Breathe Better, Run Faster
What’s the most elemental superpower we humans possess? Breathing.
Or rather, “conscious strategic breathwork.”
Curious to hear something strange? It took me 40 years of running before I learned that how I breathe is pivotal to life optimization. Odd, right?
In his new best-selling book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, journalist James Nestor observes that humans are the only species who can cultivate conscious awareness of our breathing. However, modern humans are also the animal kingdom’s worst breathers. Our 21st century lifestyles – sedentary and ever-more digitally disembodied – lead us away from breathing, our most elemental strategic tool to enhance human wellness.
In fact, we are “dis-evolving,” as Harvard University paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman writes in The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease.
The good news? We breathe 25,000 times daily, and each breath represents an opportunity to optimize mind, body and spirit – including our running prowess.
For 40 years I’ve run thousands of miles, and competed in races from 4 x 400 indoor relays in high school track meets; to marathons (Boston, Honolulu, and Vermont’s Champlain Islands); to epic long-distance events like the RAGNAR Relay’s Miami-to-Key West race.
For training, I’ve explored dozens of techniques to invigorate my running, from Heavy Hands (remember those?), to cross training (swimming and yoga), to weight lifting, “chi running,” and high-altitude trekking in the Himalaya.
But “breathwork”? No one taught me that.
I discovered the Wim Hof Method four years ago, standing in the snow one morning in bare feet, breathing quietly in Vermont’s pre-dawn crispness, wondering why the cold felt so good. I later found out while reading Scott Carney’s book on Wim Hof, What Doesn’t Kill Us.
“Hoffing” opened my eyes to breathing’s unique power, and Dutch super athlete Wim Hof’s “method” involves a potent trio of protocols combining a daily ice, breath, and a mind-set/commitment regimen.
During Covid, I immersed myself in studying breathwork, obtaining instructor certifications in the Wim Hof Method, Oxygen Advantage (for sport), and the Buteyko Method (for health). Like many athletes, I began using my body as a respiratory lab, experimenting with how different breathing protocols enhanced my running.
As a lifelong runner, I’ve now become a “pulmonaut,” regularly tinkering with strategic breathwork and in 2021, I cofounded a community-supported breathwork (CSB) company called Peak Flow with fellow breathworker and California big wave surfer Lindsey Trubia, whom I met at a Wim Hof instructor certification clinic.
Studying strategic breathing also changed Trubia’s life. After a near-death experience surfing in Hawaii in 2011, she got into breathwork to help her free-diving and big wave surfing.
“I had no idea I was signing up for a transformational experience in mind, body, and emotional health,” she says. “You learn how to control your nervous system and build mental resilience organically. Using strategic breathwork to improve CO2 tolerance is a huge competitive edge. In surfing for example, I use specific breath practices before paddling out, prepping for the hold down and improving recovery times. It’s one of those things I simply can’t live without. Even as a NCAA division 1 soccer player athlete, we were never taught how to breathe.”
The Basics of Breathwork
Here’s what Lindsey and I have learned about breathing.
First, consider a basic biological concept known as “hormesis” –individuals regularly applying titrated doses of voluntary positive stress (“eustress”) to build resilience. Hormetic questing is why we pursue daily exercise, from meditation to mountain climbing. All of us suffer from bouts of chronic stress, driven by events beyond our immediate control. “Eustress,” on the other hand, is us leaning into stress as a positive force for human optimization, beginning with our breathwork.
Science is beginning to confirm breathwork’s myriad benefits for athletes, including runners. A 2018 clinical study conducted by Dr. George Dallam, a Colorado State University Professor of Exercise Science and Olympic triathlon coach, followed both male and female recreational runners over a six-month period, measuring comparative results from “nose only” versus “mouth only” breathing. Runners shifting from mouth to nose breathing saw significant increases in their performance: slower “breaths per minute” respiratory rates (39.2 bpm for nose vs. 49.4 bpm for mouth); higher end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2 is our body’s “trigger” to breathe); reduced ventilation (“volume of breathing”) during running; and more efficient oxygen deployment from lungs to red blood cells while exercising.
