Do Sprinters Breathe when Sprinting?

Here’s a common question from the mailbag.

Do Sprinters breathe when sprinting?

The answer is, of course, yes.

There are a few pointers on when to breathe (inhale) and when to simply exhale.  And when to hold your breath.

If you want to read more about deep breathing and its effects, read Deep Breathing Exercises to Relax or Calm Pre-Race Jitters

The Weight Room

In the weight room, I teach people to inhale doing the eccentric phases, and exhale in the concentric phases (i.e. the push, or force).

This can be seen is a  2-1-4 method of weight or strength training (2 seconds exhaling while contracting, pause 1 second, 4 seconds inhaling while lengthening or eccentric phase)

When doing abdominal or core work like crunches, always exhale when going up or contracting.

In a 2RM or 3RM weight room scenario, I always exhale when I am exerting force.

There is a natural instinct to hold your breath when trying to exert a force. Think of yourself trying to open a tight lid on a jar. Or when you are sitting on a toilet doing a “number 2” when constipated (#2 = defecation… I always confuse number 1 and 2)

I will make no references to childbirth since I am a man.  Female readers can comment below.

The Valsalva maneuver

Holding your breath while keeping the the airways closed (i.e. mouth and nose closed) when trying to exert a force is known as the Valsalva Maneuver or simply the Valsalva.

The name derives from a 17th Century Italian Anatomist, Anton Maria Valsalva.  The purpose of Valsalva is to increase air pressure in the lungs to help with physical exertion, or to help force things out of the body (i.e. think #2).

When this happens, the abdominal muscles tighten up, which then squeezes the intestines and organs in the abdominal cavity so that they press upward against the diaphragm.

Hopefully, Newton’s third law of motion applies:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

There is a correlation to the synchronization of breathing and Valsalva called the Valsalva Sync, which is beyond the scope of this article.

The Starting Blocks

Like the weight room. I try to exhale forcibly and react to the gun.

At the gun, with my right foot on the rear starting block, my instinct is for my left arm and hand to explosively move up, and to let out an exhale.

This is why when the starter says “SET”, I slowly rise and inhale.

The 100 meters

Linford ChristieIf you watch slo-mo of Linford Christie’s 1992 Olympic Gold performance, you’ll notice he doesn’t breathe at all during the entire 100 meters.  (Not sure about his 200m)

If you watch slo-mo of Ben Johnson, you’ll see he actually breathes twice, at about 30 and 60 meters.

I think you should just breathe whatever comes instinctive.  It doesn’t matter if you breathe in with your nose or mouth.

You’ll probably end up breathing in between the transition phases of the 100 meters.

In the 400 meters, you’ll find yourself taking short shallow breathes along the way, which is good.  There’s no way you can hold your breath for 45 or 50 seconds.  If you do, it’s outright dangerous.

The 40 Yard Dash

There is some merit to proper breathing techniques in the 40 yard dash.

Along with the initial exhale during the first explosive step, I like to break up the 40 yard dash in 2 segments: the first 20 and the last 20 yards.

Then, at the 20 yard mark, during the mini-transition, I give another exhale and focus on the last 20 yards.

Otherwise, holding your breath for 4 or 5 seconds won’t kill you.  I’ve seen several football players hold their breath (i.e. Valsalva) for the entire distance, but that can be translated as straining, just like opening a jar.  By having that second “exhale”, it helps you relax and focus on mechanics, and getting to the finish line!

I hope this helps answer the question, “Do Sprinters breathe while sprinting?”

  • I see it a bit different, though I am by no means an expert… When driving out if the blocks, the Valsalva makes more sense. Using what is probably older terminology of “in’s” (hold breath/Valsalva) and “out’s” (breathe), I break up my indoor 60m into 25m in-10m out-25 in. Take a breath on set command and Valsalva out of blocks to 25m. I’m a 38 y.o. Masters sprinter and have successfully implemented this method to go from 7.84 to a 7.40 over 60m in the last 2 years. Just my 2 cents on what works for me. I’d love to hear anyone’s comments it criticisms of this.

  • One definitely has to breathe but as pointed out one needs to time it correctly, and this is based more on personal experience. The same applies in swimming as well where some breathe out every 2 strokes and some every 4 strokes. Again it also depends on the distance.