Breathe in, Breathe out

So simple, sometimes so hard.

I’ve been taking notice of my breathing lately—namely, that I am holding my breath probably more than I should, thanks to a few mom-related things I’m certain plenty of you have dealt with or maybe are facing now: a tween daughter whose moods can change drastically and abruptly; a fifth-grade dreamer of a son who is struggling with liking school; a 6-year-old boy dealing with taunts from older kids on the bus. Add the everyday life stuff like work, bills, marriage, and … you know how it can go. I’m reminding myself to exhale. My husband calls my random deep-breath-in-and-deep-breath-out—a practice I sometimes don’t even realize I am doing—“that sigh you do when you’re stressed out” and my über-observant first-grader asks, “You OK, Mom?” when he overhears it. But it works. It helps bring me back to center.

Of course, running is my true salve to the holding-it-in-too-much reaction I've got going on. I lace up and head out for a run, and it’s the time in my day when I let it all go—the worries, the anguish, the frustration, anything that’s clogging my head and stifling the easy flow of air in and out of my body. When I run, I’m breathing the way I should be.

Or, maybe not. I finished reading ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek’s fascinating memoir Eat & Run not long ago, and I discovered I could probably stand to improve my breathing while on the roads and trails. “One of the most important things you can do … is to breathe abdominally, and a good way to learn that skill is to practice nasal breathing,” Jurek writes.

I'd like to think I could breathe like ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek. (And, hey, maybe I could run super long like him someday, too)

A pretty passionate runner for the past six years, I hadn’t given breathing much serious thought until I read Jurek’s words. It's not that I haven't experienced the benefits of breathing through exercise--I've learned a lot through twice-weekly sessions on the Pilates reformer, but exploring it in my running? Not so much. I’ve just always done what has come naturally as I pound the pavement: breathe in and out of my mouth.

A quick survey of my BRFs revealed I’m not the only “mouth breather” out there. One friend shared that given her asthma, “I never quite feel like I’m getting a good, deep breath” unless breathing through her mouth. She feels like she’s getting more oxygen that way. Though I don’t have asthma, I can relate, especially as I chug up hills. Another friend, with whom I’m training for the Lighthouse Half-Marathon next month, often lets out a big, noisy exhale through her mouth mid-run. I’ve latched on to this myself, and it does feel good, satisfying.

Still, Scott Jurek’s encouragement to try nasal breathing—ultimately it can allow you to breathe more deeply and efficiently, he says—got me wanting to try changing the way I inhale and exhale while running. He suggests practicing first with a book placed on your stomach while lying down (try to see your stomach rise and fall with each breath, which signifies breathing from your diaphragm rather than your chest), and later breathing in and out of your nose while running easy routes.

I gave nasal breathing a try during this morning’s five-miler on my neighborhood trails. It didn’t come easily, especially on the route’s hillier sections. Jurek is a proponent of breathing in through your nose and exhaling forcefully through the mouth—known as “breath of fire”—for more difficult runs, like hills and tempo workouts. Throughout today's run, a decidedly lower-key workout that included going sans music and watch, I did experience a few moments of OK, this feels fine and manageable, peaceful even. But I’m definitely going to have to build up to longer stretches. And I wonder how it works exactly if you’re running with a friend or in a group—just how easy will it be to breathe this way and talk at the same time?

Jurek says that nasal breathing humidifies and cleans the air, as well as allows you to eat quickly and breathe at the same time whether running easy or hard. No doubt this is essential for ultra-runners, who fuel quite a bit more than those of us who are running shorter distances.

But I do know how good I feel when my breathing is calm, controlled—and from my core, not my chest. This is true whether I’m dodging tree roots on a dirt path, meeting a work deadline, or fixing dinner for my family while helping my kids with their homework. I’m going to keep giving this nasal breathing a try. And really, truly exhale.

Anyone else switch from mouth breathing to nasal breathing while running? Curious to know how it’s worked for you.

*This blog post title comes from one of my favorite running songs, “Breathe in, breathe out” by Mat Kearney. I love my power-up tunes, but I also like slower ones like this one that keep me in a sweet mid-run groove.


