways (the tubes that conduct air down into your lungs), your peak-flow will fall after exercise and you should see your GP for further investigation. (GPs can also measure your peak flow, but they’re unlikely to be able to do post-exercise measurements. Health clubs that offer screening should also have a peak-flow meter.)

Other factors that can make breathlessness more severe are ‘bad breathing’ (for instance a rapid, shallow breathing pattern) and weakness or fatigue of your breathing muscles. Advancing age is strongly linked to breathing muscle weakness, as is the amount of hard breathing work that you do (I’m not suggesting you‘re ‘past it’, as decline is a steady process that starts in your 30s!). The problem is that the intensity of breathing work that’s needed to keep your breathing muscles in good shape is the same intensity that makes you out of breath and forces you to slow down – it might seem to be a Catch 22 situation. Persevere, though, and your breathing will eventually become easier.

The most efficient way to breathe is deeply and slowly. ‘Bad breathing’ is surprisingly common, even in well-trained athletes, and is a difficult habit to break because, although you can try to breathe more deeply and slowly, if your breathing muscles are unused to this you’ll feel even more breathless. Both bad breathing and weakness in the breathing muscles can be corrected by specific inspiratory muscle training using a device such as the POWERbreathe. Alternatively, you can use gravity to help you to breathe more efficiently. When you run, the contents of your entire body bounces up and down. This is particularly problematic where the abdominal contents are concerned (stomach, liver, gut). When we breathe in, the diaphragm (the main inspiratory muscle) moves downwards; if it does this at the same time as the abdominal contents are bouncing upwards, diaphragm movement can be impaired, increasing its work. But, this ‘visceral pump’ can also be used to your advantage if you breathe in time with your stride frequency. On a steady run, breathe out on every other footfall for the same leg. You’ll know when you’ve got it right, because your breathing will suddenly feel much stronger and easier. You may find it hard to believe, but simply being aware of your breathing and building a steady rhythm can make it feel much easier.—Dr Alison McConnell, sport & exercise physiologist at Brunel University

POWERbreathe units, as well as peak-flow meters, are available from Bodycare; 01926 816155.

Previous article
Q+A: Why do I get chills after a post-run shower?


Discuss this article

I have been running for about 8 months and at least 4x a week and I just do not seem to be able to run comfortably due to my breathing technique or lack of it. Can any one give me some tips.
Posted: 10/01/2003 at 20:57

Loosen up, relax and enjoy your running!
Posted: 10/01/2003 at 21:01

Are you running too fast for a start?
We all get out of breath if we run too hard. Do you use a heart monitor as that will give you a better idea of the rate you are running at? By the way, Aldi have got heart monitors in from Jan 23rd for £14.99. Dont know if they are any good but that seems realy cheap - maybe a good bargin for beinners.

Try to find a pace, no matter how slow, where you can breath in rythm to your stride with nice deep comfy breaths. This maybe in on every right footstrike and out on the next one or slower. Just pick your pace. But if you think there is a real physical problem with breathing don't overlook a visit to your GP.

Hope others can help more - all the best.
Posted: 10/01/2003 at 23:27

Sing a song (in your head!) as you run - helps to get breathing and feet in sync.
Posted: 11/01/2003 at 08:21

I don't have any problems regarding getting out of breath unless I'm pushing things, however, I do get attacks of hyperventilation and I have no option but to stop running. This can then last several hours and is very uncomfortable.
Posted: 11/01/2003 at 08:43

Suffolk P have you seen a doctor as that sounds a bit drastic to me! Pitts, where are you???
BTW what do you push?
Posted: 11/01/2003 at 11:02

I've been getting this on and off for about 10 years. Seems to be something to do with food intolerance (esp. caffiene). Yup, I did see a doc and all he did was to prescribe beta blockers, valium and a host of other drugs that are probably far more addictive than heroin, crack and whatever else.

I can live with it.
Posted: 11/01/2003 at 14:20

My teenage daughter had been running for about 3 years very successfully but suddenly developed dreadfull problems with breathing and chest pains. We purchased Powerbreathe as advertised in RW which, touch wood, has helped her breathing enormously e.g today she finished in the top ten in the Scottish East District XC Championships over 4.4K. I think that it cost £45 from our local running shop with our Club discount - the website is wwww.powerbreathe .co.uk
Posted: 11/01/2003 at 21:25

Suffolk P, have just re-read and realise am thick. I thought you actually meant pushing things like one of those mad pushchairs or something! Was not being a smartarse. Doh!

