Are you a new runner? Are your legs just fine, but you just can't seem to control your breathing? Are you frustrated by more experienced runners who appear to run with little effort and with unlabored breathing that seems as normal as if they were standing still? You're not alone. Most new runners experience the same frustration. Just know that many experienced runners also struggled with the same breathing issues when they first started.
Your body needs a good deep inhalation in order to get oxygen deep into the lungs where it can be transpired from the alveoli into the bloodstream. Better oxygenated blood means more oxygen getting to the muscle where it's used to make energy. More energy means more endurance. Breathing rapidly doesn't mean you're getting in the needed oxygen, because rapid breathing often means shallow breathing.
So how do you get in control and unlock your lungs so your breathing doesn't seem so labored? It takes practice. Breathing is such a natural thing that it feels quite unnatural to think about your breathing. But, spending a few runs focused on your breathing can ensure more enjoyable and relaxing runs.
A good breathing training technique for beginners to try starts with a walk.
Go for a one-minute walk. During the walk, focus on slow deep breathing. Concentrate on expanding your belly as you breathe. Keep an even breathing pattern during the walk. Pay attention to your stride. More than likely you're taking multiple strides during each inhale as well as each exhale. Remember that a good exhale will clear the lungs of CO2 making room for more oxygen. Also focus on good posture. Walk with a "tall spine." Keep your head up, but relax your shoulders. Slumped posture can actually decrease your lung capacity.
Now, pick up the pace for a one-minute brisk walk while maintaining the same deep even breathing pattern. It may take a little concentration to keep your breathing rate from increasing as you pick up the pace, but you'll be surprised how easily you can actually control it by just paying a little attention to it.
Now, pick up the pace for a one-minute slow jog. Focus on keeping the same even breathing pattern. This may be a little more challenging, but you can do it. Pay attention to the number of strides your taking with each inhale and exhale. (To count a stride, just count each time your right foot hits the ground.)
Finally, pick up the pace to a one-minute run. Focus on keeping the same even breathing pattern you've been keeping since the walk. Take note of the number of strides your taking for each inhale and exhale. They may not be the same.
The first few times you try this exercise, you may find it challenging to keep that even breathing pattern through the progressively faster intervals. Keep practicing.
When you're ready to try it with a "real run" begin by running at a slow pace. Focus on belly breathing as you take in a deep breath. Then release this breath with a good exhale. To make this easier, try inhaling over three strides and exhaling over three strides, making a complete breathing cycle six strides. There are no hard and fast rules.
Depending on your stride, your inhale may take two to four strides and the exhale may take two to four strides (the inhale and exhale stride count doesn't have to be equal). Remember, a good long exhale will clear the lungs of CO2 making room for more O2. If associating your breathing with your stride doesn't work for you, try counting — one, two, three, inhale; one, two, three, exhale. With practice, this will become second nature and you will no longer need to count or keep track of strides.
Whichever technique you use, the main goal is to control your breathing so that you're breathing from your diaphragm or "belly breathing." Controlled, deep breathing will help prevent those annoying side stitches too. Belly breathing gets more oxygen into the blood stream, increases lung capacity and endurance. Once you have your breathing under control, you'll experience more enjoyable runs. You'll also be able to then focus on increasing your speed and/or distance.