Yoga to Improve Breathing for Runners

Yoga to Improve Breathing for Runners

Humans can last weeks without food, days without water, but just a few minutes without air, and yet we underestimate the power of breath, presuming there is nothing we can do to improve it. We can all improve our breathing, just like we can improve our diet, running form, muscle health, speed, and endurance.

From birth to death, we inhale and exhale constantly. Breathing is both voluntary and involuntary; while we may not breathe consciously all the time, we all do, and we may change how we inhale and exhale if we want to. The ability to change our breathing pattern is a great benefit that allows us to improve our breathing when running as well.

Train your breathing muscles

Inspiratory muscles and expiratory muscles are the two types of breathing muscles. During inhalation, the inspiratory muscles are employed. Because expiration is rather passive, the inspiratory muscles work significantly harder than the expiratory muscles. As a result, they are more susceptible to exhaustion. Inhaling against resistance is one approach to strengthen these inspiratory muscles. While nasal breathing already provides more resistance than mouth breathing, you may take it a step further by wearing a resistance mask like the SportsMask, which has an adjustable valve opening. This valve, like any other progressive muscle training program, provides the mechanism for conditioning the respiratory muscles. Inspiratory flow resistive loading, or IFRL, is the name of the technique. Your breathing muscles' strength can be increased by up to 50% with IFRL.


Role of C02 in breathing

It’s a common myth that CO2 is a waste gas. That is, in fact, a misrepresentation. The brain is triggered to take a breath by an increase in CO2 in the blood, not by a reduction in O2. The length of time a person can hold their breath until the brain commands them to breathe again is determined by their CO2 tolerance


Benefits of Nose Breathing

  • The mucus lining in our nose moistens and warms the air preventing the dry air from constricting our airways and lungs.
  • Any dust particles that could irritate the lungs are trapped by cilia (nose hair). Nitrous oxide is produced in the nasal cavity and mixes with air passing through it, acting as a sterilizer and purifying the air.
  • While exhaling, the nose traps moisture and heat, conserving energy. Exhaling through the mouth causes a 42 percent increase in moisture loss.

Benefits of Pranayama / Breathing Exercises for Runners

Breathing exercises (Pranayama), particularly breath holds following exhale, are another approach to strengthen the breathing muscles. The practice of holding one’s breath induces an air thirst and changes in the blood’s acid-base balance. Because the body is unable to eliminate excess carbon dioxide from the lungs during the breath-hold, the cells continue to struggle to distribute oxygen. Hypercapnia (excess carbon dioxide in the blood) and hypoxia (insufficient oxygen in the blood) are the results. The diaphragm transmits signals to the brain to allow breathing to restart and blood gas levels to return to normal. As the breath-hold continues and the diaphragm contracts, again and again, these messages grow more urgent. The diaphragm muscle, which is the major muscle of the respiratory ‘pump,’ gets a good workout from this.

A study published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2009) found that pranayama breathing decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased melatonin, the ‘antidote’ to cortisol, a neurohormone linked to lower stress and better sleeping patterns. Cortisol in the body causes stress, whether it’s from a long week at work or a PB-breaking run. Cortisol levels rise, leaving you open to free radicals, which damage at the cellular level and impair your immune system. On both a physiological and psychological level, pranayama breathing may help you enhance your running.

Yogic Breathing Exercises

Below are some Yogic breathing (Pranayama) that will help to adopt nose/diaphragmatic breathing, improve lung capacity, CO2 tolerance, reduce stress, promote recovery, and enhance energy and vitality -

Nasal Breathing

Sit comfortably in a cross-legged posture, inhale through the nose and notice the abdomen moving outwards as you exhale the abdomen should sink in. Consider this like an action of inflating and deflating a balloon, the stomach is this case. If you find it hard to practice this while being seated, lie down on the floor in the supine position and practice the same, do observe the movement of the stomach up and down, it ensures that the diaphragm is being engaged in the right order of breath. Start with 1-minute practice and slowly progress to 3 minutes. Repeat 3 times.

Yogic Breathing

The right lung has 3 lobes, and the left lung has 2 as the heart takes up some space. Yogic breathing utilizes all lobes of both lungs. To practice, take a comfortable seated posture and inhale through the nose and notice the outward movement in the abdomen, inhale further and notice the subtle outward and upward movement in the chest, finally inhale further and observe subtle outward and upward movement in the upper chest and clavicular region (collar bones). Exhale in the reverse order first relaxing the collar bones / upper chest then the chest and lastly the abdomen. This practice will train the berating muscles and make them stronger and help increase lung capacity.

Yogic Breathing

Start with 1-minute practice and slowly progress to 3 minutes. Repeat 3 times.


It’s not pranayama but an effective preparatory practice for pranayama. Normally, hyperventilation is not a recommended breathing practice and can have adverse effects causing dizziness and other symptoms. However, studies have shown that in yogic rapid breathing techniques like Kapalbhati, the negative effects do not manifest.


