There are several factors that makes runners young and old ask “Why do I struggle to breathe when running? “.
Have a look a look at some of the key causes and solutions for breathing troubles identified by runners to learn how to get back control of your breathing.
- You can’t catch your breath because you’re running too fast
- Sources of air pollution in your area make it hard to breath and run
- Running in nature does not necessarily mean clean air and easy breathing
- What your wearing on your run makes it harder for you to breath
- Your breathing issue may be an underlying medical condition, see a Doctor!
#1 You can’t catch your breath because you’re running too fast
While this one seems self explanatory but it’s a common issue found among new runners and experienced ones coming back from a long break in training.
We have all been there where you’re excited to get going, it feels great to just let loose a bit and just run at whatever pace is calling to you.
Maybe your trying to keep up with a group of runners that are running a pace a bit out of reach for you.
You start out feeling good, breathing is easy, but you feel that you are working hard to maintain pace.
Then suddenly even though the pace has not changed you start to feel like your breathing is constricted and your pace slows right before you come to complete sickening stop.
You need to slow down and listen to your breathing.
When this happens usually you are running beyond your cardio fitness or need to change your breathing technique which means it’s time to dial down the speed and assess your body.
A self assessment run can be a useful tool to really focus on what your body feels like as you start to push yourself towards where it becomes hard to breath and run.
Runner Breathing vs. Pace: Self Assessment and Correction
- Find a safe place where you can run continuously like a track, recreation trail or park.
- Do not wear headphones, listen to music etc. you need to be able to hear and focus on your breathing.
- Start to run very slowly as a warm up for 5 mins, this pace should not feel hard to breath.
- New Runners: If this does feel hard, you may need to start a run / walk program to build up to continuous running and see a doctor to make sure your cleared to run.
- Experienced Runners: You will never admit it, but it might be time to take a break or see a doctor as you may be over trained or have an underlying medical issue.
- Pick up your pace very slowly over the next 5 minutes. You should feel like you are barely going faster just nudging up the effort every 30-40 seconds.
- You now need to really focus on your breathing, what does it sound like?
- Is your breathing short and fast with about a second between breaths?
- Yes? Your breathing pattern may be starving you of air kind of like hyperventilation. This can make you feel like you’re running out of breath at a fast pace you can maintain if you were getting more air and breathing more calmly.
- Using your perception of your running effort, speed and shortness of breath try to adjust your pace to just before where it feels difficult to breath.
- Holding this manageable pace focus on your breath.
- Try changing your breathing pattern to be slower and deeper like meditative breathing. The goal here is to be able to inhale for 2-3 seconds deeply, then exhale in 2-3 seconds.
- Take note of breathing and your perceived run effort, it’s probably feeling easier to run at the pace you’re doing.
- Visualize that you’re being pulled forward by the chest when you inhale, a little extra boost with the fresh air coming in to your lungs.
- Now visualize that the force pulling you is gone as you exhale giving you the sense that your pace may slow just for a few steps allowing you to relax.
- Repeat this visualization cycle adjusting your pace and focused breathing pattern to find the maximum breath to pace ratio at an effort you comfortable with for long period of time to establish your new baseline pace where you do not struggle to maintain
- This new pace will be your conversational or “slow run” pace that in zone training is green.
After completing a self assessment run you can use your running app or watch data to see what paces and possibly heart rates you had before and after adjusting your breathing and speed to gain further insights.
Learning your current maximum breathing comfort pace can be very useful to plan your next route, consult a coach for a training plan update or pick a running group with a pace in your zone.
#2 Sources of air pollution in your area make it hard to breath and run
One day you’re running without a single breathing issue at a pace you know it comfortable and beyond, the next you’re gasping like a fish out of water.
There are many elements that can contribute to poor air quality that can be widespread like smog or hyper localized only impacting isolated areas you happen live and run by.
The following are bad air culprits that you may want to take in to account when planning your next training route in order to avoid shortness of breath, nausea and poor performance.