I find if I do one of my longer distances sometimes my throat feels like it's closing up and I'm a bit wheezy. I have to really concentrate on gulping big breaths right down. Is this usual, a sign of lack of fitness or am I going to keel over. (happenned yesterday)
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 09:43

sounds like exercise induced asthma
Get to your GP
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 12:04

I find I have to run really slowly for about 1 - 2 miles then my breathing seems to settle down. If I am with a group of friends, I can never chat unless we are almost at walking pace. I've been looking at the Powerbreathe machine - I would get one if I thought it would help. I'm also overweight which I suppose doesnt help.
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 12:28

HT - Doh!!!

I was tested for asthma at the time it first happened (I actually did collapse and did anyone actually bother to help me??). The airways are quite clear. Apparently it's due to too much oxygen in the system, the immediate cure is to breathe in and out of a brown paper bag to bring down the level of oxygen against the co2 level. You may have heard stories about "panic attacks". It has similar symptoms and can be very uncomfortable especially at high altitude where oxygen in thinner and you're breathing harder as it is.

Maybe I should also point out that I have been a Friday night smoker for nearly twenty years and, of course, this has nothing to do with it!
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 12:42

Munchkin, sounds like maybe you're not warming up properly. I find it's not good to start running straight off, even a slow jog, but give myself a good fast-walk warm up for 10 - 15 mins. At the moment I am getting back into running and using a treadmill but making use of other gym facilities before embarking on my treadmill session. I find by the time I'm ready to run I'm nicely warmed up and can start a proper run very quickly, but I'd suffer if I started from cold.
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 12:49

HT - do I understand you keeled over yesterday?
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 12:51

Suff P, no just felt like keeling over, was writing all thick-like. Again.
Just did 4.25m and it happened again. Did wonder if could be linked to fact most running done by very busy roads and am breathing in mainly exhaust fumes?

Benz, will mention to GP next time go in for my never-healing sinus snot thingy! (am one of those people that goes seldom as don't like to bother the busy doc)
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 17:03

I don't think we realise how much cack we're breathing in most of the time. This summer I was on hols in rural Ireland. Did a great little run on deserted back roads, and was aware that other than cow poo the air smaelt very clean. I realised just how clean when I came around a corner at the top of a hill 100 yards from a cottage. There was a wedding party in the garden having photos done and from that far away I was hit full force by a wall of hairspray fumes and perfume. At home that smell wouldn't even have registered!
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 17:27

I can relate to the clean air thing - my folks live in the foothills of the Pyrenees and walking there is - how can I put this without sounding corny? - a breath of fresh air? They don't even have cow poo spoiling things.
Posted: 12/01/2003 at 22:09

I have this problem too... I have been running for a while now and although I am relatively fit in the gym and can control my breathing- when it comes to running outside, I am out of breath from the minute I start to the minute I stop. The only time I can manage to talk to my boyfriend when we are out running, is when we are going downhill.

I figure that if I persevere and keep running outside it can only get better, but what else can I do?

What does this powerbreathe thingie do?
Posted: 13/01/2003 at 14:15

My daughter was diagnosed as having weak respiratory muscles after she had been examined by a physio & doctor for athletics induced asthma. She was advised to blow up ballons to strengthen chest muscles. Powerbreathe is a bit more sophisticated and a lot more expensive! It is a hand held machine with an adjustable resistance which exercises respiratory muscles and requires the user to take 30 breaths with it in the morning and in the evening. The blurb says that results are noticeable in four weeks and this seems about right in our case - as her breathing problems have eased considerably on Saturday she averaged around 6.5 minute miles for 4.4K on a tough, hilly XC course.
P.S. I'm not on commission from Powerbreathe!!!
Posted: 13/01/2003 at 20:55

Wee Col,
My breathing is all over the place when I run. It seems that the more I try and get my breathing right (too much thinking about it!) the more problems I have and as a result seem to be prone to very painful stitches. Have had a look at the powerbreathe website and am really tempted -do you think it would be worth a try?
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 14:27

I'm back - haven't been posting recently because I've been trying to get to grips with my own aches, pains and general inability to breathe following my first week running.
Very interesting thread, this one.

