4 Secrets To Keeping a Steady Running Pace So You’re Not an Out-of-Breath Mess By the End of Your Miles

Photo: Getty Images/ Oleg Breslavtsev
The race was underway—a five-miler along the New Jersey coast with basically no elevation change on a beautiful 55-degree morning. It was the perfect day. I was running comfortably, picking up the pace as I crossed the one-mile mark when I heard a terrible noise behind me.

It was the honking, gasping, wheezing sound of an out-of-breath runner. He was lurking just over my shoulder and then coughed loudly as he passed me, probably spewing snot and spit in my airspace.

I wanted to judge this poor dude for his bad form and out-of-control breathing, but the truth is I was once just like him. For the first few years of my running career, I spent too many miles making those desperate, loud gasps, struggling for every next breath and effectively making most of my runs miserable.

Experts In This Article

Many beginner runners don’t realize you shouldn’t be breathing heavily when you run. Running with controlled breath will make your run more enjoyable and work to help build your aerobic stamina.

But I get it, keeping a steady running pace isn't easy. It took me an entire year, many walk breaks, and a patient running buddy to help me learn how to breathe freely and easily throughout the miles.

Ahead, two running coaches share the secrets to running without gasping for air.

Why are you out of breath to begin with?

It doesn’t matter how good you get at running, we all lose our breath at some point. It comes down to why we breathe in the first place. In its simplest terms, we breathe to give our bodies oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. When we run or put our bodies under stress, our breathing rate increases to take in more oxygen to get oxygen to our organs. If we reach or exceed our limits, carbon dioxide can build up in our bodies.

“As you start to move, your muscles require more oxygen,” says Scott Browning, ACSM-EP, an exercise physiologist and running coach. “But if you rush that process, the tissue hasn’t been oxygenated and you end up with an increase in blood lactate, which facilitates an increase in CO2, which makes you breathe even harder because you end up trying to draw in more and more air to offset the increased values of CO2.”

The most common culprits in breathlessness are going out too hard and going at a pace beyond your aerobic threshold. Browning and Erica Coviello, CPT, personal trainer and RRCA-certified running coach, both say warming up, slowing down, stopping for a short time, and being patient will help you control your breath and make running easier.

“Stop judging yourself based on what pace you think you should be running in practice and know that slowing down will help in the long run.” —Erica Coviello, CPT

Expert secrets to keeping a steady running pace

1. Warm up

Whether you are a new runner or an experienced endurance athlete with 10 marathons under your belt, if you don’t warm up before running you put yourself at risk of losing control of your breathing.

You need to prime your muscles and get that initial oxygen intake going before launching into a run at your normal training pace, Browning says.

“They call it a warmup for a reason,” he says. “Start slower than you think that you should and then build into your run. That process usually takes seven or eight minutes for the blood vessels to really dilate and for you to say, ‘Hey, I feel pretty good.’”

(If you’re a runner who wonders why the first mile feels like it’s crushing your soul, now you know why. You probably need a better warmup.)

Browning says he always starts his runs with a short walk. He’ll follow the walk with a jog and then recover for a few minutes

“I might even do some stretches and some drills as my blood vessels are dilating and the tissue is oxygenating,” he says. “Then I'll start my actual run.”

2. Slow down

This secret is perhaps obvious but easier said than done. First of all, new runners don’t have a concept of what an “easy” pace should feel like. Maybe the last mile you ran was the elementary school death march where you sprinted the first eighth and then collapsed in the grass. Nobody really taught us how to run.

“Many beginning runners think running is a natural thing and not a learned skill,” Browning says. “But it's very much a learned skill, right? There is an art form to running, and it takes repetition to be able to do it and to do it well.”

Both Browning and Coviello start their beginner runners with run-walk programs (e.g. walk one minute, run one minute, then repeat for a certain duration) as opposed to straight running.

“I recommend starting with a scheduled run-walk rather than trying to go out and stop when you feel crappy,” Coviello says. “This builds aerobic strength and teaches your body consistency rather than crashing. Then you can gradually increase the amount of time you run and decrease the walk time until you’re running straight through more comfortably.”

