Tag Archives: breathing

Breathing Has Three Sides (at least!)

A recent post encouraged runners to try out different breathing intervals; two step, four step, six step, etc., to see what works best for them at different levels of speed or intensity.

There’s nothing in The Book of Nike though, that says we have to always breathe in for the same duration as we breathe out, or go right from one to the other without a pause. Start messing with those variables and you enter the world of asymmetrical breathing – yet another chew-toy-for-the-brain, to drown out your inner couch potato.

The simplest asymmetry is a three count – in on one, pause on two, out on three – which lets the lungs mine that air for a bit longer before pushing it out, and also reduces the number of lung expansions over any given length of time, thereby saving some energy and stamina in your core. A useful tool when you want to push hard, but with more efficiency and for than breathing in/out on every two footfalls would allow.

Way more intense is a seven count: long, slow in on one/two/three, pause on four, then long slow out on five/six/seven. Keeping that up for an extended time can be a useful way to force a slower pace – and maybe trick the body into efficiency adaptations that will come in handy in other situations.

Sounds arcane and complex, I’ll admit, so why bother? Well, I’m convinced there are at least three potential benefits.

One, asymmetrical breathing gives us lots more options to match respiration to effort. Is a two-step interval too fatiguing on that gentle grade, but a four-step feels like oxygen starvation? Try a three- step and see how that fits.

Two, Our core muscles create different motions and stresses on inhaling than on exhaling, and if you breathe symmetrically, you’re always making inhale motions on the same foot/leg and exhaling stresses on the other.  Yup; symmetrical breathing can actually lead to asymmetrical fatigue and even injury. Asymmetrical breathing distributes stresses more equally – which is well worth a try if you ever find yourself with a pain or glitch on one side and not the other!

Three (and my personal favorite, though I have no scientific basis for it): Try filling your lungs with air and holding your breath, and note how long before you start to feel desperately in need of exhaling. Now, try emptying your lungs and holding there. If you’re like me, the horror movie sensation comes a lot quicker. My guess is, our bodies are hard-wired to suck in air, but not so much to push it out. ‘Full lungs good, empty lungs bad. Ugh.’  With that in mind, my tendency is to exhale harder or longer so I get as much of the old, stale, oxygen-depleted air out, and then let the body’s reflex take care of pulling in the fresh stuff.


These days, my sweet spot seems to be hard-out on one/two/three, and let the body inhale naturally on four/five. When I find my pace lagging on a long run, choosing to breathe that asymmetrical five-count works wonders to bring me back in range.

I’ve even found myself getting into a mode with a hard exhale, quick partial inhale, another hard exhale and then a big full inhale, all in a five count.   Difficult to describe, but whenever I fall into it, I find my pace has improved with little to no increase of effort.


So mix it up, chop it up, find out what works for you, and when. There’s more than two sides to breathing in and out!

Breathing – Un-simplified

Running is simple right?  Well, maybe not so much; fact is, magazines, books, websites and blogs are full of info on how to run better.

But if running isn’t as simple as it might seem, surely breathing is; absolutely every human does it all the time, without having to decide ‘OK, I’m gonna breathe now.’ Mostly, in fact, without thinking about it at all. In, out, in, out; repeat as needed ad infinitum (don’t we wish!); what’s to think about? Well, just like running, it turns out not to be so simple when you’re trying to get the most out of it.

Respiration (gotta give it a fancier name to go with the overthinking) can also be thought of as how we mine the atmosphere for the oxygen our muscles and organs need to metabolize nutrients and turn them into energy and motion. Not just leg muscles, but arm muscles to pump and help keep our balance, core muscles hold us straight and to transfer momentum and vectors of motion from one part of the body to the others (thereby keeping us head-on-top-and-feet-on-bottom), the heart to pump, the brain to daydream about how good it’s gonna feel when we finally stop.

It may feel natural and even necessary to fall into a rhythm of breathing in on one footfall, out on the next. Simple and clear. And good for a short sprint maybe, but the truth is, breathing itself is work (just like any other kind of mining), requiring repeated expansion and then compression of the chest cavity to pull air into the lungs and then force it out.  Respiring has other impacts, too; like drying out membranes and lungs during an activity that’s already causing the body to lose great amounts of moisture through perspiration and chemical reactions. As good as the old in-out may be, unless you’re hitting a really maximum level of effort, deeper and slower breathing is usually more efficient, getting more oxygen into the system relative to the amount of energy and drying that it costs.

Everyone’s different, so it’s worth experimenting. Get up to whatever pace you’re interested in, and try a mental count of one-two on the inhale, three-four on the ex, one-two in, three-four out… That leave you feeling starved? Maybe in on one and out on two-three, then in again on one… Or if you’re young with a really high VO2Max, go the other route, four and four for an eight beat cycle…(if that works, I hate you. Not.).

So be conscious of how you’re breathing. Try different frequencies and patterns, and learn to use the one that works best for you at whatever pace and intention you run. When you want to dial up the pace, dial up the frequency too, going from six beats to four, to three, and even down to two when you hit that last 100 yards to the now-I-can-stop line.

It’s that simple! (?)

Next time: asymmetrical breathing, or why this slow-and-steady runner loves to count to five.