Suffolk Punch - hyperventilation is most definitely NOT related to smoking. As you said, it's to do with sucking in too much oxygen, and as we know, fags deprive the body of oxygen (largely through the production of carbon monoxide... but I'm getting a bit technical there...) As to why you're getting it - in all honesty, I've never come across food intolerance presenting as hyperventilation, but that's not to say it can't happen, I guess.

As an ex-smoker, I, too, am struggling with my breathing, although seem to get short periods where I can run at a faster pace than usual and my whole body, including my breathing, relaxes (feels great, for all of 2-3 minutes, then I'm near collapse once again!) I don't think the cold weather helps matters, and I remember reading elsewhere on this site someone advising that you should "treat the lungs as a muscle and build them up". Not strictly accurate, I suppose, but I agree with the sentiment. The more you do, the better it gets. Doesn't it?!
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 15:39

Thanks for the confirmation Pitts. Unless I start running in the 75 - 80% zone (for those of you who are familiar with HRMs) breathlessness has never really posed me any problems only these bloody hyper whatsit attacks. As for cold weather, I remember some years ago having an arguement with some fellow racing cyclists about cold weather affecting lungs. It seemed to affect some more than others, like you, I never seemed unduly affected by cold (other than usual freeze-your-wotsits-off problems) but some of guys said their lungs felt frigid by the cold. Maybe it was just an excuse for them to sit in a nice warm pub, while the rest of us did some hard-core winter training!! However, I'm convinced about having a proper warm-up. My breathing is all over the shop if I attempt any proper form of training before I've properly warmed up and I mean upto 15 minutes at this time of year.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 16:29

SuzyB - have you tried matching your breathing to your stride pattern? I get this problem when I think too much about it, and my breathing goes all over the place, but if I concentrate on breathing in for 3 strides, then out for 3, it helps me get on top of it.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 17:28

In my daughter's case we only tried powerbreathe after medical/physio consultation - checking out peak flow and other potential breathing/medical problems etc. and in her case it does seem to have worked. I suggest you explore as many avenues you can - Fishy may have something with the breathing/stride pattern.

At the end of the day you have to weigh everything up - how much does good running mean to you and is it worth investing around £50. My daughter enjoyes running and competing at a good level and her condition was really getting her down. We reckoned that the cost of the powerbreathe was slightly cheaper than a decent pair of running shoes and could only help her situation.

Hope you manage to find a solution to your problem soon - let us know how you get on.
Posted: 14/01/2003 at 21:14

Fishy/Wee Col,
Thanks for the advice. Went out for a run last night and did try to concentrate on my breathing pattern - wasn't too successful, but I'll keep at it. I've been running for almost 2 years and have had bother all this time so have decided that I'll try the powerbreathe too - I really want to improve my running and step up my distances, so think the investment will be worth it.
Will definately let you know how I get on.
Posted: 15/01/2003 at 08:57

Thanks everyone for you tips etc on breathing. I have tried running at a slower pace and it seems to be working, I relise now that you need to run at a pace that is comfortable not going of like a lunatic
Posted: 17/01/2003 at 20:43

y spend 50quid on a powerbreathe? can u not simulate the effect by holding hand over mouth to restrict your intake?

Posted: 17/01/2003 at 21:38

I've been running for the past 8 months in the hope of doing my first 1/2 marathon in the spring. I've always been into fitness - but for the odd year or three out boozing and lazing about - and have built up through hard work to be able to run 3 to 4 miles most nights. I still have problems with breathing and I have always a head on me that says stop . . . and when I do I ask why!

I'm 54 and give my neighbours and friends a good run for their money - given that I'm double the age at least of all of them who I run with - we cycle 13 miles on the hills against the clock on the non-run nights.

My breathing is wrong; I get back pains and I always think I can't do this! But, I do and afterwards I feel 20 years younger!

