I've been overweight most of my life and recently I've been slimming down (lost > 50 lbs so far, shooting for 35-40 more) and I'm wanting to start running. I have no problems walking for miles and miles (walked 8 one day just to see how far I could go, never got tired), but when I start running my lungs are on fire after about 1/10th of a mile and I can't continue.

Is this something that will go away, is there something I can do to improve it, or should I be seeing a doctor about it?

Also might note I'm an ex-smoker of about 7 years, just quit about 5 months ago as part of my beginning a healthier lifestyle.

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    BTW congrats on the progress. That first 50 pounds, 8-mile walks, and quitting smoking are already tremendous achievements!
    – G__
    Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 20:10
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    If you have an iOS device, check out Couch to 5k - makes increasing stamina a snap. Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 21:45
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    Nike has started a project in some countries: Start to Run that uses exactly the same kind of program as Couch to 5k. This program nearly guarantees you can learn how to run if you also follow my answer :-)
    – Ivo Flipse
    Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 17:55
  • An additional note - the same company who makes that Couch to 5K app makes a Couch to 10K app for a 13 week course (rather than a 9 week course). Commented Mar 3, 2011 at 17:58
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    If running more than 1/10 mile is too much, then stop there. Take a rest as long as you need, then do it again a few times. Repeat a few times a week and soon you will be up to quarter miles, half miles and so on.
    – J. Win.
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 21:37

7 Answers 7


Having guided a group of 'Start-to-Runners' (similar to Couch to 5K), I'm convinced anyone can get started with running (except those who can't walk properly).

A couple of things you should keep in mind:

  • Don't overdo yourself, because if you get injured, you can't run at all and you'll lose any progress you've made. Also, you'll get less muscle soreness, which makes working out out on a regular basis easier to maintain. Besides, speed is of no relevance when building up your fitness, so it's literally a waste of energy.

  • Try running at a speed that you can still talk, because your breathing frequency (and thus ability to speak) and your VO2Max (your capacity for exercise) are very strongly related. The speed at which you can still speak is mostly a speed at which you're performing aerobic exercise. If you run any faster, you start to create more CO2 than your body can get rid off, which is what you want to avoid.

  • Try to run with a buddy, because you have somebody to talk to during running and someone who can keep you motivated when things start to get tougher (and vice versa). Especially when running with someone of a similar level can be very motivating.

Why does this all matter?

Well, you say you can walk for miles with no problem, but your lungs start burning when you exercise. So you need to do two things: improve your general fitness so your lung capacity increases and your body is stressed less during exercise and find a sweet spot at which you're not walking, but your lungs aren't burning either.

Generally, people think you have to go fast to get a good workout, but they're wrong. Even jogging at 8-9 km/h can greatly improve your fitness when done regularly, so take it easy and enjoy yourself!

  • love the "except those who can't walk properly"... made me laugh. Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 20:45
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    I have incredibly bad knees, but walk fine. If I run, or even jog, my knees swell up like melons. Cycling is best for bad knees, I have found. I'd also suggest not all overweight people can run, and would caution them to lose weight first, in order not to damage their knees; massive more force goes into the knees when running over walking, so I'd suggest couch to 5k should be preceeded by losing 20kg first...
    – Hairy
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:06
  • @Hairy, I've talked to @md5sum about this in the chatroom and told him he should be running so fast that he can still hold up a conversation. Which is more like uni-pedal walking than jogging really and I've seen people do the C25K with a BMI of 35+ and 'survive'. But you are correct, there is a limit where its simply not a good idea, though I would say those people probably also don't walk 'normally' or 'properly', but our definitions of that may vary.
    – Ivo Flipse
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:46

Although I'm not a smoker and can't comment on that(but here's an interesting link that may apply), I have found though, that if I don't keep up on running, I get the same feeling. Two years ago, I was able to run 10 miles no prob. After getting married and in school full time I haven't ran for a while. I went running the other day, and had the same feeling. I'm no Doctor or health expert, but I'm assuming that working out your lungs and lung capacity is the same as working out your other muscles. It takes time, and pain to get stronger.

Here are some excercises that you can do to build up your lung capacity:

Belly Breath Exercise

This belly breath exercise is designed to deepen your breathing and increase your overall energy levels. Lie down on the ground with a pillow behind your head and your back flat on the ground. Put one of your hands down on your stomach and push till you have pushed down on your diaphragm. According to UMKC, pushing down on your diaphragm helps to draw additional air into your lungs. From here, take a slow deep breath and don't stop inhaling until you have reached full capacity. Exhale and repeat this belly breathing exercise for one minute. After one minute, rest for one minute before repeating.

Standing Breathing Exercise

This standing breathing exercise is designed to improve lung capacity and help people with respiratory illnesses. Stand up straight with your legs shoulder width apart. From here, relax your knees and bend your upper torso down over your body. As you bend your upper torso, exhale deeply to remove all air that is currently found within your lungs. After you have released the air, stand up straight and take in a deep breath of air. From here, hold this breath for 15 to 20 seconds. While you are holding your breath, stretch your arms out over your head to maximize lung capacity.

