I’m not a biblical scholar. I’ve spent far more Sundays in the saddle than I have in a church pew. In fact, I could probably quote Phil Ligget better than I could ever recite anything from Leviticus. Cycling has been my religion. And though some may know me as a triathlete now, I’d still consider myself a reformed cyclist. So, yes—my time on two wheels may have limited my religious upbringing. But it developed me in other ways, teaching me many critical lessons I use everyday.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that life is an aerobic sport, too. And from the first day of life, infants join other obligate nasal breathers like horses and rabbits and kangaroos with a preference for breathing through the nose. Indeed, perhaps one of the main reason humans ever begin to use a consistent pattern of mouth breathing at all is, as children, we learn the practice often comes with reward.
As a father who can remember the late night cries of a kid who was hungry or sick or in some other state of stress, I’ll acknowledge that my son learned that lesson well. Scream and mom or dad would magically appear. And this response, a parental instinct which I’m sure somehow helped ensure the survival of our species, only reinforced the mouth breathing he used to get the quantity of air he so desperately needed to discover new decibels. My son’s ability to scream was soon rivaled only by our level of sleep deprivation. We consoled ourselves saying that this was just a phase—and it was. Not sleeping, he eventually outgrew. The mouth breathing, however, was now firmly fixed in his physiology.
But if a dysfunctional breathing pattern can be learned, then it can also be unlearned.
Pranayama is the fourth step in Raja Yoga. A combination of two Sanskrit words (prana—translated as “life force”; and ayama—meaning “to extend”), Pranayama is the practice of breath control. So, it is possible to spend years of study immersed in the practices of the ancient Yogis and become proficient in the art of respiration again. Or, if you’re anything like me and prefer a more efficient road to mastery, you can spend a moment and practice awareness. It’s entirely up to you. But I promise you here that—like breath—less is more.
Pay attention to how you’re breathing, and you may find aspects of each breath which could be improved. Are you breathing too fast? Was that breath through your mouth? Is your chest initiating each inhalation? Regardless of how you answer any one of these questions, you’ve made progress. You’ve either reached the state of Conscious Incompetence or maybe even the state of Conscious Competence. And with a bit of training, your breath will begin to flow until it finally arrives to the level of Unconscious Competence. As Lao Tzu said “the perfect man breathes as if he does not breathe.”
I find the best place to begin training is with a client in a supine (back down) position, one hand resting on the belly while the other rests on the chest. I then ask the client to breathe in through the nose and into the belly which should gently rise up and away from the floor. The hand on the chest, if it moves at all, should only do so during the final third of the inhalation. The process is reversed on the exhalation, except the movement of the abdomen is completely passive as the navel falls gently back toward the spine and floor.
Usually it takes only a breath or two before the client notices a marked decrease in tension. Improved vasodilation and the anti-spastic properties of CO2—especially in the smooth muscles of the body—account for some of this response. But the majority of this increased relaxation is predicated on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) finally being brought into balance. The bottom lobes of the lung, which are best filled with nasal breathing, directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps keeps the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in check. This subject is explored in much greater detail in a later section; but for now, just understand that the maintenance in equilibrium of these two ANS branches is essential for health.
Once one has become proficient with proper breathing mechanics in supine, it’s time to up the ante. The progression I like to follow looks like this:
See, just because a person shows proficiency with a particular skill (i.e. breathing) in one position doesn’t mean that person will perform with the same level of mastery in a different or more advanced posture. This is a common mistake I find in clients who have been rehabbed in a strict, clinical setting. Once they are removed from the relative safety of the clinician’s treatment table and into the real world, the skill learned in one environment often fails to adequately transfer to another. Thus, whether the skill learned involves figuring out how to activate the lower abdominals or learning to breathe as Nature intended, a proper progression is essential for true and permanent mastery.
The penultimate step I will typically use when a client is ready for the next challenge is to have the client demonstrate proper breathing mechanics while in a position which ramps up the recruitment of the stabilizer system. For some it could be simply standing on one leg. For others with more refined reflex pathways, the next progression might be kneeling on a physio ball. Anything I can do to increase the neural drive necessary to hold the chosen position such that less attention can be devoted to the task at hand—in this case, breathing. When focused on not falling, the client can’t think about how to breathe properly. And when the client can do both simultaneously, they’ve reached the state of Unconscious Competence.
That’s when the real fun begins.
The body always gravitates toward a position of strength. So if you strengthen yourself in a position of good posture, the likelihood of you maintaining that posture gets greater and greater with each workout. Likewise, proper breathing mechanics can be more deeply ingrained into the neuromuscular system by practicing it during exercise.
Breathing is of critical importance to a successful strength training program. Optimal breathing patterns will minimize the risk of injury while maximizing the benefit of the athlete's time in the weight room. Specifically, inhalations should occur during movements where the body moves out of or away from the fetal position; while exhalations should be reserved for movements that move the body toward or into the fetal position.
This is exactly how the body works. In a properly functioning body, inhaling is coupled with axial extension, abduction, and external rotation. Exhaling is coupled with axial flexion, adduction, and internal rotation. And lifting with proper breathing mechanics will help you be stronger during the lift.
The one exception to this rule is when lifting at intensities that necessitate holding one's breath. The body does this naturally as a way to stabilize the diaphragm so the muscles of the Inner Unit have a solid foundation from which to apply force and support and protect the axial skeleton. Failure to do so would send excessive loads through the spine, possibly resulting in injury. Thus, using a heavy back squat as an example, optimal breathing for a safe and successful lift would proceed in the following order:
You’re probably thinking that cardiovascular training’s somehow different. Aerobic sports, by definition, use a large amount of oxygen. So at the very least, endurance athletes should get a pass on mouth breathing, right? Well, if you’re waiting for me to confirm this common misconception, don’t hold your breath!