Love it - hate the pain and the feeling that I'm defeated when I run but keep going because afterwards I know I'll feel like magic!
Posted: 01/10/2003 at 22:29

Hi guys,

As a Sandhurst hopeful, I've been running for the last 10 months to build on my fitness. Only problem is I have been stuck at the 1 mile mark. I feel like I can never go any further as I get extremely tired and out of breath (average speed is 1mile in 9.5mins). Is this to do with my breathing? I visited my GP a few years back and he said I had a good set of lungs and certainlt didn't have asthma. Can anyone help or give me any tips as time is ticking away for me very fast!
Posted: 05/10/2003 at 10:36

try getting the book BODY, MIND AND SPORT by john douillard (amazon have it). It teaches an excellent breathing technique that is permanant and cheaper than POWERBREATH. It can take a few weeks to learn but the results are amazing - success garanteed !good luck.
Posted: 15/10/2003 at 08:47

Two things I had troubles with...

1) "Effort" asthma. When doing resistance intervals or pushing on the machine a little too hard, I experienced some mild asthma symptoms. That was especially true on cold weather. My physician told me to make sure I hydrated myself a lot before running, and to start slower. It worked very well.

2) I did not expulse all of the air from my lungs. I was actually using only about 80% or so of my lung capacity. Make sure you breathe out completely (contract your abs a little by the end of the breathing cycle to push all of the air out).


Posted: 09/02/2004 at 19:15

Hi all,
I have problems with my breathing when doing aerobic work and always have from being a child. It doesn't really seem to get better the more exercise i do. However, I have always been successful with anaerobic work such as 100m and gymnastics. I have since learnt that it all depends on what type of muscle fibres you have. oxidative are the best for aerobic work and glycolitic for anaerobic exercise. If your lucky enough you can have a mixture which makes you one of those people who are good at everything!!! Sadly you get what your born with. Hope it makes some sense and is not too boring!

Posted: 16/03/2004 at 19:50

i don't about anyoen else but i find if i concentrate on my breathing out rather than in, it actually regulates itself and makes running a lot easier. especially up hills!
good luck with your huffin 'n'puffin
Posted: 17/03/2004 at 20:06

Posted: 20/08/2004 at 23:21

I find it so difficult to breathe ( and run ) when its windy. Even moderately so. Does anyone else have this problem ?
Posted: 31/08/2004 at 22:42

i simply cannot breathe through my nose when I'm running. Is this common?
Posted: 03/09/2004 at 21:50

Yesterday I finally realised that I was going too fast. Legs had it, breath didn't. Slowed my pace down & pondered technique a little. This took my mind off my breath. However, after about 1 mile my breath felt like it was too much in my chest so I started using my diaphragm. This dropped the breath more into my abdomen and relaxed me from the chest up which helped tremendously.

The combination of pace & breathing with a little attention to technique enabled me to run just over 5k.

Maybe it's a good idea to forget speed until you have breath. <speaking to self also!>

Must agree with Yorkshirelass that the out breath seems more important ;-)
Posted: 19/09/2004 at 15:11

Hi ppl, i agree with fetch i cannot breathe through my nose either,gets too blocked up!I find that on good days it takes about 10 mins for my breathing to regulate.The worse my breathing is the more anxious i get!I suffered with panic attacks for years, and thought theyd completely gone,shallow chest breathing dont help matters.Has anyone had any success from Diaphragmatic breathing techniques? wot about listening to music? I dont want to give up as i love running!
Posted: 02/10/2004 at 17:32

Hello all, ;-).

i also have the same problem of geting out of breath & gasping, ie not breathing properly. but im not over weight though. im new to running....i tried breathing the way Fishy said last night on treadmill, ie run 1min walk 1min..repeat 10 times...and my running felt better!, its just a bit hard geting the technique right lol...

Posted: 14/07/2005 at 09:23

It's all about rhythm Charlotte :-) I tend to go for a double breath-in, then a double breath out. You should try and fit it in with your stride pattern too e.g. repeat your breathing cycle every other footfall (or whatever feels comfortable).

As for choice of what you breath through, it's a case of whatever you feel comfortable with. As a rule, I breath through my mouth, but when I run fast, and feel like I'm getting out of breath, I throw in a few nose inhales, which seems to get a bit of extra air in, and calms me down.

It's all a case of practise. Remember to retain control of your body i.e. take charge of your breathing before it takes charge of you.
Posted: 14/07/2005 at 10:32

See more comments...
We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.