20 responses to “Breathe in, Breathe out

  1. It works amazing!! I’ve been practicing running and exclusively breathing in and out of my nose only and it’s incredible!!! It’s completely changed my life. That and rhythm breathing. 3-2

  2. Great post! I will have to give this a try. I am a total mouth breather. I feel like I might suffocate if I am breathing through my nose while running. I have wondered if the reason why my heart rate is higher is because I am not breathing as efficiently as I should…

  3. I tried nasal breathing today during the Air Force-Navy 1/2 marathon. It took some getting used to, and there were times I still mouth breathed, but I don’t know, I felt pretty good doing the nasal breathing…I can’t describe how I felt, just ‘good’!

  4. I took a ‘Learn to Run’ class a few years ago and the instructor put a lot of focus on inhaling deeply through the nose and forcefully expelling all the air through the mouth so as to open the lungs up to receive as much oxygen as possible with the next breath. She had us practice an exhale mantra that has stayed with me ever since: “Char” “don” “nay.” Works every time 🙂

  5. Funny! About 20 years ago when I was taking ballet, (I think I was about 15) my teacher told me if I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth and relaxed my very clenched hands, I could run a mile in school without stopping. It worked! I breath through my nose while running a lot, but not every breath. It does take practice. Good luck to you!!!!

  6. When I did C25K I trained myself to do one breath in through the nose, two out through the mouth. One in one out never helped, it has to be 2 out. It works for me! Gets me through hills and speed work now. I think it helped that I started with it, though.

  7. I am studying for an exam and am very stressed out. I have found tha breathing from your stomach is very helpful in relieving stress. I do it during the day, and to relax so i can sleep. Seems to be very beneficial. Yoga class is in order!

  8. I actually just started reading this book! His Death Valley race just sounds awful. I’ve never tried nasal breathing – I breathe through my mouth and spend a lot of my time trying not to bother the people around me with my loud gasping breaths! I’ll definitely have to try this. BTW I guess I have a big, let it all out, sigh that I do too. I usually don’t notice it till somebody asks me if I’m ok!

  9. I have tried so many timed to nose breathe. I just can’t seem to be able to. I either have a stuffy or running nose when running or if my nose is clear I just don’t feel like I am getting the air, I am sort of new to running (5/22/11 was my first 5k and the first time I tried to run since school over 20 years ago) I am also not fast and not thin, my legs seem to be able to go on and on but my lungs and feet(mortons neuromas in both feet) just give out on me pretty quick. With my 1st half in 22 days 21 hours and 45 minutes I am starting to freak out.

    Any tips on how to get it down would be helpful, I do think it is the best breathing and it makes me feel good in yoga classes.

  10. Aaah! So appropriate for me! After running for years and breathing just fine during most of it, I have stumbled upon a BRF and a pack of fit lady friends who push me to go harder…and I am STRUGGLING TO FIND BREATH!! It seems like it’s back to running 101 when I couldn’t figure out how to get these parts of my body (and brain) to work together. I have been trying to concentrate on my breathing, but this just gives me more incentive to keep at it! Thanks, ladies!!

  11. I am reading this same book and am definately a mouth breather especially when I run. But since reading that chapter, I’ve been toying with breathing the way Scott is encouraging us to run. A challenge for sure. 🙂

  12. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to run and breathe through my nose. I get so mucus-y – always blowing snot rockets and spitting (I know it’s not TMI Tuesday but still…). I don’t think I could breathe at all that way.

  13. Too funny! I just read his book a month ago or so and just this week I started to try the nasal breathing too, and I concur with the fact that it did not come as easy as I thought it would. I guess that is one more thing to work hard on along with technique and cadence 🙂

  14. I have always been a mouth breather. Chi running suggests nasal breathing as well and I have tried it. I feel like I am thinking too much when I run and try to breathe any other way than what i am used to. It is no easy task… Thinking and running! I also have HORRIBLE allergies and my nose runs faster than me on fall and spring runs.

  15. I have allergies and my nose is very often stuffy. There is no way I can nasal breathe and get in enough oxygen when running. I do make an effort to fill my abdomen with air when I’m running.

  16. I can’t seem to figure out a “right” way to breath without feeling like I am going to die. I know they say through the abdomine but can’t figure it out. I have done a few slow halfs now mostly fast walking burned know my legs can carry me it’s my breathing that isn’t working if I could get a handle on it I know I could get faster. Looking forward to what everyone says

    1. Ha, lucky you, Alisa! 🙂 Curious to know if breathing this way ever gets in the way of talking with your running partners, or if you struggle if you catch a cold? The stuffy nose issue was brought up a few times in the comments here, and I meant to include that in this post, too, since I seem to have, um, a drippier nose than most. 😉

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