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

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.