Avoid running in areas with high vehicle traffic
Vehicles are all around us and it’s well established that the exhaust gases they produce are not good for you.
What is talked about less but a major concern for runners and other outdoor athletes is in addition to exhaust, vehicles commonly throw other toxic and carcinogenic particles in to the air.
Methods vehicles pollute runners’ lungs:
- Fine metal particulates in the form of brake dust
- Oil and other engine lubricants burnt or expelled from improperly operating vehicles
- Rubber particulates from tires burned from friction in to the air
- Carbon Monoxide from exhaust
These pollutants can come directly from vehicles or end up as dust on the road surface which can be blown in to the air by wind or passing vehicles at any time.
These factors impact you most directly in areas where large vehicles like buses and trucks pass by you blowing black and blue exhaust particulates that linger in the air just as you run by.
Your immediate inhalation of this toxic cloud can range in a slight elevation of heart rate, higher perception of effort and coughing to feeling sick depending on level and duration of your exposure on your run.
Long term exposure to areas with high vehicle traffic and the related particulates you are inhaling can lead you to needing to see a doctor for respiratory related issues such as:
How to avoid the worst of the vehicle pollution running:
In a perfect world all runners would have access to vehicle free running trail areas, however for many urban runners escaping the issue entirely it is just not possible.
This makes the best course of action planning your running routes to avoid the very worst offending vehicles and where they can drive.
- Highways, roads and large boulevards that allow large commercial vehicles.
- Areas (or times) that will have concentrated traffic congestion.
- Public transit routes as they will have buses or trains passing on regular intervals usually blowing diesel exhaust near ground levels.
- Industrial vehicle operations areas and construction sites.
Changing your route to reduce or eliminate your vehicle pollution contact can usually be as simple as choosing a street, path or park just a block over from the general problem area where traffic volume is lighter.
Avoid Running in areas with industrial and construction pollution
Much like vehicle pollution, industrial plants, construction and demolition sites can cause you issues breathing on your runs.
Industrial facilities and construction sites can insert any number of dusts, fume and particulate matter in to the air which will impact your respiratory system directly with inflammation and irritation to longer lingering issues like infections and toxic material build up.
Avoiding Localized Air Pollution
Where possible its best to plan your route to avoid the more localized problem areas like:
- Building construction or demolition sites where large machinery is in use kicking up dust and building materials particulates in to the air.
- Road resurfacing and pavement projects with tar fumes etc.
- Agricultural / lawn insecticide spraying, or brush burn days.
- Sewage and water treatment plants.
These types of areas can cause you immediate breathing issues and irritation through particulate dust and noxious fumes that can trigger a loss of breath, coughing or nausea.
The effects can be quite strong and sudden for some, especially later in long runs when tired and your body is already working harder.
(The author has first hand experience running near water treatment plants projecting off gassing bio waste that can stop you in your tracks and trigger a shortness of breath and nausea)
Avoiding Larger Regional Air Pollution Areas
If the area where you run is also home to widespread industrial and commercial facilities like factories, power plants and other smoke spewing buildings avoiding bad air can be a bit trickier.
While running as far as you can away from these buildings is good the high smoke stacks dump the problematic particulate smoke in to the air and can be carried in the wind miles away from the source’s location and in to your lungs.
The best way to avoid these types of issues is to plan a route based on the weather, more specifically wind direction.
The goal here is to run “up wind” from these types of air polluters so that the wind is blowing the bad air away from the areas you are exercising, not over it.
This approach combined with running indoors on days where air quality indexes are particularly bad are your best defense if you live near a highly industrial area.
#3 Running in nature does not necessarily mean clean air and easy breathing
When running in new areas, traveling or as the seasons change it important to take natural environment factors in to account if you find you are having a harder time breathing than usual.
Pollen, Mold, Dust and Allergies
Even runners that do not officially have allergies can be impacted by pollen, mold and natural dust that may be carrying it regardless of if the areas you are training in is rural or urban.
Because runners are spending more time outside and breathing deeply and more often during exercise you simply inhale far more of these elements than you would in average daily life.
