One of the more powerful benefits I’ve noticed from incorporating a regular yoga practice into my training routine is a marked improvement in my breathing.
Believe it or not, but most people don’t know how to breathe.
The correct way to do it is through the nose and the belly, but if you’re like most people then you probably have a tendency to breathe through the chest and/or mouth. This style of breathing is not only inefficient, but it can also cause you to become more stressed by activating the sympathetic nervous system (aka the “flight or fight” response). As someone who is interested in optimizing their health this is obviously not a good thing, which is why I’m a fan of yoga because the practice teaches you to discipline your breath.
But the breath isn’t just important to your health; it can also positively affect your athletic performance, something I learned recently in the book Breatheology – The Art of Conscious Breathing.
The book is written by Stig Severinson, a world free diving champion that has set numerous Guinness world records, including one for the longest breath hold (over 20 minutes). He also holds a degree in biology and a Ph.D. in medicine. Needless to say, when it comes to the nuances of the human breath Stig definitely knows what he’s talking about.
Why breathe through your nose?
I mentioned above that breathing through the nose is the “correct” way to breathe, but why?
In the book Stig gives a very detailed, physiological explanation on why you should breathe through the nose.
And it all has to do with the compound nitrogen oxide (NO).
Scientists have known for a while that nitrogen oxide (NO) can expand the blood vessels (i.e. vasodilation), allowing more oxygen to be picked up by the blood. It’s the reason why NO is used as an active ingredient in nitroglycerine, a common heart medication.
More recently, scientists have discovered that NO is also formed and released in the sinuses. Research shows that blood is oxygenated 10-15% more by breathing through the nose versus the mouth.
That’s why Stig recommends nasal breathing. According to him, “The mouth is for food and should only be used when the nose is clogged or if you’re working hard.”
So remember to always breathe through the nose to optimize oxygenation.
How can breathing through your nose improve your health?
The interesting thing about NO is that not only is it a powerful vasodilator, but research also indicates that it has a strong antibacterial effect. The nose is an excellent filter and humidifier that can actually help you prevent infections.
The other great thing about deep breathing through the nose and belly is that it allows you to control your stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the “rest and digest” response).
While not all stress is bad, chronic stress is definitely not good and likely plays a role in many different illnesses. Fortunately, you can use your breath as a therapeutic tool and keep stress related illnesses at bay, or as Stig puts it in his book:
“When you breathe efficiently, your body is cleansed of unwanted waste products, your lungs are strengthened and your nervous system is harmonized. Your thoughts calm down which enables you to control your stress level, lower your pulse and acquire more energy.”
Here’s a simple way of looking at it:
A short, choppy breath through the chest and/or mouth activates the “fight or flight” response, exacerbating stress related illnesses.
A deep, diaphragmatic breath through the nose activates the “rest and digest” response, providing a therapeutic effect for the body and mind.
How can breathing through your nose improve your athletic performance?
Most athletes interested in improving their performance tend to focus on their muscles, but as Stig notes this isn’t the only way to get better:
“Scientifically and intuitively the breath is undoubtedly significant in reaching sports goals. Efficient breathing oxygenates all muscles of the body to make them work optimally and at the same time removes the carbon dioxide produced by every cell, in vast amounts, during activity. It is surprising how little attention the breath and all its facets are given in sports training, teaching and education. This may be because our Western culture has no tradition of considering something as diffuse and “airy” as the breath.”
According to Stig there is a lot to be gained by training the lungs, especially if you consider them as a “filter” or a “tank” of the body. In this case a greater lung capacity (tank) means more oxygen can be delivered to the working muscles. Obviously this is a good thing for an athlete.
One way to improve the capacity of the lungs is through lung packing. Lung packing is a common exercise performed by free divers and it allows them to pump more air into the lungs.
According to Stig this is how it’s done:
“The principle is quite simple but requires proper coordination. The tongue is used as a piston to create a negative pressure, whereby a small amount of air is sucked into the mouth (like when you suck a straw), while the epiglottis is kept closed. The mouth is closed and the lips are held tightly together, whereupon you open to the trachea, while you push air into the lungs using the back of your tongue and sometimes the muscles in your cheeks. Then the lungs are shut off by sealing the throat, a new mouthful of air can be sucked in and the maneuver is repeated. You should not pack too many times, no more than 10 – 20 in a row – and even then only under competent supervision.”
Lung packing isn’t something that I’ve tried, but sounds intriguing if you’re a runner or getting ready to run some hill sprints.
In the book Stig covers many different exercises that can improve your breathing, none of which are all that complicated. Most involve relaxation techniques (such as yoga), stretching (to expand the muscles of the chest and lungs), and breath holding (to activate the diving response).
Personally, I think the best way to train the breath is to simply focus on correct breathing whenever possible. Here are some things that I like to do day to day:
- Yoga – 20-40 minutes a day focusing on deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
- Meditation – 10 minute sessions trying to focus just on the breath.
- Deep nasal breathing at the gym in order to improve recovery between sets. I find this to be especially beneficial when running sprints.
- Connecting with my breath whenever I feel especially stressed.
A well adjusted breath is not only a means to increase the amount of oxygen circulating in your system, but it is also a way in which you can exert control over your mental state and stress response. A slow, deep breath from the belly not only oxygenates your body’s muscles, but it also soothes the mind.
So whether you’re resting between sets at the gym, doing yoga, or just going about your day to day life, focus on deep, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose. Not only is this style of breathing essential to optimizing your health, but it can also improve your athletic performance too.
And if you want to learn more about the breath and your health, then I highly recommend grabbing a copy of Stig’s book: Breatheology – The Art of Conscious Breathing and checking out his website – Breathology.
Here’s to staying fit!