I feel like I've been congested my entire life. As a kid my tonsils were so big, they obstructed my breathing and I snored like an ogre until they were removed at age 5. Not cool. And this early experience cemented mouth breathing as a way of being in my life, primarily while sleeping. However, seeing race photos of myself, I see that I have this gaping mouth hole while running. It is time for a change. I picked up the book Breath, by James Nestor and here are some tidbits I've learned so far:
Did you know?
Mouthbreathing increases blood pressure, decreases heart rate variability, increases pulse, lowers core body temperature, and impairs mental clarity.
Training yourself to breathe through your nose can improve endurance and halve your rate of exertion, per Dr. John Douillard's cycling experiment with elite athletes. His experiment showed that by breathing through your nose, rather than your mouth, rate of breathing decreased significantly despite intensity increasing and heart rate rose at a slower rate as compared to mouth breathing in which rate of breathing increased as intensity increased as well as heart rate.
Breathing through your nose helps the sinuses to release nitric oxide. Nitric oxide increases circulation and helps deliver oxygen to cells. If you are an endurance athlete, it is likely that you seek nitric oxide boosts in other ways. For example: eating beets. Breathing through your nose can increase nitric oxide by 6 times! As an athlete, nasal breathing is much more efficient and is shown to increase oxygen absorption by 18%.
If you don't use it, you lose it. Dr. Ann Kearney reports that when you don't use your nose, your nasal cavity legitimately atrophies. However, if you keep your nose in use consistently (i.e. not just while exercising but all the time), it trains the nasal cavity and throat to stay open. Dr. Kearney suggests implementing sleep tape if you have trouble sleeping through just your nose while sleeping. Her research and clinical practice shows that keeping your mouth shut overnight by taping it shut helps eliminate snoring, improves sleep quality, and decreases insomnia.
The key to improving your lung capacity is using your diaphragm. Inhaling pushes blood into the heart, but the exhale is what allows blood to circulate the body. When we're running, we want our blood to circulate the body, get to our legs! Your diaphragm is key in motivating your thoracic pump to provide strong circulation. When we do not breathe using our diaphragm, we rely more heavily on the heart which makes our heart rate skyrocket. Increased heart rate goes hand in hand with shortness of breath, and can be improved simply by using your diaphragm properly to breathe. Nestor states that a typical adult uses as little as 10% of the range by while a diaphragm can expand! By increasing use of the diaphragm, you put less stress on your cardiovascular system and thus can let your body move and operate more efficiently. Efficiency is everything when it comes to endurance sports.
The power of the exhale. Carl Stough, a choir instructor spent time working with Olympic athletes to improve their breathing. He identified that runners often breathe short breaths, especially when trying to run fast. We often breathe too frequently , high in our chests, not belly breathing, eliminating use of our diaphragms, and take aggressive inhales. Breathing properly by focusing on the exhale, helps to improve recovery time between intervals, as well as training sessions. The exhale allows oxygen and blood to circulate, a necessary component in movement.
We actually want carbon dioxide, not oxygen. Oxygen fuels cells, it makes our muscles work. It is delivered via hemoglobin. When oxygen enters a cell, the cell releases carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide loosens the oxygen from the hemoglobin, allowing the oxygen to more readily fuel cells. The muscles that produce more carbon dioxide, receive more oxygen. When organisms breathe less, or take slower, less frequent breaths, they actually allow for more efficient energy production. When organisms breathe more quickly, in shorter breaths, carbon dioxide rapidly exits the body and thus blood flow to muscles and organs is restricted. This is why when someone is having a panic attack, breathing heavily and rapidly, they feel light headed, faint, can even pass out. This is also why when you are doing a speed workout and you forget about your breathing and start huffing and puffing, your muscles get tired. Focus on your breathing, not on moving. Breathing is the first step in movement. Your breathing controls your heart rate, not the other way around. Focus on your exhale, not on getting air in.
Breathing through your nose allows your nose and throat to be more efficient at the act of breathing. It allows you to breathe slower, control your exertion level and heart rate, more efficiently transport oxygen to muscles. It allows you to use your diaphragm more effectively rather than taking short, shallow chest breaths. The more effective use of your diaphragm will allow more efficient circulation. In general, it will keep you calmer and make you more aerobically efficient. Being good at breathing will make everything in your life easier, from sleeping to running to eating.
You can improve your breathing simply by breathing through your nose more. All day and all night. Use sleep tape to tape your mouth shut at night. Practice alternate nostril breathing. Practice diaphragmatic breathing through your nose. Practice breathing through your nose when you're running. Practice breathing through your nose when your walking. Keep your mouth shut.
Nestor, James. Breath-The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Books, Ltd. 2021.