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Nasal Breathing While Running: An Unlikely PR strategy

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  • November 9, 2020October 17, 2021

My fastest marathon didn’t coincide with the typical training story of having the most logged miles and vigorous training leading up to race day. Heading into the Mountains 2 Beach marathon, I had been averaging about 20 miles per week, but had sufficient cross training to feel comfortable with my aerobic capacity to be able to run the marathon. My marathon race strategy seemed a little unconventional – to pace myself for the first half according to the highest pace at which I could maintain nasal breathing. At the time, my decision to nasal breathe (in both training and race day) was highly influenced by the book The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter by Patrick McKeown.

The reasoning for nasal breathing was simple – nasal breathing typically engages the diaphragm rather than the upper chest and can increase oxygen uptake by 10-20%. Nasal breathing helps to develop slower breathing patterns, which allows extra time for oxygen to diffuse into the bloodstream as air is pulled deeper into the lungs. Furthermore, nasal breathing allows the body to retain water (42% greater water loss for mouth breathers), increases oxygen uptake in the blood, increases oxygen delivery to the tissues, and reduces expired oxygen through the mouth.

Nasal breathing in training was important to improve what is known as my BOLT score, which lowers sensitivity to CO2, which then lowers the burden of respiratory muscles during training. This is important because, when breathing hard for an extended period of time, blood is diverted from the legs to support the respiratory muscles (metaboreflex). It is interesting to note that studies into breathing techniques have demonstrated that when the effort of inhalation is lessened, blood flow to the legs improves by as much as 7%.

Recently, I began reading Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, which contains many of the same concepts of nasal breathing, with some different examples and supporting evidence. I wrote about alternate nostril breathing and how breathing through your left/right nostril correlates with different brain hemispheres. Other topics James Nestor explores that can benefit our running training are the Maffetone Method, Buteyko breathing, and hypoventilation.

On the Maffetone Method:

“In the 1970s, Phil Maffetone, a top fitness coach who worked with Olympians, ultramarathoners, and triathletes, discovered that most standardized workouts could be more injurious than beneficial to athletes. The reason is that everybody is different, and everybody will react to training. Busting out a hundred pushups may be great for one person but harmful to another. Maffetone personalized his training to focus on the more subjective metric of heart rates, which ensured that his athletes stayed inside a defined aerobic zone, and that they burned more fat, recovered faster, and came back the next day—and the next year—to do it again.

I first started implementing the Maffetone method after reading Mark Sisson write about it in his book Primal Endurance. One of the big takeaways from his book is that most people train in the “black hole” of heart rate zones for an extended period of time, a little above their aerobic threshold, wreaking havoc and stress upon the body. This is the reason why chronic cardio runners who often run at 160bpm for hours at a time typically aren’t healthier, can have some pretty scary bloodwork results, and later develop heart issues (sometimes even leading to runners getting heart attacks!). The Maffetone method suggests that you cap your heart rate at 180 – (age) for long training runs.

On (Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko) Buteyko Breathing:

“What if overbreathing wasn’t the result of hypertension and headaches but the cause? Buteyko wondered. Heart disease, ulcers, and chronic inflammation were all linked to disturbances in circulation, blood pH, and metabolism. How we breathe affects all those functions. Breathing just 20 percent, or even 10 percent more than the body’s needs could overwork our systems. Eventually, they’d weaken and falter. Was breathing too much making people sick, and keeping them that way?”

Although not directly for running, Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko is known for his slow breathing (Voluntary Elimination of Deep Breathing) techniques that he claims can cure many of the modern ailments (hypertension, arthrities, etc.) today and once met Prince Charles to help him with his breathing difficulties brought on by allergies.

On Emil Zátopek’s hypoventilation techniques:

“Zátopek never wanted to become a runner. When the management at the shoe factory where he was working elected him for a local race, he tried to refuse. Zátopek told them he was unfit, that he had no interest, that he’d never run in a competition. But he competed anyway and came in second out of 100 contestants. Zátopek saw a brighter future for himself in running, and began to take the sport more seriously. Four years later he broke the Czech national records for the 2,000, 3,000, and 5,000 meters.

Zátopek developed his own training methods to give himself an edge. He’d run as fast as he could holding his breath, take a few huffs and puffs and then do it all again. It was an extreme version of Buteyko’s methods, but Zátopek didn’t call it Voluntary Elimination of Deep Breathing. Nobody did. It would become known as hypoventilation training. Hypo, which comes from the Greek for “under” (as in hypodermic needle), is the opposite of hyper, meaning “over.” The concept of hypoventilation training was to breathe less.

Over the years, Zátopek’s approach was widely derided and mocked, but he ignored the critics.

At the 1952 Olympics, he won gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. On the heels of his success, he decided to compete in the marathon, an event he had neither trained for nor run in his life. He won gold. Zátopek would claim 18 world records, four Olympic golds and a silver over his career. He would later be named the “Greatest Runner of All Time” by Runner’s World magazine. “He does everything wrong but win,” said Larry Snyder, a track coach at Ohio State at the time.”

Emil Zátopek is another proponent of breath restriction (sometimes called hypoxic training). The reason why this works not only has to do with oxygen intake, but also increases nitric oxide production and CO2 retention at higher rates than mouth breathing. When nasal breathing, the breathe rate slows and the body has higher carbon dioxide levels, increasing VO2 max. Breathing through the mouth actually encourages over-exhalation and CO2 depletion. While CO2 is typically known as a waste product of breathing, a lack of CO2 prevents oxygen from being released to your body’s muscles and organs and reduces blood flow to the heart (again leading to cardiovascular issues, such as heart attack!). It is important to maintain deeper, nasal, diaphragmatic breathing while running to prevent CO2 levels from going too low. In the book, they recommend inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for anywhere between 5-7 seconds.

Final quote:

“Chinese doctors two thousand years ago advised 13,500 breaths per day, which works out to nine and a half breaths per minute. They likely breathed less in those fewer breaths. In Japan, legend has it that samurai would test a soldier’s readiness by placing a feather beneath his nostrils while he inhaled and exhaled. If the feather moved, the soldier would be dismissed.”

The importance of Nasal Breathing in my marathon training

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