If you cast your minds back to that first Cross Country race in PE class that saw you catching at your stitch as though it was an open wound, you’d likely be familiar with the confusion you had towards breathing at that point. As young athletes, we huffed and puffed our way around athletic tracks and sports fields, often being told by various coaches to either exhale through the mouth, while others were sure to correct us about breathing through the nose. Most of us chalked it up to the kind of differences that arise in the pronunciation of potato, but as new research seems to suggest, breathing through the nose could actually boost athletic performance.
The training technique was recently explored by Graham Averill for Outside, where the writer participated in an Art of Breath clinic run by Rob Wilson. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon - many a yoga class focuses on the dramatic “ha” exhale, while athletes have often limited their oxygen intake during workouts to better adapt to conditions and boost endurance.
As Averill explains, breathing through the mouth is instinctual as it offloads more carbon dioxide than breathing through the nose. But as studies have suggested, tolerating higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body might actually signify a higher level of fitness. They have gone on to illustrate that by practising such breathing exercises, athletes actually manage to increase maximum oxygen uptake. If all that wasn’t enough to convince you, mouth breathing has been associated with por sleep and lower stamina during exercise.
So, what’s the secret behind nose breathing? The release of nitric oxide, which is shown to occur when breathing through the nose as carbon dioxide increases in the blood. Nitric oxide helps deliver more oxygen to cells which is a natural performance enhancer. According to Patrick McKeown, a clinical director at the Buteyko Clinic, “Mouth breathing is an epidemic.” In an interview with Outside, he explains: “Any athlete who trains while nasal breathing will, after several weeks, exceed their personal best, regardless of their sport.”
To practice nasal breathing, coming breath-hold exercises with such techniques like box breathing. As Averill explains, it’s an exercise that helps relieve anxiety, improves focus and builds carbon dioxide tolerance, all while seated at your desk. Simply sit upright with shoulders above hips, then breathe in through your nose for four seconds. Hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold with your lungs empty for four seconds. Repeat this for at least five times and then work to increase the duration of each step, for up to ten seconds.