Best Way to Breathe During Exercise

Sunday, July 17, 2011 • Chicago, IL 60657


Birds do it, and so do horses. So it seems natural to expect that humans would synchronize their breathing with rhythmic activities like running, cycling, or rowing. Sure enough, decades of studies have found links between stride rate and breathing rate for both novices and experts, at slow and fast speeds, in many different activities. Some studies suggest this unconscious synchronization makes your movement more efficient – but the latest research suggests that trying to force yourself to breathe in a certain pattern can backfire.

            Horses maintain a fixed one-to-one ratio between strides and breaths because their lungs and breathing muscles are shaken rhythmically by the impact of their hooves on the ground. Flapping wings put birds under similar constraints. Humans, on the other hand, walk upright, so the jarring impact of each foot-strike doesn’t directly interfere with breathing muscles. Still, a series of studies in the 1970s showed that if you put subjects on a treadmill or exercise bike, some (but not all) naturally fall into a pattern where their breathing rate is synchronized with their cadence. The ratio of full strides (i.e., counting each time the right foot hits the ground) to full breathing cycles (i.e., counting each exhale) varies widely among subjects, with common observations of 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, 4:1, and even 5:2. The most common among runners is two stride cycles for each breath.   

            A Swiss study in 1993 found that runners seem to burn slightly less energy when their breathing is coordinated with their stride rate – a finding that spurred some coaches to encourage their runners to focus more on their breathing. Numerous studies since then have explored whether synchronized breathing makes movement feel easier or burns less energy, with conflicting results. After several decades of research, the failure to demonstrate any clear link between synchronize breathing and efficiency suggests that if there is any effect, it’s too small to be of practical significance. Still, the idea that there’s a “correct” breathing pattern has persisted ever since.

            More recent research has suggested that trying to consciously control your breathing is quite different from letting your breathing adopt a rhythm subconsciously, and it may even have a negative effect. A 2009 study from the Institute of Sports Science in Muster, Germany, had runners focus their attention on either their surrounding or their breathing. When they focused on their breathing, the subjects took deeper breaths and slowed their breathing rate from 37 breaths a minute to just 30. The result: they burned almost 10 percent more energy compared to when they simply let their mind wander. The researchers conclude that we’re pretty good at picking the right breathing rate without thinking about it, so we just make things worse when we try to interfere.

            Still, there are some useful breathing tips that new exercisers should know. For instance, it’s easier to get lots of oxygen in by breathing through your mouth and nose rather than either one on its own. And synchronizing your breathing is important if you’re lifting weights: exhale as you lift and inhale as you release, making sure not to hold your breath. But in general if you find yourself panting uncontrollably as you start a new cardio activity, it’s far more likely because you’re starting too fast than because you’re breathing wrong. Slow down, enjoy the scenery around you, and let the breathing take care of itself.