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Ihor Verys’s surprising secret weapon: nose breathing

Verys, who just ran more than 717 km in five days at Big's Backyard Ultra, credits much of his trail success to the practice

Ihor Verys Big's Backyard Ultra Photo by: Marina Striker

Chilliwack, B.C.’s Ihor Verys just ran more than 718 km in 107 continuous hours, claiming the assist to winner Harvey Lewis at Big’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee on Wednesday evening. Beyond his remarkable fitness and mental stamina, the ultrarunner has a secret weapon: his breath. The athlete swears by nose-breathing, and has perfected his technique while running.

Verys has only been competing for three years, yet has already racked up an incredible list of accomplishments that include wins at B.C.’s gruelling Fat Dog 120 and Alberta’s Canadian Death Race (where he also faced off against Lewis, beating him by more than two hours).

The athlete says that trail running wasn’t always as easy as he makes it appear, and after a 50 km run between Brandon and Shilo, Man., he discovered his biggest challenge was being out of breath.

The breathing issue had nothing to do with how fast Verys was going. “I was slow like a snail,” he explains. “My chest muscles were incredibly sore. I started looking into it, and came across the book called The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown.” Verys now calls the book one of his ultrarunning bibles.

In the book, McKeown explains that physiologically, our mouths aren’t created for breathing. “Our mouth serves very different purposes, and our nose is the only organ that should used for breathing,” says Verys. “Interestingly, the entire book was based on the research and lifework of one Ukrainian doctor, who worked and practised in what was then the USSR.” Verys, who moved from Ukraine to Canada in his early 20s, was so fascinated, he read the entire dissertation in its original Russian. “The doctor was able to cure over 500 children from asthma just by getting them to do simple breathing exercises and changing the way they breathe,” he says.

Inspired, Verys set out to change his own breathing technique. “I made sure I was always using my nose to breathe, and I started doing breathing exercises religiously every day,” he says. “I’d take a five to 10-minute break at work to do the exercises, and I’ve been doing them ever since.” Verys was also taping his mouth shut at night to make sure he used his nose to breathe while he slept. “I’ve noticed a huge improvement, and I’ve never had the same issues again. I’ve done a few ultras now and I’ve never had issues with breathing,” he says. “My sleep improved, too. Pretty much all my training runs are done while nose-breathing. I mouth-breathe only very rarely while doing intense speed workouts.”

Ihor Verys, winner of Fat Dog 2022
Photo courtesy of Ihor Verys

Verys says the neatest thing about it is that he’s able to pace himself during races using his breathing. “I don’t care about HR or the grade of a climb,” he explains. “If I need to open my mouth to breathe, it means I’m going too fast and I need to slow down.” Unless Verys needs to make a move or attack a hill, he remains at nose-breathing speed. As a result, his lungs and breathing muscles never get overworked, and there is an unanticipated bonus: nose-breathing is stealthy and silent, appearing effortless. “There’s nothing more demoralizing for your competitor when he or she can’t hear you breathe 100+km into the race,” he says.

Meet the Ukrainian-Canadian ultrarunner who is winning everything

Curious to try it yourself? Verys says the exercises are fairly basic, and it’s easy to make your own variations. He suggests trying multiple repeats of holding your breath, after exhaling everything in your lungs. According to the research, there’s an anatomical basis for getting your body used to the build-up of CO2 while holding breath, and the result is efficient breathing and the benefits that carries. “The more you do it, the longer you can hold your breath,” Verys says. “At the beginning, I could barely hold my breath for 20 seconds, but now I can comfortably do it for more than 60.”

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