Do 100m Sprinters Hold Their Breath? (Here’s 5 Things You Should Know)

A question I often see asked is, “Do 100m Sprinters Hold Their Breath?”

The race typically lasts for less than 10 seconds, so does it make sense for a sprinter to breathe naturally?

There are actually a couple of schools of thoughts here, but in reality it does come down to the athlete’s personal preference.

However, there is a conventional breathing technique for the 100 metres which I’ll introduce to you in a moment.

Plus, I’ll also discuss the breathing of two world-class sprinters from two very famous Olympic 100m finals.

Do 100m Sprinters Hold their Breath?

Some 100m sprinters hold their breath while others don’t. The conventional breathing pattern for the race will see athletes take in a breath at the beginning of the race and then naturally exhale until they hit top speed at around the 30-metre mark. From here onward most sprinters will take a maximum of one breath. Ben Johnson took two breaths at 30m and 60m during his infamous 1988 Olympics 100m race. However, Linford Christie is famed for not breathing at all during his victory four years later. It comes down to personal preference for the individual sprinter.

1. The Conventional 100m Breathing Pattern

A Group of Women Sprinters Exploding Out of the Starting Blocks

There is what you would call a traditional or conventional breathing method for the 100 metres sprint.

Whether an individual sprinter chooses to follow this is down to them.

However, all sprinters will typically breathe at some point during the race.

It is only a very low percentage who don’t.

So, the 100 metres race will generally look something like this:

Prior to the race the athlete will be breathing normally right up until they get onto their blocks.

So, in effect, completely normal breathing right up until the announcement of “On Your Marks”.

At the call of “Set” the athlete will inhale.

As soon as the starter fires the sprinter will want a full set of lungs throughout the drive phrase.

This ensures they can maintain tension and create maximum force in the drive off the blocks.

The athlete will then exhale naturally and smoothly through the transition period.

This is when the angle of their shins shift from horizontal to vertical.

You’ll be looking to accelerate and hit top speed at the 30-metre mark and onward.

This is where the athlete inhales again.

Some will breathe normally throughout the entire race, whereas others will hold this breath until the finish line.

2. Acceleration is Similar to the Valsalva Manoeuvre

The only time a sprinter will always hold their breath is when they’re accelerating.

This is very similar to the valsalva manoeuvre used when you lift weights.

Basically, you suck in a big deep breath, and then hold your breath while you exert maximal effort.

In fact, this is a natural reaction of the body when we are faced with having to push or lift something heavy.

We’ve all heard the saying, “brace yourself”.

In the weights room this is typically what we do during an exercise like the squat.

At the top of the movement you draw in a deep breath as you lower yourself into the squat position.

You know that the main effort required is next, when you have to push yourself back up.

This is when you hold your breath as you exert maximum force.

So, when it comes to running the 100 metres the exact same principle applies.

Whenever a sprinter goes through an acceleration phase (exerting maximal effort) they will hold their breath.

This helps them to hold tension in their core, which is an extremely important part of sprinting.

You can read more about the valsalva manoeuvre in my article, “Why Do Olympic Lifters Open Their Mouths?

3. Ben Johnson Takes Two Breaths

It’s probably one of the most famous 100 metre races of all time, but for all the wrong reasons.

Yes, I’m talking about the 100m final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Initially, seen as one of the greatest victories ever, Ben Johnson broke his own world record to finish in a time of 9.79 seconds.

Johnson later stated that he would’ve run even faster if he hadn’t raised his hand just prior to hitting the tape.

Ben Johnson was of course later disqualified and stripped of his medal and his world record.

He also admitted to being on steroids during his 1987 World Championship 100m win and world record.

So, that world record and medal were once more rescinded.

Despite the controversy, it’s interesting to note Ben’s breathing technique during the Olympic final.

Ben actually breathes twice during the race.

He exhales at 30m, which ties in with what I mentioned above.

So, Ben has finished the starting phase and transition.

He then inhales deeply and holds his breath as he accelerates, and then exhales again at 60m.

He inhales one final time and holds his breath until he raises his hand before hitting the winning line.

In truth, even though he takes two breaths, he’s never actually holding his breath for longer than 3 seconds each time.

Ben Johnson Olympic Final 1988

4. Linford Christie Doesn’t Breathe

I think much of the speculation surrounding whether sprinters breathe or not is due to Linford Christie.

More specifically, Linford’s stunning 100m victory at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Linford had won the silver medal at the previous Olympics behind Carl Lewis, although both stars were awarded their medals after Ben Johnson’s disqualification.

Lewis failed to qualify for both 100m and 200m in Barcelona, but the previous year at the World Championships heralded his greatest ever performances.

So, the Olympic crown was there for Christie’s taking in 1992, and he didn’t disappoint.

One of the most iconic images of the final was the look of sheer determination on Christie’s face, there was no way he wasn’t going to win the race.

Plus, Christie did not breathe at all during the entire 100 metres.

He inhaled deeply at the call of “Set” and did not exhale till he won the race 9.96 seconds later.

Linford Christie’s 100m Final

5. Sprinters Don’t Overly Focus on Breathing

I think it’s important to state that sprinters don’t specifically focus on their breathing.

It’s not like they suddenly think to themselves, “Oh, I must inhale and hold my breath now”.

Their entire focus is on finishing the race as fast as they possibly can.

In fact, I’m sure if you asked most sprinters they wouldn’t have a clue when and whether they were breathing during the sprint.

So, in effect, they just do what comes naturally.

Okay, I mentioned that it’s important to hold your breath during the acceleration phase.

However, after years and years of training a sprinter can do this without even thinking about it.

As I’ve alluded to throughout, how, when, or if a sprinter chooses to breathe is completely down to personal preference.

With that being said, no athlete will be huffing and puffing throughout the race.

This will simply release tension from the body, make it harder to accelerate, and see the sprinter running much slower than they are capable of.

Final Thoughts

So, as you can see there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to whether a sprinter holds their breath during the 100m.

The most famous example of someone holding their breath throughout the entire race is Linford Christie’s victory at the 1992 Olympic Final.

However, Ben Johnson clearly takes two breaths at his “victory” four years earlier.

One thing we do know for certain is that all sprinters will inhale deeply as soon as they hear the call of “set”.

In fact, the next time you’re watching a race pay specific attention to this and you’ll see every single athlete do the same thing.

How they breathe throughout the race is down to what they prefer doing.

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