Why Has Nasal Breathing Become So Popular?
If you’ve heard or had the discussion of nasal breathing during high intensity exercise like Functional Fitness, you probably heard about from a high-performing elite athlete. For example…
If you are just glancing at these posts you’ll probably think, “Wow all these different athletes are using nasal breathing.” However, if you take a closer look you will realize that all of these athletes have enlisted the help of the same coach… Brian Mackenzie.
Brian did not “invent” nasal breathing or any of the other modalities he popularized (such as cold water immersion), but he has delivered them to the Functional Fitness community in a way that speaks our language…performance.
The only way things like ice baths and nasal breathing become popular is by going directly to the best. It’s what Greg Classman did with the functional fitness industry using the CrossFit® Games. It’s what Elon Musk did with the electric car industry by launching the Telsa Roadster. In order to make something popular that is ordinarily rather bland, you must take it the top-performers in the industry. If CrossFit® started with soccer moms instead of Navy Seals, it would have never become wildly popular. If Tesla started with something that looked like a Chevy Volt instead of a high-performance sports car, the average person would never desire to have an electric car.
To Nasal Breathe or Not to Nasal Breathe?
You: “Well, this is great and all, but should I be nasal breathing during exercise?”
Me: “Probably” “More specifically, you should probably be nasal breathing during your low(er) intensity exercise, most of the time.”
To me, the question of to nasal breath or not is very similar to this series of questions:
Should I be doing passive mobility work?
Should I do box squats?
Should I use BCAAs and protein in my post-workout shake?
Should I use an Electric Stim unit when I’m sore?
Again… probably some of the time. It sure won’t hurt.
But in themselves none of this supplement “stuff” is particularly useful. The usefulness comes from putting each thing into a comprehensive program and understanding its role in your process as an athlete or human being.
Therefore, in order to make nasal breathing useful to you need to understand in what context it is useful.
What’s so Great About Nasal Breathing?
Here’s the deal. Nasal breathing is natural. Walking around with your mouth hanging open isn’t. The vast majority of the time (like 98%) you should be nasal breathing. During sleep, your daily activities and chores, your desk job, etc. The two percent applies when you are in a high stress environment, such as metabolically painful exercise.
Think about nasal breathing like drinking pure, filtered water. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, is like drinking water straight from a pond. According to Breathology.com…
“When air enters your nose, the many small hairs in your nose immediately filter out larger particles. Air then proceeds to the nasal conchae where it is humidified and warmed, and at the same time, smaller particles are filtered out by the surrounding mucous membranes. Indeed if we use our nose properly, we will be able to appreciate this extremely sensitive organ. The entire nasal cavity receives nerve fibers from the nervous system, and thus directly influences our health and state of mind. In the upper part of the nose there is a number of delicate sensory cells, and the information from these are directed via nerve fibers to the brain.”
In case you missed it, nasal breathing not only works at as filter, it also activates your parasympathetic nervous system via the vagus nerve. In other words, you will actually have less of a stress response in your body when performing exercise if you are nasal breathing versus mouth breathing.[Of course, this is up to a certain tipping point. Forcing nasal breathing during near maximal breathing will actually be more stressful because it requires more respiratory power. Your body feels as though you are breathing through a straw, which is incredibly stressful. So be mindful of the setting if you plan to prescribe nasal breathing.]
For an introduction to nervous system states read this article.
In addition, more nitrogen oxide from the sinuses is mixed with the air when we nasal breath, which dilates the blood vessels in the alveoli of the lungs. This vasodilation can increase oxygen uptake 10-15% from mouth breathing. However, in terms of maximum ventilation rate mouth breathing smashes nasal breathing. It’s like trying to drink out of a fire hose. This is why you will never be able to match your mouth breathing top performance while nasal breathing. The goal isn’t maximum capacity while nasal breathing, it’s about closing the performance gap between the two. For all you exercise physiology nerds out there, it’s similar to lactate threshold and V02 max. They will never be the same, but the closer they are lends itself to a host of performance benefits.
A coach like Brian Mackenzie understands what the role of nasal breathing should be and that is why he is programming nasal breathing for his athletes. It’s not just about physiology, it’s also about learning. An athlete must be able to control their body as a system and know how it responds to different stressors.
Nasal Breathing as a Tool
Think as nasal breathing as a tool. You should know how to use it and you should use it when it applies.
The reality is… most people aren’t “literate” breathing with their nose and they don’t understand how it should be used as a tool.
In my experience as both an athlete and a coach, most people start moving and immediately start mouth breathing. Even when the metabolic demands of a workout are low, the mouth starts hanging wide open.
Mouth breathing in your warm-up? Shut your mouth.
Breathing this way is a dysfunctional motor pattern. No different than a butt wink in your squat, early pull in your clean or heel strike in your run gait. Dysfunctional motor patterns need to be fixed or there will be consequences. The consequences might be subtle and take place years down the road, or they might take you out of commission for a season of time.
You can probably be an elite Functional Fitness athlete and heel strike when you run. There is evidence of that. You can also probably be an
CrossFit® Games competitor and always mouth breath during exercise. It is the difference between good and optimal.
Good athletes spend the time it takes for the 1% improvement.
Gold athletes spend the time it takes for the .1% improvement.
Nasal Breathing Rx
Here is my suggestion for a nasal breathing prescription:
Learn to develop gears with your breathing based on pacing and time domain just like you develop gears during exercise. Developing skills with different types of breathing takes time and intentional practice. If you program workouts for building running capacity, why not program for nasal breathing capacity?
Sample Nasal Breathing Workouts
Sample Workout #1
For Time: Maintain Nasal Breathing As Long As Possible
-Start at 300/200 watts on Assault Bike and increase by 50 watts every 30s until you break to mouth breathing
–Rest 2:30 between rounds, repeat for 5 Rounds–
**Recover back to Nasal Breathing as quickly as possible during rest**
Sample Workout #2
Row 2k @ Max Nasal Breathing Effort
(A good score would be within 90% of your best time)
Sample Workout #3
5 Rounds for Time
-200m Run (Hard, Allow Mouth Breathing)
-300m Ski (Recovery Pace, Nasal Breathing)
Sample Workout #4
Recovery Day Met-Con (Nasal Breathing Only)
AMRAP 20 (60% Effort)
-20 Wall Ball 12/8lbs
-18 Ring Rows
-15 Russian Kettlebell Swings 44/26lbs
-12 Walking Lunges
**nasal breathing keeps you parasympathetic during your recovery day**
Breathing is the most fundamental skill to movement, yet very few athletes know how to breathe to maximize their performance.
Do you get drained too early in workouts despite having excellent conditioning?
Do you find yourself resting between movements to catch your breath?
If so, you are who I wrote this book for. Let me help you plug the holes in your fitness revealing your untapped potential.