Among the cloud-piercing peaks of north-western Mexico is a region of 20,000 square miles that locals call Sierra Tarahumara. Its indigenous people, the Rarámuri (meaning ‘fleet foot’), are some of the best long-distance runners in the world and are reputed to be able to cover up to 62 miles a day – double the distance of a typical elite athlete. But what gives Rarámuri ultramarathon legends such as Miguel Lara their edge is the way that they breathe: through their nose.
Most people instinctively breathe through their mouths during workouts; after all, it seems only natural to try to achieve maximum oxygen uptake when your body is under stress. Yet a recent study by scientists at Colorado State University Pueblo suggests that runners who breathe through their nose can increase both their speed and distance. The Rarámuri are evidently on to something.
The review showed that nasal breathing had several significant benefits for runners, including ventilatory efficiency – in essence, you get more bang for your buck with every inhalation, possibly because the increased resistance to airflow results in an improved recruitment of your diaphragm and a deeper penetration of oxygen into your lungs.
Meanwhile, your nose not only humidifies each breath you take but helps to regulate its temperature. This reduces the endurance-sapping, asthma-like signs of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, which range from coughing and chest tightness to shortness of breath.
The catch is that adapting to nasal breathing can take between six weeks and six months, depending on factors such as how sensitive you are to carbon dioxide and your willingness to persist with what will initially feel uncomfortable. But if you do decide to break through that barrier, you’ll be able to blow away those PBs in no time.
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