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.
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.