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It’s 2004, I’m 21 years old and steaming up this never-ending hill on the South African Cape Peninsula. Minutes before, I had passed over the 26.2-mile mark, and rather than stop for my medal, high five a volunteer, and get a hug from my friends, I’m still running. Nine more miles to go. Ugh.
That’s when things go dark. Super dark. I flail. I shuffle. No matter what I do, it feels like I can’t get any closer to the finish. All of my early training sessions, back-to-back long runs, and sacrifices no longer matter.
And that’s when a fellow runner turns to me and says, “Your breathing is really erratic right now.” She seemed annoyed more than anything else, but after a moment I realize I am gasping and huffing. I had no clue!
Again this was 16 years ago. At this point, I wasn’t a coach yet and I wasn’t thinking about form. I was just trying to survive my first ultra, but something in me realized that focusing on my breathing could help. This moment opened me up to something I and a lot of endurance athletes out there are missing.
It’s deliberately practicing how to breathe. The technique I now practice and show to all my athletes is nose breathing. The goal is to nose breathe throughout the day and throughout your workouts (for the most part). But it’s harder to master than you’d first think, especially if you’re not used to breathing into your belly and diaphragm.
Many of you will try this and feel like your nose is blocked and you can’t breathe through it at all. At first, your nose might be blocked, but the more you do this the more you literally dilate and decongest your nose. Plus, snot rockets are fun.
Many of you will try this, be able to do it, but feel like you can’t get enough air, that it’s making your running or riding worse. But that’s not really due to a lack of oxygen, but a poor tolerance for carbon dioxide that triggers a sense of breathlessness. I explain this more in another video, but the good news is that you can train and improve your C02 tolerance with a simple series of breath-hold exercises from the comfort of your desk.
Many of you will try to ramp up your nose breathing too quickly and get discouraged and quit. Remember, we have to walk before we run and crawl before we walk. So stop running or slow down if you need to, and start with smaller chunks of time.
I’ve created a nose breathing ladder workout that teaches you to extend your ability to nose breath in 30-second increments. Start by nose breathing for 30 seconds. Then run or ride for 30 seconds. Then nose breathing for 60 seconds. Run or ride for 30 seconds. Then nose breathing for 90 seconds and so on. I like to work up to the 3-minute ladder rung in my warmups for 10 1/2 minutes of total nose breathing. (A guided audio version of this workout is available in my The Run Experience app.)
And there’s a winter training bonus: nose breathing humidifies, warms, and filters the air before it hits your lungs, making those below freezing training sessions significantly less harsh and more pleasant.
Breathing is now a core part of my daily training, as important as running (or biking or swimming) and strength, which affects my mood, energy, and ability to earn my miles. Specifically, the more I practice this nose breathing technique the more I improve my posture, relax my shoulders, and run with greater pelvic stability and an efficient foot strike. Plus, I’m no longer getting side stitches either. So if you’re new to nose breathing, start with the nose breathing ladder.
San Francisco-based Nate Helming co-founded The Run Experience with the goal of reaching a broader audience of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who want to be able to run and enjoy the outdoors and avoid injury. He has helped athletes finish their first races, conquer new distances, overcome pre-existing injuries, set new PRs, reach the podium, and qualify for national and world level events.