Cross-country running

Step in time

Feeling the rhythm might help you keep running

Most animals show a breathing rhythm that is tied to their movements – a link known as entrainment.

Humans can synchronise breathing with walking or running as well, but we do not have to. This may be because our bipedal gait puts fewer constraints on the muscles that work the lungs. The diaphragm is the most important muscle for breathing in. During quiet breathing (eg when we’re at rest), inspiration (breathing in) occurs when the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles contract. Expiration (breathing out) happens through relaxing the diaphragm and elastic rebound of the lungs themselves. The faster and more deeply you are breathing, the more the muscles of the abdomen and those between the ribs contribute to breathing in and out.

Letting your breathing rhythm fall in with your stride is not necessarily more efficient, but it seems to happen naturally for many runners. Part of the impact on running may be psychological. The rhythmic breathing can provide distraction from the discomfort of the exercise. Known as a ‘pseudo-mantra’, this can be a useful technique for someone trying to get into training.

Another example of synchronised breathing and movement is the Chinese martial art of t’ai chi, which has also been shown to reduce stress levels, improve balance and increase muscle strength in older adults. Aligning breathing with movement also leads to increased mobility in older people, which helps to prevent diseases related to ageing and inactivity, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disorders

Lead image:

Cross-country running.

Anne-Katrin Purkiss/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Exercise, Energy and Movement’ in January 2012 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Physiology, Psychology
Exercise, Energy and Movement
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development