Higher Altitude Running Exercise

This exercise is designed to help you increase lung capacity by training at higher altitudes. Find a mountain or place that has a high elevation and prepare to run. Prior to running, stretch out for 10 to 15 minutes, acclimating yourself to the new altitude and weather. From here, run for 30 minutes to an hour, making sure that you are keeping pace with your normal running routine. Higher altitude training increases lung capacity because of an increase in red blood cells and haemoglobin found in your body. Because a higher altitude reduces the amount of available oxygen in the atmosphere, your body compensates by increasing the concentration of red blood cells in your body. This is ideal for athletes looking to temporarily increase their lung capacity.

reference site


As an ex-smoker (I smoked for 10 years, 10 years ago) and runner I can remember the feeling of being breathlessness and it was actually one of the motivators to quit smoking along with watching videos of people with emphysema. The way I got into running was first of all having a goal (a half marathon) and initially concentrating on sprinting short distances ~ 100m (20-30 seconds) or 400 metres with 2 sprints. Interval training gave me more reward than trying to do long distances and then failing - in other words something really easily achievable. Preferably sprint on the treadmill to save any outdoor embarassment - or on a park track.

1/10th of a mile is around 160m, so reduce that to something where you aren't going to be in pain, say 80m, and break for 2 mins after. Repeat it 3-4 times and increase the distance each run. It's usually easier to just time the sprints, so time your initial sprint and work from there.

An easier more pain free to start out would be to buy a PowerBreath and use it twice daily for a few weeks first, and then try running again.

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    +1 I was sad to see the "intervals" answer this far down. Answers along the lines of "take it easier" and "stress your body less" are the OPPOSITE of what you need. The body will respond to stress by getting stronger. Do an exercise you can handle for 15, 30, 60 seconds, etc then walk or rest until the burning goes away. Rinse and repeat.
    – J. Win.
    Commented Mar 11, 2011 at 21:34

I would suggest working up to running by running very small distances at first during your walks. Walk a mile, run a block, repeat. Gradually increase the distance that you run, but stop if you feel you're overexerting. The goal is to gradually build up your endurance when running and you don't have to be able to sprint the whole 8 miles on your first go.

Disclaimer: if you are concerned that there could be something wrong, then absolutely go see your doctor! Nobody on this site will (or should) say anything different...


Slowing down your pace might help, too. I used to have the same problem and hated running. Then I tried treadmill on the gym. At first with very slow speed and then gradually increasing. With this I can keep a pace slow enough to be able to run for 40 minutes without feeling out of breath. It might just be that my "running" is closer to jogging or walking, but treadmill has helped me to start running.


Congrats on your weight loss and quitting smoking! I do think your smoking history has something to do with your lungs burning. Your body isn't used to your new lifestyle (you pretty much shocked it by quitting smoking and losing 50 lbs I assume was the same time as quitting?) and it's adjusting. I would suggest letting your lungs heal and letting your body clean itself out.

Running is an advanced activity. Keep at a pace before you feel the burn so that you are out there longer. I would suggest incorporating a weight training regimen into your exercises. It will get you into running shape. That program does high intensity interval training so you can run-walk. Eventually the burn will go away as your lungs heal. Exercise isn't going to heal your lungs, time and nutrition will.

  • Yes, I had a complete lifestyle change, mirroring a complete religious change, and actually started taking care of my body. My dad used to own a gym and I knew how all along, just never cared to do so. I am doing weight training as well, although it's primarily body-weight only due to limited space in my apartment. Since I've been doing Couch to 10K I've gained a lot of ground on this. Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 21:53
  • Nice. I know many C25K graduates. Not everybody is a runner. I like to try every year and every time I train for a half-marathon (training also from coolrunning.com), I seem to always get injured after 6 miles. I have tried it 2X. I am definitely not built for endurance. Really my problem is that I can't control my brain and it thinks I can run faster than I should so I get injured.
    – Rhea
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 22:03

Don't run constantly...

I smoke occasionally (definitely not a regular habit but rare occasions like when I drink) and have sports induced asthma (you may suffer from the same). Don't worry, it goes away when you get into better shape.

I know how it feels because I have to go through it every time I decide I'm going to start getting back into shape.

What I've found recently is simple. Change from running to a light jog at regular intervals. I found that the burning lung feeling is no longer an issue. You can still get some effective running in without the miserable feeling afterward.

If you listen to music while you run, goto this site and download one of the intervals podcast mixes. They're programmed with audio cues that let you know when to switch from running to jogging.


I actually didn't realize how much worse off I was (I always did cardio solo when I was younger) until recently when I worked out with a buddy of mine. We both did about the same run (even though I'm probably in better shape physically) and he felt good when we finished whereas I felt like I was about to die.

I just assumed that everybody felt like hell when they first start trying to get back into shape. I didn't know it was possible to go from out of shape to working out and walk away feeling good immediately afterward.

BTW, I was actually diagnosed with sports induced asthma by a doctor when I was a kid and an asthma attack almost killed me.

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