‘I’m a Cardiologist, and Here’s Why Running Out of Breath While Exercising Is Totally Normal’

Photo: Stocksy/ Marc Bordon
I can picture it now: I was sweating, my heart was thudding, and my chest was tightening as I ran on the linoleum gym floor—hyper-aware of my classmates dressed in the same cotton-blue gym uniform. It was the gym class mile, my most dreaded biannual event. I was embarrassed by my running speed (and having to change into that uniform), but one of the most unproductive things I did during that ghastly mile? I’d try to downplay how winded and out of breath I was.

The thing is, even though getting out of breath is fairly unpleasant, it’s also terribly common and nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, David Sabgir, MD, practicing cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio, founder of Walk With a Doc, and specialist in cardiovascular health, says that getting winded is a normal part of exercise. Working out can come with some emotional wounds like running the high school mile or feeling insecure about how easily you run out of breath. Myth-busting can be a helpful step towards healing hurts like this. So, even though there is a stigma attached to getting winded during a workout—as long as there aren’t any other symptoms present—there’s likely no reason to worry.

Experts In This Article

Why do I run out of breath during a workout?

When you exercise, you increase your body’s demand for oxygen and produce more carbon dioxide, says Alicia Pate, PhD, professor of anatomy at Ponce Health Science University. To cope with this your breathing must increase from approximately 15 breaths per minute at rest to 40-60 breaths per minute during exercise to accommodate this increased demand. That’s right, breathing a lot more is supposed to happen when you exercise.

When you’re producing more carbon dioxide, it’s important to expel it by exhaling (so you can get more oxygen faster), says Dr. Sabgir. Not only is running out of breath nothing to be ashamed of, but it is a useful tool in your arsenal. Becoming winded or losing your breath signifies that your body is reaching a point of exertion and is exceeding its usual capability. Sometimes that just means that your body needs to catch up. When you start to run to catch a train, for instance, you are going from zero to 60 out of nowhere, so getting winded is really natural, says Dr. Sabgir.

I have the impulse to worry that it has more significant implications for my overall endurance, but it doesn’t paint that picture at all. When it comes to random reasons you might start running, being winded is just a natural part of life. As for exercising, this is why warming up is important because it gives your heart and lungs a chance to get blood pumping faster and meet the exertion your brain expects. Yes, regular exercise improves endurance. Dr. Sagbir says your lung capacity increases, your heart strengthens, and blood flow improves over time. These benefits are fantastic, but getting winded will still happen because your physiology often needs time to catch up to your actions. Honestly, being winded after trying something new or challenging should be a point of pride. (Remember, it’s always okay to slow down and catch your breath.)

When it running out of breath a cause for concern?

If you’re concerned about your heart health and want some info on signs that something’s afoot, Dr. Sabgir recommends that you look out for symptoms like dizziness, trouble breathing, chest pain, or any unusual symptoms that you don’t typically experience. He encourages individuals to listen to their bodies and trust their gut; stay attuned to when things seem off. And while being winded is normal, talking to your doctor is an important part of a fitness journey, too.

Your health-care provider can offer insight on what goals to keep in mind, risks you need to consider, and what activities might suit you best. Additionally, Dr. Sagbir encourages both beginners and well-seasoned athletes to not try to eat the whole elephant in one bite (i.e., start slowly and don’t feel like you need to push yourself to the absolute limit every time you exercise). Instead, Dr. Sagbir says that gradual intensity helps you commit to exercising in the long term versus trying something so challenging that you avoid it altogether.

You should also try to pace yourself so that you can prevent injuries and have a faster recovery period. Not pushing yourself too hard can allow you to get back out there sooner. There’s so much I wish I could tell the high school version of myself about fitness and movement. Finding support and normalizing bodily processes can go a long way when reclaiming our fitness routines (and healing gym class trauma). So—whether you get winded or not—slowing down can help you cultivate a relationship with exercise that makes you feel happy and excited to do it. That’s its own victory, especially if you have painful workout experiences, too.

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