How to Use Breathing Patterns to Pace Your Running

How to Use Breathing Patterns to Pace Your Running

In recent weeks, I’ve chosen to switch off the heart rate monitor function on my watch, in favour of a focus on breathing patterns while running.

Techniques like focusing on breathing patterns for running can be really very effective in helping you regulate your effort on the run.

Let me explain…

I had been using the optical heart rate sensor on the watch, and had been getting some funky readings recently. Many fellow Strava users have advised me to move to a chest strap HR sensor, but at the risk of over-sharing with you, I’ve had skin problems from chest strap use in the past, so I’m not particularly keen on taking that option!

Don’t get me wrong, I actually love my Garmin 235 for what it is. It does a good job. I simply want to be less data reliant in my training over the coming few months.

Running by Feel

In coming months, I’m going to revert to spending more time “running by feel”. I know my great friend Tina Muir would approve. She’s a big advocate of looking at the GPS watch less, and focusing more on feel!

This time last year I was training for Rotterdam Marathon and spent a great deal of time running slowly with a focus on staying in heart rate zone 2. The aim was to develop my base of aerobic endurance.

This worked really well, as I noticed a dramatic improvement in pace at given effort over an 8 week period.

Obviously, I was happy with that!

However, one slight aspect of the process frustrated me a little; I found my focus becoming heavily directed towards the watch while I was running. I was constantly checking my heart rate!

Now, I know I *could* set-up alarms to let me know if my heart rate is peaking. But that kind of external cueing doesn’t really sit with me.

I’d rather work with something more intrinsic.

The solution… focus on breathing rate and rhythm.

Breathing Patterns for Running

I’m not entirely sure where I learnt the connection between breathing patterns and run pacing, but as an asthmatic distance runner, learning tips to help breathing when I run has certainly proven incredibly useful to me over the years!

Let’s go back to basics…

We need oxygen to live, let alone exercise! As we run, the body demands more oxygen. This is why both our breathing rate and the volume of air we inhale/exhale increases as we increase running intensity.

When we’re running “easy”, our breathing rate increases from what it is at rest, but we should still have control of our breathing.

You should have breathing control enough to hold a conversation without needing to re-catch your breath. If you can achieve this, it’s a safe assumption that you’re exercising aerobically (heart rate zone 2). In other words, your body is getting the oxygen it needs to maintain this level of effort.

This level of effort is exactly where you need to be for the majority of your long training runs, and your easy mid-week runs.

Usually, I describe this level of effort fairly subjectively as “conversation”, but it’s useful to put more of an objective figure on it. At this aerobic pace, you should be able to comfortably maintain a 3:3 breathing rate.

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What Does 3:3 Breathing Mean?

I often refer to 3:3 breathing, but you’ll also hear me talking about 4:4, 3:2 and 2:2. These ratios are simply an expression of the number of strides spent inhaling versus the number of strides exhaling.

This type of breathing pattern relies on you being able to sync your breathing in-and-out with your footfalls, which should come naturally. New runners often struggle with this; it is something that does come with practice though!

So, 3:3 breathing is simply a pattern that means you inhale for 3 strides then exhale for 3 strides, and repeat on an ongoing basis.

A slow, controlled breathing pattern should be something you can maintain while running at an easy pace. If you really want to slow yourself down, try 4:4!

However, when run faster, you will naturally increase your breathing rate to account for the increased demand for oxygen. You’ll perhaps find yourself employing a 3:2 breathing pattern as you run closer to your aerobic threshold. Breathing in for 3 strides, when breathing out quicker with more force, to ready yourself to inhale again sooner.

As you run faster still, beyond your lactate threshold, you move into oxygen debt. You’ll find yourself breathing hard with a 2:1 patten. At this point, your body is struggling to get the oxygen it needs to maintain the intensity of exercise. The energy system your body is using has switched from aerobic to anaerobic.

Typically you’ll known this feeling well if you’ve spent time interval training!

Back to The Main Point…

Particularly on my long runs, I’m using breathing patterns as a means of gauging my running effort as I train for upcoming events this year rather than being overly obsessed by the numbers on my Garmin!

I’m going to use my ability to maintain a 3:3 pattern as an indicator that I’m running sufficiently easy enough on my long runs.

I definitely benefitted from plenty of aerobic running ahead of Rotterdam Marathon last year, where I set a new PB at 3:26. However, my gut feeling is that I created an artificial limit for how fast I was “allowed” to run those easy runs, by focusing on heart rate alone.

The proof will be in the pudding, but I think I’ll benefit from allowing myself to run as fast as I’m able to keep my breathing in the 3:3 rhythm…

Time will tell!

Do You Focus on Breathing Patterns?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in running with a focus on breathing patterns. Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.

1 Comment

  1. I absolutely focus on my breathing patterns when I run. As a runner and a yogi, I practice pranayama breathing and I like to incorporate some of the techniques into training runs and recovery swims. Overall I’d say I normally run using a 3-2 ratio but it’s interesting to experiment changing up the inhalation and exhalation ratios. I always feel like this creates expansion in my chest and lungs. I also like to suggest to any fellow injured runners who may be sidelined that they consider a pranayama class as an alternative to help maintain existing lung capacity.