For those of you that are athletes, how many of you were ever taught how to breathe most effectively? The shocking answer is that almost no one is taught this though it should be thought of as the most basic exercise. I believe proper breathing techniques should be taught as part of what you learn as an elementary school kid in PE class. If we continue to overlook this we won’t just be keeping athletes from the fullest potential but we will also continue to risk so many early deaths as you’ll see later.
The basic premise is that most people don’t breathe deeply enough and their rate of breath is way too fast. We need to avoid breathing superficially and shallowly and breathe more by engaging our diaphragm expanding our bellies when we breathe fully in and noticing that our bellies flatten when we breathe fully out.
Those that know about these specifics still often don’t implement them because it’s a lot to think about while exercising. So how about more of a fool-proof way of ensuing you’re breathing deeper, using all lobes of your lungs, and slowing down your breath while increasing your efficiency? It’s actually really simple..simply don’t use your mouth!
Exclusive nose breathing will enable you without thinking about it to be an efficient breather. It will force you to use your diaphragm, to use all lobes of your lungs, not just the upper lobes. It will also allow for your blood vessels to dilate more to allow for more blood (and Oxygen) to reach the places that your body is working. Nose breathing allows for more Nitric Oxide to be produced by the body which triggers the body’s blood vessels to dilate. Mouth breathing does the opposite.
Why Young Fit/Healthy Athletes Have Heart Attacks
When the heart rate is high and the person is mouth breathing, the person is basically in a state of Fight or Flight (engaging the Sympathetic Nervous System). In that state, blood vessels narrow. This is understood by many experts why many people in the peak of their fitness have had a heart attack. Hours and hours of high heart rate and narrowing of blood vessels can eventually mean disaster for even a relatively heart-healthy athlete.
Nose breathing forces you to breathe a fraction of the amount than when you use your mouth. It is a strange concept to those completely new to the practice. Switching from breathing 45-60 breaths per minute when mouth breathing to 10-15 breaths when nose breathing under the same amount of exercise load is strange to experience at first, but you simply don’t need to breathe as many times when you’re breathing more efficiently. It is really defeating to your competition (and so much fun) when you pass them as their breathing is much more labored than yours.
Somewhat unrelated to performance benefits, I must mention the very considerable changes you experience with dealing with life’s stressors. As I said before mouth breathing activates the fight-flight response whereas nose breathing promotes relaxation. More nitric oxide produced, vasodilation (wider blood vessels), lowering of blood pressure, and calming the nervous system. We all to some degree have moments of anxiety. For some it is a severe and daily struggle, to others we find we get irritable in traffic, but none of us are immune to stress/anxiety in today’s world. Our quality of life is related to how well we deal with the stressors of life, how adaptable we can be.
Of all the tools I’ve learned in the wellness world, the most powerful shift we can make in how we can deal with stress/anxiety is shifting your breathing. Ideally if you are anticipating a high-stress situation start paying attention and altering your breathing to be exclusively nose breathing. Slow it down and make sure your belly is moving in and out to ensure you’re breathing as slowly and deeply as possible.
Breath-Holding For Added Benefit
If you want to take it a step further, at the end of an occasional exhalation, hold your breath for a few seconds. Breath holding, especially at the exhalation will temporarily increase CO2 in the blood which will quickly trigger your body to release O2 from your hemoglobin (red blood cells, where most oxygen in your body is) to other cells. A sudden surge of O2 floating around your body can be very calming. One more exercise that can help relax you in the state of anxiety is to hum. Humming has shown to help increase Nitric Oxide production 15 fold (again, vasodilation, relaxation, more oxygen transport). This is the biological reason monks often chant during meditation. Next time you have a high stress situation, especially if you feel close to a panic attack, try the nose breathing, occasional breath holds and humming and you may find a new level of peace almost instantly.
Achieve deeper sleep by breathing out of your nose. Your parter will also thank you for this one if you’re a snorer, by the way. So how do you ensure you’re breathing out of your nose only when you’re asleep? You probably guessed it: tape your mouth shut. This seems extreme to some people and maybe a bit claustrophobic to others, but it is seriously no big deal and highly effective. I first got this idea from Patrick McKeown, who is a teacher of Buteyko style of breath work who teaches elite athletes to people suffering from asthma and extreme anxiety all these techniques i talked about. He also practices the tape-over-the-mouth technique himself every night before he sleeps. This simple technique, even if done for part of the night, will enable the mechanics of your lungs to work most effectively by forcing efficient belly breaths. This would mean less issues with obstructive sleep apnea (loss of oxygen to the brain), deeper, more relaxed sleep (more vasodilation, more oxygen delivery) and more ability to get truly restful deep and REM sleep, which is critical to recovery and repair.
One last significant benefit to overall wellness is by training your body to be an exclusive nose breather is that you don’t constantly dry out your mouth. This is huge when it comes to oral health. If you have a dry mouth, you’re lacking the ideal amount of saliva to keep the oral ecology healthy, you are going to be much more susceptible to microorganisms thriving allowing for cavities and other, hard-to-overcome infections. If you’re waking up with a dry mouth, try the mouth-taping technique and see if after a while, the dry mouth improves.