During a run, some people find themselves struggling to pull in enough oxygen to meet the demands of their body. Although this difficulty breathing is commonly associated with a person who is “out of shape,” the symptom might actually indicate a more serious medical problem. Breathing problems can occur in both new and seasoned runners, regardless of age, weight or overall health status.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Respiration and Physiology

During a run, the respiratory system plays a critical role in the body’s proper functioning. During any type of vigorous physical activity, the muscles require a significant amount of oxygen. As a result, the respiratory system must work much more quickly and efficiently to deliver this oxygen. Air is pulled into the body through the mouth or nose, then flows down the airways into the lungs. In the lungs, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide. After this exchange, oxygen is transported to various parts of the body, while carbon dioxide is exhaled. Breathing problems can be caused by a number of problems in the lungs or airways.

Exercise-induced Asthma

Some runners suffer from exercise-induced asthma, also known as exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, which affects the airways. During an episode of asthma, the runner typically experiences coughing, wheezing and chest pain with every breath. As the asthma progresses, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the runner to catch his breath and fatigue develops.


Runners with allergies should be particularly cautious when selecting an environment in which to run. A person with allergies to dust may need to avoid running indoors, while a person allergic to bee stings or pollen might avoid running outdoors. When the body encounters these allergens, the immune system kicks into overdrive, releasing chemicals that initiate allergy symptoms. Some allergic reactions simply cause congestion in the nose and throat, making it difficult to breathe. More serious allergic reactions cause anaphylaxis, a severe swelling of the airways that may block breathing altogether.

Exercise Allergies

Although it may seem odd, some people are allergic to the act of exercising. As explained by the Running Times website, people with this condition experience a multi-systemic reaction to physical activity. Symptoms include:

  • itching
  • hives
  • fluctuations in temperature
  • vomiting
  • cramping
  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of the airways

As breathing becomes more difficult, the body struggles to receive enough oxygen. In some severe cases, this lack of oxygen may lead to a loss of consciousness.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to several different lung diseases, which make breathing an extremely difficult task. The three main conditions in the COPD category include emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthmatic bronchitis. However, if the person attempts to run, the symptoms will likely become significantly worse. To ensure safety, a person with COPD should consult a physician before attempting an exercise routine.