The great thing about running is there’s always something new to learn and personal experience, misfortunes and accidents can often be the best teachers. I recently wrote jokingly about my slow miler’s cough after a 1500m race, the thing is, the more I thought about it, the more I started to think this wasn’t normal and that my miler’s coughing was perhaps a sign that my breathing while running was an issue that needed attention.
I don’t race over 800/1500m that often, mostly because I’m slow, but I actually really enjoy the distance and would like to race it more often, but the last three times I’ve compete in a 1500m or 800m race I’ve been incapacitated for about 20 minutes after the race with the worst kind of coughing that blends into uncontrolled nose running and even less fun, the urge to throw up – mostly simultaneously! The end result is not being able to breathe too well, which is never a fun experience.
I’m going to go through the medical process in the coming weeks and get a few opinions, but the cause appears to be my mouth breathing habit. This isn’t exactly by choice as through an accident of genetics, my nose doesn’t work too well, the left nostril in particular is a complete passenger, serving no practical purpose whatsoever in helping me drag in some air. So the long term solution is probably going to be some kind of surgery to straighten up my septum and perhaps clear away any other nasal passage obstructions – one of the procedures I’ve looked at is called septoplasty and sounds scary. Anyway I’ll let the experts decide what may or may not need to be done and report back what they say.
Paula Radcliffe smashing it during NYC marathon 2008 – breathing strip in place! Image by Ed Costello
In the interim, while I find the time and build up the courage to talk to some doctors, I’ve been experimenting with using a nasal splint or external nasal dilator. These plastic strips are pretty readily available from chemists for about a dollar each – you stick them on the outside of your nose and they spring out slightly to hold your nostrils open. They’re not going to do much good if you have blocked sinuses or other obstructions deeper in the airways, but in my case they work really well. As soon as the breathing strip goes on my ability to nose breathe improves dramatically.
Now any casual perusal of search engine results will tell you that there are a few benefits to nose breathing compared to mouth breathing and most of those appear to make sense. These range from humidifying air, filtering partials and even reducing your chance of getting sick by stymieing the ability of various nasties to enter the body directly through the airways. There’s also plenty of advocates of specific breathing techniques that claim a great number of preventative health and wellness benefits.
But we’re runners, so what we really want to know is: dose combined mouth and nose breathing aided by a nasal dilator help you run faster?
When you’re running, especially when you’re running hard and at the limits of and beyond your cardiovascular capacity in events like the 1500m you want to breathe in as much air as possible, this will involve a combination of nose and mouth breathing or as Arthur Lydiard said, even through your ears! I was very conscious of this in my most recent race, about 800m in I was breathing hard but exclusively through the mouth, all that air coming in so fast felt pretty scorching on the throat and I was completely dried out. I’m assuming this is the likely cause of the problems post race.
Running towards a slow miler’s coughing fit: Image by Tim Crosbie Athletics Victoria
Trying out the nasal dilator in practice
I’m very curious about how my next middle distance race with turn out, even if my performance levels remain the same, reducing throat burn is going to be a major step forwards in enjoying racing this important distance for building up speed and speed endurance more often. So far what I found after my first hard mile pace repetition session, when using the breathing strip, was that my mouth breathing is now a habit that needs to be broken. I’m not used to co-breathing through the nose and mouth once the pace gets faster, so it’s probably going to take a while to maximise the potential benefits available from being able to intake more air through the nose. It’s going to take practice.
Like any new piece of running equipment whether it be shoes, socks, clothing etc races are not the place for experimentation, trying things out in training is definitely preferable. One potential side effect of the nose splint I used the other day during track work was a major case of runny nose and sneezing in the following days – I’m not a sufferer of allergies and the like so I’m putting it down to more air passing through places that are unused to high intensity breathing. We’ll see if this settles down with repeat usage.
Are breathing strips / external nasal dilators performance enhancing?
I had a brief scan on google scholar for scientific journal articles that look into potential performance gains available to runners wearing external nasal dilators and this article popped up. It appears to indicate some benefit might be available in terms of performance. I’ll ask exercise science guru Alex Hutchinson to look into that one a bit further to see if he knows more.
Probably the most notable elite runners using these breathing strips are Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi. They must think it helps, but I’m not sure whether they use the strips because they have issues similar to mine or whether they are chasing elusive small performance benefits.
I read following the 2011 NYC Marathon that Meb missed some training through an unfortunate series of events. He forgot to take his breathing strip out of his shoe and put it on his nose before the race. The result was a personal best time and an infected foot, so there’s an argument right there for the nasal splint not making any difference to his performance.
I’ve no idea whether my breathing strips will lead to some big personal best times in the coming months and years, but it’ll be interesting to track what differences (if any) it makes to my enjoyment and performance levels – I’ll keep you posted. If anyone has any information or personal experience in using these devices please leave a comment below. I’m keen to know how they’re being used and what benefits you’ve experienced in using them.
Written by Brian Martin
Image of Meb by Erica Sara Neuman