This can leave your body reacting with an allergic response such as a sudden mid run plugged or runny nose, additional phlegm in your throat and ultimately a reduced ability to breath while running.
For those without severe allergies this can be a short-term issue like a changing season that your body will adapt to over time with outdoor exposure.
However, for those with allergies, asthma, or if you have traveled to areas with pollen, mold etc. you are not used too you may need to take medication and consult a doctor for options to manage symptoms.
Altitude and thin air
Sudden changes in the altitude elevation can dramatically impact your ability to breath as there is less oxygen in the air the higher you go.
This mostly impacts runners that live and train at a lower elevation then somewhere they are visiting.
For example, when you live near sea level which is 0 feet elevation and you travel to a city with a high elevation like Denver Colorado with an elevation of 5,130 feet it can feel hard to breath and make you feel sick standing still adjusting to the higher altitude.
So, if you live near the ocean then fly to Denver to go running with a friend, you’re going to feel short of breath and possibly the more problematic symptoms of altitude sickness instantly.
The same issues can sneak up on you gradually if you start a run at a low altitude and start ascending a trail on a mountain or cliff range.
As you progress through the run your general fatigue combined with the constantly dropping level of oxygen in the air as you go higher will make your effort seem much higher and leave you short of breath.
This can be a key factor to take in to account when selecting destination races as you want to make sure you’re not going to try and race somewhere that has dramatically higher altitude than where you live and train regularly.
However, you can adapt with time and training, which is why you hear that many pro athletes will live in locations of higher altitude to train which adapts their lungs and body to run on less oxygen in general allowing them to perform with ease when competing at events in lower elevations.
Low-quality “Stale air” areas
You don’t have to be at high altitude to end up with low oxygen content air.
Stale air areas such as those found in swamps, bogs, marshes and the bottom of ravines can have all the right conditions to leave you struggling to breath when pushing your run.
These areas are often overlooked as an issue because running in nature is perceived as being better, but under the right condition’s nature can put off gasses like that of running by factories.
These areas combined with a lack of wind (or protection from wind) can have localized pockets of air that has gases that can either displace oxygen in the air or otherwise when inhale can make you feel ill.
Bad air commonly referred to as “Swamp Gas” can consist of some of the following gases:
- Excess Nitrogen
- Carbon Dioxide
- Carbon Monoxide
- Hydrogen Sulfide
These gases can be naturally occurring by products of biological processes like composing and decomposition found in these areas or artificially introduced by the gases collecting in low lying, low wind areas from outside sources like industry.
These are not what your body is looking for when your exercising and effetely starve your body of oxygen when passing through a pocket of these gases by displacing the oxygen you need with other gases you inhale likes excess nitrogen.
Extra carbon dioxide in the air is a major issue as that’s what your body is trying to get rid of when you exhale so it being already concentrated in the air your inhaling is counter productive to breathing and exercise performance.
Worst yet some of these gases like Carbon Monoxide, Methane are toxic to breath and may leave you feeling ill or fatigued as you pass through these areas, and possibly for a period after.
Keep these factors and area in mind when planning your routes to avoid them, especially in summer months when the levels of these bad gasses tend to be higher.
#4 What your wearing on your run makes it harder for you to breath
Running in different kinds of weather means of course different kinds of clothing, some of which can physically or mentally impede your breathing and overall running performance.
Physical Clothing Restrictions
Clothing that covers your face:
If you are running in extreme hot or cold weather, or areas of blowing dust and particulate such as rural and desert climate you are likely to want a scarf, buff or balaclava to cover your mouth, nose and head.
While this level of protection is recommended and necessary in many cases to avoid breathing dust, getting frost bite etc.
These types of clothing in many cases restrict airflow though covering or reducing the opening of your mouth and nose.
While the clothing may feel find and breathable at walking and light running paces, running at higher intensities can result in it feeling much harder to breath.
In the cases of a buff or scarf directly covering your mouth and nose the fabrics can saturate with moisture that builds while you run as you exhale damp air from your lungs.