Sthiti: Any meditative posture eg Suḳāsana/Padmāsana/Vajrāsana


  • Sit in any meditative posture.
  • Close the eyes and relax the whole body.
  • Inhale deeply through both nostrils
  • Expel the breath with forceful contractions of the abdominal muscles and then relax.
  • Continue active/forceful exhalation and passive inhalation.
  • Perform 30 rapid breaths, then take a deep breath and exhale slowly.
  • This is one round of Kapalabhati.
  • Each round to be followed by 2-3 deep breaths.
  • Repeat 3 times

Breathing: Exhale forcefully by pulling in the abdominal muscles without making any unnecessary movements in the chest or shoulders. Throughout the practice, inhalation should remain passive. The number of repeats and the count can be steadily raised over time.

Kaplabhati Breathing

Number of repeats: Beginners can practice up to 3 repeats of 20 breaths each. The count and repeats can be increased gradually over a period of time.

Caution: If you have giddiness, high blood pressure, vertigo, persistent bleeding in the nose, epilepsy, migraine, stroke, hernia, or stomach ulcers, please avoid this practice

Nadisodhana or Anuloma Viloma Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)

The significant aspect of this Pranayama is alternating breathing from the left and right nostrils, either with or without breath retention (Kumbhaka).

Sthiti: Any meditative posture.


  • Sit in any meditative posture.
  • Keep the spine and head straight with eyes closed.
  • Relax the body with a few deep breaths.
  • Keep the left palm on the left knee in Jnana mudra ( tip of index and thumb gently touching ). The right hand should be in Nasagra mudra (tip of the index and middle fingers touching the base of the thumb).
  • Place the right thumb on the right nostril, closing the right nostril with the right thumb.
  • Breathe in from the left nostril; then close the left nostril with the small and ring fingers and release the thumb from the right nostril; exhale through the right nostril.
  • Next, inhale through the right nostril.
  • At the end of inhalation, close the right nostril, open the left nostril and exhale through it.
  • This is one round of Nadisodhana, also known as Anuloma Viloma Praayama.
  • Repeat 5 more rounds.
Alternative Breathing: Steps 1-3
Alternative Breathing: Steps 4-6

Ratio and timing:

  • For beginners, Inhalation and exhalation duration should be identical for beginners.
  • Gradually make 1:2; inhalation: exhalation
  • Advance practitioners can incorporate bandhas with the breath retention

Breathing: The breath should be slow, steady, and controlled. It should not be forced or restricted in any way.

Sheetali Pranayama

Sheetali means cooling. It also means calm and passionless. As the name implies this pranayama cools the mind-body system. It is specially designed to reduce body temperature. This pranayama not only cools the physical body but also helps to quiet the mind.


  • Sit in any other comfortable meditative posture.
  • Place the hand on the knees in Jnanamudra ( tip of index finger and thumb touching and other fingers relaxed).
  • Roll the tongue from the sides to form a shape as a tube
  • Inhale through this tube-shaped tongue, fill the lungs with air to their maximum capacity, and close the mouth.
  • Retain the air as long as possible.
  • Slowly exhale through the nostrils.
Sheetali Pranayama


  • Those who are suffering from cold, cough or tonsillitis should avoid this practice.


Bhramari comes from the word bhramara, which meaning “black bee.” During the practice of this pranayama, the sound produced resembles the buzzing of a black bee.

Sthiti: Any meditative posture.


  • Close your eyes and sit in any meditation pose.
  • Inhale deeply through the nose.
  • Close the eyes with index fingers, the mouth with ring and small fingers, and the ears with thumbs. This is also called Sanmukhi Mudra.
  • Exhale slowly and steadily, as if you were a black bee, while generating a deep, continuous humming sound.
  • Repeat 5 times.

Caution: Please avoid this practice in you have a nose or ear infection.

Bhandas / Breath retentions

Advanced yogic techniques that constrict specific body areas while holding breath after inhalation/exhalation should only be done under the supervision. These are not further explained here, and it is suggested that you work with a qualified yoga instructor.

There are four major bandhas:

  • The throat lock (Jalandhara Bandha)
  • Lifting the diaphragm lock (Uddiyana Bandha)
  • The Pelvic floor/root lock - (Moola Bandaha)
  • Maha Bandha - ( simultaneously applying all three locks)



  • Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandah – Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Yoga Publication Trust, Munger, Bihar.
  • Prana & Pranayama – Swami Nirajananda Sarswati, Yoga Publication Trust, Munger, Bihar.
  • The Oxygen Advantage – Patrick McKeown
  • Sivananda Yoga Training Manual

Sumit Chadha

Sumit is an internationally qualified Yoga Scholar and a Running Coach who lives by the mantra “Athletes first, winning second.” He is an avid runner and a yoga practitioner himself, has seen the effects of endurance sports on the body and how yoga can help. His passion for both running and yoga has inspired him to create a yoga curriculum specifically for runners. He has worked with a number of athletes and running clubs, in incorporating Yoga into their training regimens, improving athletic performance and enhancing recuperation. Sumit worked in the past as national head for Yoga at, and as Running Coach for HRX Run Club & You can read more about him at

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