Even experienced runners struggle to nail correct pacing. While they might not be sprinting the first 30 seconds, way too many of us run easy training miles above our aerobic threshold. By the end of the run, we’re gasping for air.

There are a few different methods to find the right training pace so that you’re suffocating during your runs:

The talk test

Coviello reminds runners to complete most training miles at conversation pace. “Conversation pace is the pace at which you could easily carry on a conversation without gasping for breath, aka the talk test.”

Back when I was a loud-breather, a trusted pal asked me to join her for a run. She witnessed my sputtering and coughing during a group run and wanted to show me that running should be easier.

Our run felt like a shuffle, but we trotted along, talking about our lives. Whenever I couldn’t form a sentence easily, she would slow us down or even walk. She literally showed me how to correctly implement the talk test. If you don’t have a friend willing to go your speed, a coach can help you find this magical sweet spot of aerobic training.

Rhythmic breathing 

Another trick I learned was the art of rhythmic breathing. It’s a simple concept that running coach Budd Coates wrote about in his book Running on Air.

Basically, you match your breath to your running steps. For an easy training run, you use the 2-3-2 pattern where you breathe in for two steps, out for three steps, then out for two steps, and repeat. The breaths should feel effortless so your cadence has to be slow enough to feel easy.

3. Pause your run

Listen, once you start breathing heavy enough, there's no turning back until your body recovers.

“Just stop for two or three minutes, walk, stretch out, do some things, give your body a chance to catch up, reduce blood lactate levels, get the CO2 levels back in check, and then start going again, and you'll feel fine,” Browning says. “When I say stop, I don't mean slow down, I mean, stop and walk.”

And he doesn’t just mean for training runs—if you are in a half or full marathon and suddenly you’re breathing heavily, taking two or three minutes to walk will end up being more beneficial than pushing through.

“Walking for two, three, or four minutes may sound like a lot, but there'll be enough time to clear the CO2, get the blood lactate back under control,” he says. “And what you'll avoid doing is giving back all that time late in the race because they'll be able to go back to a steady state.”

4. Have patience

Controlling your breath will take time and a little self-compassion.

“You're not going to be good at it right away,” Browning says. “It takes time.”

You will be out of breath sometimes, but if you take the time to listen to your body and correct your pace, you’ll improve. That means you’ll be able to sustain the pace you want to run while maintaining controlled breathing.

“The problem for some people, especially beginners, is that they think they should be running a certain pace regardless of how they feel or what their current fitness level is,” Coviello says. “This is a comparison trap that Strava and social media can create for us and is sometimes worse for adults who were athletes as kids. Stop judging yourself based on what pace you think you should be running in practice and know that slowing down will help in the long run.”

“Many beginning runners think running is a natural thing and not a learned skill. But it's very much a learned skill, right? There is an art form to running, and it takes repetition to be able to do it and to do it well.” —Scott Browning, ACSM-EP

When is it okay to be out of breath?

There are times when you should be out of breath. A short-distance race where you’re pushing for a PR, for example, will likely leave you breathless.

Coviello explains that you will need some hard training runs to train for a race like that.

“Your heart rate will be elevated and you will be huffing and puffing during runs,” she explains. “These runs should be done with intention—purposely scheduled speed intervals of varying lengths, tempo or threshold runs, etc. A certified running coach can help you develop a training plan that incorporates the right kind of workouts to get you to your goals.”

The bottom line

Don’t give up if that uncomfortable gasping-for-air feeling has got you down on your runs. Every runner has struggled with the hot-mess-express of breathing at one time or another. It’s a physiological response that you can improve in time.

Running is a learned skill and breathing well is one of those techniques that can take years to get right. If you find yourself breathing too heavily, don’t be afraid to stop and regroup—it's a lesson that will help in running and in life.

Coviello sums it up perfectly: “Run most of your miles easy, slow down if it feels too hard. Run hard sometimes to improve race times. Block out everything and everyone else and give yourself grace to do what your body needs.”

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.
Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...