One year later, in a Pulmonology and Respiratory Medicine journal article, St. Joseph’s College Professor of Healthcare Management Michael Flannell made a clinical case for “The Athlete’s Secret Ingredient,” concluding that “nasal breathing is the secret to improve health and athletic performance and recovery.”
Speaking personally, breathwork has enhanced my daily running experience by catalyzing a deeper focus on mind, body and spirit connections while flowing across the landscape.
At Peak Flow, we teach a “breathwork ecosystem,” comprised of three parallel overlapping breathwork strategies: LSD (based on the Buteyko Method), IHHT (from the Oxygen Ad-vantage program), and CHHB (derived from ancient monks and now the Wim Hof Method). Here’s a quick jog through each.
LSD: The Foundation of Breathwork Optimization
Despite the provocative acronym, LSD breathing is the most fundamental of our three breathwork approaches – Light, Slow, Deep, and Diaphragmatic.
Most 21st century humans (including many runners) are shallow “mouth to chest” breathers, over-breathing their way through the world in a daily state of chronic stress and anxiety.
Learning to shift away from mouth breathing to LSD breathing brings us into a more overall state of calm and relaxed alertness, providing a healthy foundation for all activity, from sleeping to running. Many coaches, athletes, and health practitioners are discovering and now using this too.
“With the women’s soccer team, we started doing two-minute breathing exercises before practices and games this year,” says Saint Michael’s College women’s soccer head coach Wendy Elles. “The regular breathwork seemed to get players calm and in the right mindset.”
“I use breathwork with my clients by noticing how they breathe – in conjunction with their mental health concerns,” says NEK-based psychologist Lynton Moore. “I then offer them a variety of breathing techniques which assist in reducing the severity of their symptoms.”
“When training for optimal performance or peak flow we must control our thinking,” says Norwich University Head Men’s Lacrosse Coach and Assistant Athletic Director Neal Anderson. “Becoming aware of and then finding space beyond our thoughts is related to our ability to turn down our sympathetic nervous system and activate our parasympathetic — we find this ANS switch through the quality of our breathing.”
How we breathe influences our autonomic nervous system (ANS) – longer exhales over inhales move us into a more relaxed and calm parasympathetic (PNS) state, while longer inhales over exhales move us into a more alert and energetic sympathet-ic (SNS) state. With running, nasal diaphragmatic breathing sync’ed up to our steps keeps us calm, alert, and maximizing oxygen and muscle efficiency as we run.
So how do we shift to strategic breathwork? Start with your nose, a remarkable organ, efficiently funneling, warming, humidifying, and cleaning millions of air molecules that enter our bodies before transferring oxygen to our lungs via millions of alveoli (tiny air sacs), and then on into hemoglobin-saturated red blood cells circulating energy-rich oxygen throughout our bodies. Nose breathing also generates nitric oxide, a magic molecule which vasodilates (opens up) our respiratory and circulatory systems to optimize our running, step by step.
So why LSD breathwork for running?
(L): Light breathing refers to optimizing nose-to-belly inhales and exhales via the power of our diaphragm, our body’s most important respiratory muscle. Like any other muscle, our diaphragm is strengthened via regular breathwork, leading to myriad benefits, like stabilizing core functional movement with every step we run. Biochemically, breathing light optimizes respiratory gases — oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitric oxide — within our respiratory and circulatory systems.
Remarkably, we find 100 times more carbon dioxide than oxygen in our bodies, and CO2’s presence “triggers” our bodies to breathe via the “Bohr Effect,” our body’s more efficient release of oxygen from our red blood cells in the presence of carbon dioxide.
(S): Slow breathing refers to “down shifting” our breathing’s cadence or tempo. At rest, 12-18 breaths per minute is optimal. While running, shifting from mouth to nose breathing, while challenging at first, soon brings more optimal air exchange with every inhale and exhale as “air hunger” gives way to greater “CO2 tolerance.” Syncing up nasal-diaphragmatic breathing while running, step by step, also allows closer monitoring of our energy output, as breathing awareness “cues” our physical effort – speed, cadence, distance – as we run.
D): Deep and diaphragmatic breathing brings oxygen deep into the lower third of our lungs, the home of many of our parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) receptors, maximizing every breath’s efficiency and keeping us relaxed and alert, even while running at top speed. Watch elite sprinters or marathon runners – those who appear most “zen” are those who shut their mouths and breathe through their noses.
