Yes, we realize that you have considerable experience breathing. We’re not here to tell you you’ve been doing it all wrong. Nevertheless, experts from disciplines as diverse as sports science and yoga meditation have learned ways to improve breathing technique. Benefits include improved performance, reduced stress, and greater mental focus.
What is the Best Way to Breathe?
To expand your lungs, the body uses three sets of muscles: the intercostal muscles that expand the ribcage, the diaphragm that pulls the lung cavity downward, and whole host of “accessory muscles” that assist during heavy breathing. In almost all cases, it’s best to emphasize breathing with the diaphragm. This is also called “belly breathing,” and is taught by everyone from Yogis to Buddhist meditation instructors to martial arts masters to rock climbing coaches. You’ll know you’re doing it right when your belly expands on each inhale, but your ribcage stays mostly stationary.
Generally, you’ll want to take about 50% more time to inhale as to exhale, with most of your attention placed on the exhale. Inhale through your nose as much as possible. At lower activity levels, you may be able to inhale completely through your nose; with greater exertion you’ll have to inhale through both nose and mouth, with most air entering your mouth. Exhale entirely through your mouth.
Many runners find it beneficial to establish a breathing tempo that’s in sync with their running cadence. For example, inhale for three steps, exhale for 2 steps. There’s no set formula; you’ll have to experiment and find what works best at every intensity level. You may find you already do this unconsciously.
There’s a reason for the asymmetry. If you inhale and exhale for the same number of strides, you’ll always be landing on the same foot when you exhale, which is a point of greater muscular tension. This can lead to an imbalance of stress on the joints. If you keep your breaths asymmetrical, you’ll constantly be switching.
Exhaling is also a more forceful process. In all the Eastern and Western breath-control traditions, it’s taught that you should be focusing your attention on the exhale. Exhaling naturally takes less time than inhaling.
How Else to Use Your Breath?
In addition to being a tool that can improve your physical and mental performance, breathing is a useful informal indicator of intensity. If you’re not working with a heart rate monitor, your breath can be useful to calibrate your training sessions.
Here are the standard training intensity zones:
Easy Zone (for recovery and warmup)
- You can breathe entirely through your nose if you wish to.
- You can easily sustain a conversation, or even sing.
- Generally corresponds with 60–70% maximum heart rate.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, subjective effort is 3 to 4.
Moderate Zone (endurance training, marathon pace or a bit slower)
- More intense breathing. You must use your mouth.
- You can hold a conversation with short sentences.
- Generally corresponds with 75–85% maximum heart rate.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, subjective effort is 5 to 6.
Tempo or Threshold Zone (tempo training, 5K pace or a bit slower)
- Very intense breathing.
- You can get out a few words at a time.
- Generally corresponds with 88–92% maximum heart rate.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, subjective effort is 7 to 8.
Maximum Zone (interval training)
- Breathing will intensify over the course of your effort until you’re breathing as hard as you can.
- You can’t talk.
- Generally corresponds with 95 to 100% maximum heart rate. Will increase over the course of the interval.
- On a scale of 1 to 10, subjective effort is 9 to 10.