Breath: Self-experiment – nasal running

Testing nasal strips

When I was growing up, I hated running. The gasping for breath, the lack of purpose, the jarring bones. What was the point? And I wasn’t good at it. So as soon as I didn’t have to run in school, I stopped.

I have also always been a mouthbreather while I ran. I remember hearing (as far back as probably around 1990 when I was in high school) that there were benefits to training yourself to breathe through your nose while running. It just seemed so impossibly difficult. I had secretly suspected that most of the photos of athletes with their mouths closed were either because:

  1. they had closed their mouths just in time for the camera, or
  2. they were at a level of fitness that was nearly inconceivable to me. [This seemed like the logical conclusion to me, although I wondered if #1 happened too.]

I remember watching the end of an Ironman race where three or four competitors were sprinting the last mile of the race. At least one of the competitors (if not nearly all of them) were still breathing through their noses while sprinting nearly 4-minute miles after having bicycled 120 miles and swam two miles and ran a full marathon. I thought they must be a different species.

Then I read Breath by James Nestor. He eases you into this concept and how it is not only possible but beneficial. Now nasal running, as I’ll call it (since it doesn’t seem to have a better name on the internet), is not his goal in writing this book. He’s not trying to convince athletes to improve their performance simply by breathing through their nose. Mr. Nestor’s goals are much broader and covera wide range of benefits through multiple changes to our breathing. It would not be a stretch to describe this book as life changing for me and my family. However in this post, we will only focus on how this experiment with nasal breathing while running went because I thought it was impossible at least for me and what I discovered was so shocking I have to write about it.

So first, let me say that I was never a runner before I got married. I honestly couldn’t stand running. I had to run laps for football and wind sprints for basketball. I even had a girlfriend in college that made me run a 5k with her. Her little brother outdistanced me so far that I found it embarrassing and didn’t run again for 10 years. But when I got married and began to put on weight, I needed a cheap way to burn calories and stay in shape. In our early years of marriage, and with the birth of our first son, we were so poor that I couldn’t afford a gym membership. I could afford a pair of shoes. So I would strap them on and begin running in the morning.

My first goal was to run a mile and then two miles and then a 5k and so on. After five years of marriage, I ran my first marathon. Then my second. Then I got my first marathon under four hours. Then I did my first half Ironman. And then I did a full Ironman, at which point I was beginning to spend entirely too much time and money exercising. I had to figure out a new way to exercise without setting ever increasing goals to keep me motivated.

However, much like breathing, I didn’t know how to run correctly. When I started, I just strapped on shoes and ran. Like breathing, I assumed we all did it correctly with our natural stride. But if you’ve ever watched a non-professional race, you can see that there are a lot of different ways that people run and some of them look much more painful and injury-inducing than others. Professional runners flit past with barely a sound – no slamming the pavement with their heels, no slapping with their clunky shoes, no knee-straightening, leg extensions, no huffing and puffing – just silent, fleet animals in pursuit of speed and perfection.

That was not me. I was one of those bone-jarring, lag extending, huffing and puffing neophytes that injured myself before I ever made it to my first half marathon. Through injury and experimentation, I eventually figured out that I needed to stop heel striking, to stop extending my legs beyond my head, to land softly, to flex my hip muscles, and keep my legs striking in a straight line. And on and on and on. But this isn’t an article on running.

So I’ll summarize by saying I had a lot to learn but at a point, I thought all the critics were right about running: that it’s bad for your knees. But if you dig a little deeper into the research and you learn how to run correctly, you’ll find out that runners have stronger knees than the average citizen if only we learn how to use them correctly.

The same is true for nasal breathing while running. I had no clue how to do this. I had no clue what my innate weaknesses were. I didn’t realize that:

  1. my primitive northern genes had lengthened my nose and narrowed my nasal cavity to the point where my weak-walled nostrils would collapse when I ran, making it inherently difficult for me to nasal breathe while running.
  2. I had underutilized my diaphragm so that it was difficult for me to inhale deeply and efficiently use my lungs.
  3. quick shallow mouth breaths actually decreased the diameter of my capillaries making it difficult for me to send blood to the oxygen starved tissues.
  4. by gulping hair through my mouth I was flooding my blood with too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide making it difficult for my hemoglobin to offload oxygen and take on carbon dioxide.

But after reading, Breath, I tried. I tried for weeks. It was just as uncomfortable as I remembered it. On my first attempt, I was able to run perhaps 100 yards before I had to gasp for breath through my mouth. The build-up of carbon dioxide felt like too much, like I was suffocating. My deep, sucking breaths through my nose would pull the walls of my nostrils in and I’d have that strangling sensation of not getting enough air. Some primitive part of me would take control and my mouth would crank open as though a force had hijacked my central nervous system. I didn’t like this disquieting, suffocating sensation, but I kept at it.

The next day I made it to the end of our block before gasping for air. Then I made it maybe 300 yards. My progress plateaued here for a few days. Then one morning, I made it a quarter mile. I was thrilled! I was doing it. I got stuck at a quarter mile for a week, but that was OK. It seemed to be my nostrils fault more than my fitness level. If I pushed my nose up with one finger, flaring my nostrils open, I could run while nasal breathing for a little while longer. But that had its own difficulties and my mouth would inevitably flop open.

My other inherent issue was my allergies. I was trying this during the winter of 2022 and my allergies would always flood my nasal passages with mucus causing my nostrils to collapse even faster. I began to take tissues with me and blow my nose multiple times before and after my run. This helped and eventually I was able to run half a mile while nasal breathing.

A breakthrough happened for me on my second reading of Breath. I noticed Mr. Nestor mentioned that some people with weak nasal walls benefited from nasal strips or reconstructive surgery. I wasn’t ready to talk to a doctor about reconstructive surgery, so I dug some nasal strips out of my wife’s medicine bucket for the kids and strapped one on one morning.

The difference was shocking. I ran for an entire mile before I met my mother on the road and exclaimed, “Listen to my breath!”

She said, “I can’t hear anything.”

“Yes, exactly!” I said. “I’m not breathing hard. I ran all the way here without stopping. And I haven’t even broken a sweat!”

“Oh?” she asked. “Why not?”

I said, “Because I’m breathing through my nose and I have this nasal strip on.”

She asked, “What is that doing?”

I couldn’t remember what the book had said, but it felt like somebody had just handed me a gold medal. I felt FIT! I had just run a mile with my mouth closed and it felt like I had just gone for a walk. My breathing, my heart beat, my lack of sweat – it all seemed like I had just strolled down the road instead of running there. I felt like Superman!

I couldn’t wait to try this again. And I couldn’t wait to figure out the science behind this miraculous difference. I spent half the next day trying to find my heart monitor strap so that I could test what my heart rate was like the next time I ran. But that I will have to save for another post.

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