How to incorporate LSD breathing into your regular running? First, simply practice LSD breath-work daily so it becomes your normal default breathing practice. Start with shifting from mouth to nose breathing at night while sleeping – using a piece of mouth tape to ensure consistency. Within a week or two, you’ll notice better quality sleep. \
Second, shut your mouth while running and breathe through your nose. If you are a habitual mouth breather, this will feel difficult at first. Be patient and stick with it. Third, consciously sync up your breath with your steps, and notice how geography – running uphill versus downhill versus flats – changes your “breathing to step” ratio.
IHHT: Intermittent Hypoxic Hypercapnic Training
Popularized by Oxygen Advantage founder and Irish breathwork pioneer Patrick McKeown, IHHT incorporates regular breath holds while running or doing any aerobic activity. This simulates high altitude training and increases the efficient release of oxygen from our red blood cells into our cells and tissues. Sounds crazy?
“Breath holding ups the fitness ante for our men’s lax players,” says Saint Michael’s College assistant lacrosse coach Martin Bowes, who is also a certified Oxygen Advantage coach. “Beyond competition, we’ve baked breathwork into our team’s regular practices, and found that doing consistent team breathing exercises increases trust, vulnerability, camaraderie, and team bonding among our players – it’s a game changer.”
To try it, start low and go slow. Hold your breath only after you get comfortable with nasal-diaphragmatic LSD breathing practice while running.
After a mile run to warm up, breathe in and out through your nose, and at the bottom of your exhale, pinch your nose and hold while in motion and let CO2 build up in your nasal cavity. Release after 10-20 seconds (running all the while), and then nasal breathe as normally as possible. After a reasonable recovery – consistently counting breaths or steps – repeat again and again. Reminder: Start low and go slow.
Holding your breath while running stimulates “air hunger.” It extracts additional oxygen from cells (hypoxia), and holds additional carbon dioxide in our bodies (hypercapnia), resulting in myriad hormetic benefits. These include focusing the mind, strengthening the diaphragm, increasing CO2 tolerance, reducing blood acidity, and delaying fatigue by increasing both aerobic and anaerobic capacity through repeated practice.
Try breath holding while running gradually. If you’re serious, use a pulse oximeter to measure IHHT in action when your oxygen saturation level drops to 80 to 87%.
CHHB: Controlled Hypoxic Hypocapnic Breathwork
Building on LSD and IHHT protocols, you can light your inner fire through ancient Tibetan mo-nastic “tummo” (“inner fire”) breathwork, popularized by Dutch superathlete Wim Hof. Hof used tummo breathing training to run marathons in the high Himalaya and Africa’s Namib desert with barely any water.
Technically speaking, tummo breathing is a form of controlled hy-poxic hypocapnic breathwork (CHHB), as “inner fire” involves hormetic respiration (always lying down, in a safe, quiet comfortable environment, please), to voluntarily stress our body’s 1,500 miles of respiratory tubes and 70,000 miles of circulatory tunnels, from tiny-muscled capillaries to large veins and arteries. The runner’s payoff is obvious, remembering that all efficient human movement is predicated on optimal respiratory and circulatory vitality.
Establishing a regular morning pre-run CHHB protocol takes practice. Use an app, video, or other voice-activated coaching aid so you can enjoy the “flow.” Wake up, do your morning ablutions, and then lie down on a bed, couch, or yoga mat. Take 30 to 40 aggressive breaths in and out through the nose (adding in your mouth to deepen your experience), followed by a post-exhale breath hold extending from 1-2 minutes, and then a 15 second recovery breath. Repeat 3-6 rounds, listening to your body and enjoying the ride. Post CHHB, you may feel slightly euphoric, resonant, or tingly, which is a nice time to settle into a little LSD breathwork before you head out for your run.
Adopting a “breathwork ecosystem” approach will not only breathe new life into your running, but your overall daily experience, as well. Experiment, observe, listen, flow, and unleash your secret superpower – your breath!
Rob Williams, who lives in the Mad River Valley, is a co-founder of The Peak Flow which teaches breathwork techniques. You can find out more and access the latest breathwork clinical studies at www.thepeakflow.com.