Workout of the Day

Lessons in Breathing from a 50 Mile Run


This past weekend I was able to complete a 50 mile trail race while breathing exclusively through my nose. This wasn’t an arbitrary decision, or a random challenge, or an effort to add a unique badge to an accomplishment, but rather an effort to test my training in nasal breathing, to test its application in an ultra-endurance setting, and to enhance my own performance. I’ve been reading about, writing about, and putting into practice lately the benefits of nasal breathing in and out of exercise (you can read previous posts about it HERE and HERE), and this was the perfect opportunity to put some ideas into action.

Here are a few main reasons that I decided to breathe exclusively nasally for the race:

1 - Nasal breathing conditioned my air. Coming off of a persistent head cold, I needed all of the help I could get in the respiratory health and function department. Think of oral breathing like drinking water directly from the source -- be it a stream, a cloudy lake, or the ocean -- and nasal breathing like drinking water that has been run through a high-quality filtration system. While breathing nasally isn’t going to guarantee that you’ll never get sick, you have a complex and functional built-in filtration system through your nasal cavities. Contaminants are kept from getting past the nasal cavity, pathogens are eliminated, and air is warmed and humidified before it gets to the lungs. Breathing dry, dusty, and at times cold air at an elevated rate for a full day meant well-conditioned air was key for optimizing health and function.

2 - Nasal breathing limited my intensity. While this function may be a good reason not to breathe exclusively through the nose during, say, a 1 mile time trial, nasal breathing gave me a built in limiter on my intensity and helped me maintain a sustainable pace. The urge to take in a big old mouth breath meant I was pushing into a higher level of intensity than is optimal for such a long duration event (especially for someone who is not highly-trained in ultra-endurance). Nasal breathing can be trained to be used at higher intensities with continued practice, but knowing my limited capacity, I was able to use nasal breathing, and especially relatively effortless nasal breathing, as a sort of rev limiter that kept me moving.

3 - Nasal breathing ensured better mechanics. In the same way that a 300lb deadlift will place a higher demand on your mechanics and position than a 75lb deadlift, the fact that the nasal cavity provides some resistance to breathing (i.e. why it’s harder to take a deep breath in or out through your nose than mouth) also means that nasal breathing demands better mechanics. Nasal breathing engages the diaphragm more and the upper chest and shoulders less. See if you can observe this the next time you see someone beginning to crumble a bit and lose position in the middle of a workout. Chances are, this will coincide with a mouth breathing akin to a fish gasping out of the water. Breathing nasally was another measure to ensure that I could dial in my mechanics for the huge number of duty cycles I would undertake during the race. This saved me particularly on downhill portions of the race, where more momentum and faster footwork meant less time to “think about” my positioning.

4 - Efficiency, control, consistency. Studies have shown nasal breathing to be a more efficient mode of breathing, and the added resistance of the nasal pathway, particularly within the context of the demands of a continuous aerobic effort, requires you to settle into a consistent pattern of breathing. While it’s easy for your breath to “get away from you” when you are unconsciously breathing with a wide open mouth, I was able to settle into a consistent rhythm with my breathing and my cadence that made for a consistent and controlled effort.

While my intentional nasal breathing added some additional levels of challenge at some points during the race, my n=1 experience was a net positive. There are numerous other reasons to use nasal breathing (you can read more about them at the links above), and application will differ depending on the circumstances. There are times when nasal breathing is not ideal (as in short-duration, maximal-intensity efforts), and your experience may well differ from mine. But I can tell you with confidence that there’s something to all of this conscious breathing business. Keep your eyes peeled for more breathwork-related content coming soon!

- PS


  • In 25 mins, complete:

    • 1 mile run

    • AMRAP

      • 15 deadlifts (185/125)

      • 10 wallballs (20/14)

      • 5 C2B pull-ups