A study in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport comparing maximal oxygen consumption with oral and nasal breathing is one which supports my view. The study’s authors concluded:
John Douillard, author of Body, Mind, and Sport, references experiments performed on both elite runners and cyclists. Athletes who practiced nasal breathing reported less physical strain than mouth breathers. Quantifiable differences measured in breaths per minute decreased in one subject from 47 in the mouth breathing test down to 14 using nasal breathing. “If with training and patience, you can perform the same exercise workload with only 14 breaths per minute instead of 47 using conventional techniques,” writes Douillard, “what reason could there be not to do it?”
Ponder that question for a minute. And while you’re looking for an answer, I’ll also mention Peter Nabokov’s book, Indian Running. In it he describes how Native American runners put a mouthful of water in their mouths and then sprinted a certain distance without swallowing. A similar approach of breath control is practiced by African runners covering great distances in training with the same mouthful of water. Well, not the same mouthful—that’d be gross! But, I think you get my point.
There are numerous other works and studies to back up the all the breathing techniques I’ve referenced above. Yet it really doesn’t matter what any of the research shows. You spend more time in your body than you’ll ever spend in any classroom. You are your own hypothesis, and any lab derived conclusion is only a theory until you validate it with your own experience.
N = 1
That’s what I did…eventually. I typically have to learn my lessons the hard way, and nasal breathing was no different. Using my mouth as my primary source for respiration was all I knew when I was racing bicycles in Europe. And one day, it almost killed me.
I had just returned to Spain after my first visit back to the States in over a year. My batteries finally felt recharged—the familiarity of American food, friends, and family had done wonders for my head. Even way back then, I knew that’s where racing was really won or lost. Thus, I was anxious to test my legs during the second half of the European season.
The first race back only had one significant climb, and my director sportif was confident it would end in a sprint. We had one guy on our team who made me and most everyone else in the field look like we were standing still when he unleashed his final kick. So my job was simple: cover any early moves and make sure our team was represented if anything got away. I guarded the front of the peloton like a sentinel and shut down breaks before they formed. The few attempts which threatened our strategy were quickly nullified by my presence—I wasn’t going to work; and enough of the other riders were unwilling to give me a free ride to the finish that every breakaway I infiltrated was doomed to failure.
At 30mph, a six inch buffer disappears in an instant.
A wall of riders formed on the tarmac behind me as the haunting sound of metal against road reached my ears. I looked back to survey the damage. Other racers jumped up the road, and my instincts screamed at me to chase. But I couldn’t go until—there—I saw him. At the bottom of the pile was our sprinter. He was half sitting with a mass of bodies supporting him and a tangle of bikes caging him in at the same time. The way he held his arm told me his race was over.
I exploded into pursuit. My handlebars almost caving in with the effort, I launched myself forward. A line of riders disappeared around the curve ahead, and I turned myself inside out to catch them. There was still 20K to go, but the final sprint had already begun.
My legs tore into the pedals like they were mad. The bike responded by flying up the road as I ripped the oxygen out of the air. The snarl on my face was a mix of pain and intimidation—I was trying to scare fatigue away. The watts I was putting out were simply not sustainable. I had been racing my last 200 meters for over a kilometer, and the fingers of lactic acid were wrapping around my thighs in a grip of steel. But just as my legs were about to seize, I got close enough to the riders in front to feel a small give in the wind. I gasped for air and felt a thud. Swallowing on instinct, a buzz drifted down my esophagus before I realized what had happened.
I had swallowed an insect. And though it was hard to tell with my lungs on fire, I was pretty sure it was a stinging one. A sharp burn shadowed a swelling at the back of my throat, and my desperation to catch the break instantly became desperation to breathe. I pulled up and then through the line of riders, trying to disguise my effort. It felt like I needed to cough up a big wad of phlegm. Cocking my head to the side seemed to open up my airway, so I kept going. The athlete in me told me that this was the winning break. And I’m not sure if it was the same voice or the one keen on survival, but part of me knew the medical care I needed would best be found at the finish line.
My struggle for breath mirrored my thoughts as I leaned my head first one way and then the other to try to find some air. “Do you know how to tell someone in Spanish that a bee has stung your uvula and that you can’t breathe,” I asked myself. When the answer came back, “No”, my response was “Well, shut the fuck up and race then!” So I did—to 5th place and a story to tell after a concerned shot of epinephrine in the medical tent. Good thing I wasn’t picked for drug control after that….
Each nostril is innervated by five cranial nerves from the opposite side of the brain. When I first began trying to breathe with my mouth closed (and not just out of fear of insects flying into it), the only things working worse than my nose were those neural connections. Apparently, my hemispheres weren’t cooperating and neither were my nostrils. One side was clogged like a dirty drain, while the other seemed quite content doing most of my oxygenation. So I applied a technique I cane across in my studies on respiration:
The more I practiced the above steps, the easier it became. That’s not surprising as you get good at what you do—including nasal breathing. Eventually, the contribution from both sides balanced out, and I tried nasal breathing with activity. It didn’t take much practice before I noticed my respiration rate decreased, remaining calm and relaxed at higher and higher exercise intensities.
Try it for yourself. Next workout you do, try to just breathe through your nose. It may be a bit uncomfortable. You might even find you have to slow down a bit. And that’s o.k. Holes in your development are usually what trip you up on your way toward a goal. Besides, why are you in such a hurry? You gotta crawl before you can walk; and you gotta walk before you can run. Once you can do your chosen sport while breathing though your nose, you’ll finally be able to reach your athletic potential. And the cool thing is—when you get good at keeping your mouth shut, you can talk even more smack.
The performance of your legs or lungs leaves nothing lost in translation.