This build up of moisture further restricts airflow though the material, and when combined with a cold climate can even frost or freeze on the outside further reducing your air supply again.
Once the fabric is moisture saturated or frozen it can create a pocket of air on the inside that contains less fresh air and more carbon dioxide you exhale between you and the clothing causing you to rebreathe the carbon dioxide over and over until eventually you can’t catch your breath or feel ill and need to slow down or remove the face covering.
(Side note: Also be mindful of glasses or goggles (for winter and wind) that may press down on the soft tissue on the sides of your nose that could restrict airflow.)
While clothing items that directly cover your mouth and nose are the most obvious to restrict your breathing other clothing and gear can do the same.
If you run with a hydration vest or backpack be sure that you keep the straps a loose as you can while not incurring any unwanted bounce in the bag. If the straps are too tight you could be impacting your physical ability for your lungs / chest to expand and contract properly impacting how much fresh air you take in.
The same physical chest restriction can be a problem depending on the material and size of the sports bras, shirts and jackets you may wear. You want to make sure these items are made of a as loose as possible stretchable material that does not restrict your range of movement in term of breathing and running in general.
Clothing triggering a mental response that you can’t breathe
While most running and outdoor technical clothing is designed for stretch and breathability that is optimal to sports performance, too much of a good thing can leave you feeling claustrophobic in your own clothes over time on a run.
The general cause of this is wearing too many layers combined with sweat soaking those layers causing the following key issues:
- Reduction of the fabric’s breathability
- Perception of the clothing getting heavier
- Extra heat trapping due to lack of breathability
- Clothing feels progressively more restrictive as sticks to body
These conditions usually accumulate throughout your run as your body temperature rises and you produce more and more sweat.
This may lead to you “blowing up” and feeling short of breath or unusually fatigued at paces you can normally handle just fine even though your airways and breathing patterns are normal and unrestricted.
This is often why you see runners running in shorts and single layer shirts in cold weather as they try to avoid these kinds of clothing issues.
The strategy here is to dress for the temperature you will be once you are warmed up and mid run, not the temperatures if you were walking slowly or standing still as this requires much more clothing.
You can avoid this issue as well by planning to drop layers during your run.
For winter running on mild days I recommend running with a small backpack so you can take off multiple layers of clothing as needed. This can even mean hats, gloves etc. during your run as you warm up and keep them dry and secure in the bag for later when you slow down or finish.
The same approach works in reverse, if you know your run will finish later in the day when it’s expected to be cooler, start your run with light clothing and pack a warmer layer in your pack for later.
#5 Your breathing issue may be an underlying medical condition, see a Doctor!
While this article attempts to capture some of the reasons you might have difficulty breathing on your run that you can self diagnose and experiment with, you could also have an undiagnosed medical condition.
If you are new to running having a hard time breathing or an experienced runner experiencing symptoms you are not used to, you should consult a doctor for a physical and guidance before further training.
This is a best practice to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be a root cause or aggravating your breathing symptoms in combination with the more external causes covered already.
These diagnoses are not necessary doom and gloom so don’t be scared.
You could have allergies, asthma, superficial lung infection / inflammation or a small nasal passage etc. that is completely treatable and just in need of a precision diagnosis to treat quickly and effectively.
With more series issues or concerns it’s always better to know than to not.
Your pursuit of running should be one of being healthy and getting stronger which simply is not possible if you’re ignoring a pre-existing condition hindering your goals.
Seeing a professional can also help you greatly with diagnosing a common athlete issue, over training.
For many runners hearing you have pushed a little too hard from a professional is the only way to personally accept you can not keep pushing and need to take the time off required to properly recover, before pushing yourself again.
Please help other runners’ breath easy on their runs and share this article.
Very few runners know all the hidden things that could be making their run a lot harder and blame themselves for being under/over trained when external factors could be literally taking their breath away.
To help put and end to this, please share a link to this article on your blog or social media so more runners are in the know.