ST: Take a deep breath

This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 18 Nov 2018.


  1. I understand the need to breathe into the diaphragm but my chest will feel a little compress and breathless meaning I have to take a deep breath into my chest to feel better. Any way to overcome this? – Jason
  2. Breathing – I can be running at zone two but why am I always feeling out of breath? – Anonymous

MOK YING REN – How should I breathe when I run? This is a question often posed to me at forums.

Our first breaths were taken in at birth and the act of breathing now comes naturally to us. Sometimes, we do not even realize it when we breathe although it becomes (painfully) obvious when we run and our speed appears to be limited by our breathing as demand for oxygen intake increases.

Breathe Like You Swim

Before embarking on my competitive running journey, I was heavily involved in swimming and triathlon for about 10 years.

For those who swim, you would know how important it is to regulate your breath properly in the water, lest you inhale a huge gulp of chlorinated water. Regardless of your swimming speed or stroke, you have to maintain a controlled and regular breathing pattern. Your breaths should follow the rhythm of your strokes as much as possible.

It is also important to take deep breaths when swimming. If you take short, shallow breaths, you will not be able to keep your face submerged underwater for long. But once you start taking deep, full breaths, swimming becomes a lot more comfortable.

The same regulated and deep breathing technique used in swimming should be employed in running.

What if you do not or are unable to swim? Fret not, there are some other strategies which you may try out to help you to breathe better.

Counting Steps

A strategy to regulate your breath when running is to consciously count your steps while running for each breath that you take. There is no science behind establishing what your breathing/running tempo should be. In all likelihood, you should be able to find your most comfortable tempo through a process of trial and error.

We naturally inhale longer than exhale –  check in with your own breathing right now as you read this article!

For your easy runs, you may start off with a tempo of 4 steps for inhalation, and 2 steps for exhalation. As you speed up, the inhale-exhale step ratio is reduced to 2:1, or even 1:1.

Being aware of your breathing rate also allows you to gauge the intensity that you are running at. If you are unable to catch your breath or hold a conversation during your easy runs, it is likely that you are running too fast! Slow down and regulate your breathing to a comfortable inhale-exhale step ratio.

Mok Ying Ren recommends that you fill in your lungs adequately and naturally while running. Photo credits: ONEATHLETE

Breathe Deeply


It is easy to misunderstand the phrase “breathing deeply” in the context of running.

To breathe deeply does not mean that you take in a huge amount of air and hold it in as if playing a game of “How long can you hold your breath for?”.

What it actually means that instead of taking small gasps of air, you should fill your lungs in, adequately and naturally. There should be a slight rise in your chest with each inhalation, but your abdomen should not bloat. This may be difficult to understand and execute, but if you follow the recommended inhalation-exhalation step ratio of 4:2 for your easy runs, you should be able to achieve nice, deep breaths.

Mouth or Nose?

The mouth and the nose are mere openings to the same space – your lungs. Regardless of how it enters, air will go through your windpipe and into your lungs. Essentially, there is no difference to your respiratory system, whether you inhale through your mouth or your nose.

You may, however, experience a physical difference depending on the weather climate. In cold and dry climates, it would be advisable to breathe through your nose as it moistens the air which you inhale. In contrast, if you breathe through your mouth, your throat will dry up quickly, and possibly inducing dry coughs.

Despite this, you may find it more natural to utilize your mouth for breathing when running at high intensities. This is because the mouth allows you to inhale much more quickly, due to its larger surface area. Do not fight this tendency to breathe through your mouth and let it occur naturally.

I personally inhale through my nose during easy runs, and through my mouth during faster runs.

The most crucial aspect of breathing is self-awareness. When you are in the “zone”, you will experience a harmony between your running steps and your breath, which will definitely make your runs more enjoyable.

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