How to Control Your Breathing in Training and Competition

Breathe. Just by reading this word, your breathing improves.

How many of you tend to race better when you relax your mind and body, and take in more oxygen? Learning how to control your breathing will help your body deliver more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps lower heart rate. 

Professional triathletes often make their movements look effortless when competing. By focusing on controlling your breathing patterns, and the expansion of your rib cage, you can capture some of that effortless look, too.

While running my first snowshoe 5K, I thought I'd make my life easier by stepping in the foot prints of those runners ahead of me who had already broken trail. This was the wrong move. Their strides (mostly men) were much longer than mine; consequently, I found myself face down in the powder more times than I care to remember. Breathing rhythm is a lot like our stride length: when we try to match that of another we end up "choking".

Research shows that most elite runners use a 2-2 breathing rate. That means they are inhaling for two steps and exhaling for two steps. Assuming they are running at the ideal stride rate of 90 strikes per minute, they are taking 45 breaths. While this is a nice package of numbers, it's best that you try different patterns to see what works best for you at different paces. Try a 3-3 or a 3-2 pattern. Practice changing it a couple of times during a run.

Sometimes—especially in a race—your breathing can get thrown off. For example, when something takes you by surprise or you become fixated on a competitor's breathing pattern. Learning how to control your breathing in training can help you get back on track more easily when you find yourself off kilter in a race.

Another way to improve your breathing is to work on your lung capacity. If you stretch your muscles to increase stride length, why aren't you doing the same for your breathing muscles, to increase their efficiency?

The intercostal (external and internal) muscles, located between the ribs, are extremely important in breathing. They are responsible for contracting and expanding the ribcage to allow for the inflation and deflation of our lungs. The more relaxed these muscles are, the more elastic our ribcage is, and the more room there will be for expansion.

Many triathletes typically breathe into the upper portion of their chest and are now being encouraged by yogis to do more belly breathing. However, you shouldn't forget to breathe into your sides.

Try this simple exercise to help increase lateral awareness and improve the expansion of your ribcage:

Lie on your back and breathe normally. Then place each of your hands on either side of your ribcage. Concentrate on breathing into your hands and be very aware of the increased expansion. Feel it with your hands and visualize it as you inhale.

To further increase the elasticity, try to feel for places where your ribs seem stuck together. Then, on an inhale, dig your smallest finger in between the ribs, and on the exhale, twist like you are unlocking the space. It might hurt a little but it's an effective way to make immediate change. 

Finally, don't forget to check in with your breathing every now and again during a race. I like to put a sticker with the word "breathe" on my bike, as a visual reminder to do just that.

Active logoLearn how to control your breathing at a yoga class.
Reference: Mackenzie B. (2004), "Running Economy", Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching (ISSN 1745-7513), Issue 11

About the Author

Amanda McCracken

Amanda McCracken has been racing triathlons competitively for 14 years and coaching for 10. She resides in Boulder, Colorado, where the trails are her playground. Learn more at or contact her at
Amanda McCracken has been racing triathlons competitively for 14 years and coaching for 10. She resides in Boulder, Colorado, where the trails are her playground. Learn more at or contact her at

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