Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Breathing is important for a number of reasons, but controlling how you breathe is a factor that is rarely accounted for. In a field such as fitness, where we often talk about minutia that helps in less than single digits, it can seem almost impossible to improve by double-digit percentages, but breathing through your nose and training that way to control breathing can do just that, a.k.a the Oxygen Advantage.
“Control your breathing”, is all you hear as you’re gasping for breath wondering if your coach is high, or if they already forgot that you just did some mind-boggling array of physical activity. This same line is heard across the country from military leaders, personal trainers, and almost anybody else involved in athletics.
Unfortunately, this is rarely backed by any kind of explanation or any other further mention besides, “You look weak”.
So, like most things in the fitness world, this saying takes on this cult-like following that regurgitates this line over and over through the generations as something essential for athletic performance.
But, what does this mean? Is it necessary? Are there advantages to learning how to control breathing? Why is this a “because I said so” line to be repeated?
These are the questions that I feel need to be answered. Partially because I’m not a big fan of just doing things because I’m told to, but also because I don’t like to feel like I’m suffocating just because I was told to breathe through my nose. Especially when the answer is to just use my mouth (there is a joke somewhere in here).
Well, turns out there is actually some backing to this age-old saying.
Table of Contents
The Oxygen Advantage
Patrick McKeown wrote a whole book related to breathing correctly. While he does go off the deep end for a little bit and definitely dives into areas I’m not convinced he entirely knows what he’s talking about. He has a very compelling (and science-backed) argument for why you should control breathing through your nose, even when it feels like you have a plastic bag plastered across your face.
The program and book is called the “Oxygen Advantage”.
The key takeaway is the fact that my longtime mentors from wrestling, lacrosse, soccer, track, grappling, military, and other coaches from over the years were not wrong and actually had something to the ” control your breathing” line they use to scream out.
The main premise is, that we as people should be breathing through our noses and not our mouths.
This is for a number of reasons, one because that’s where the nasal cavity is built.
The nasal cavity is a series of twists and turns that are designed to slow and smooth out oxygen intake. These twisting turns are called nasal turbinate for singular or turbinal for plural.
Two, we have these sweet things called cilia that filter our air for us.
Cilia are these little hairs that I’m sure you’ve seen in your nose that can catch debris as they flow through, also other things that you produce.
Three, if we don’t use those first two awesome functions to our advantage, we actually get too much oxygen.
“Hold up. Shouldn’t I want lots of oxygen, especially if I’m performing extremely hard physical activity?”
If you thought this, we are in the same boat, but it turns out, it’s actually just a really big gap in understanding how the body uses oxygen.
In real life, carbon dioxide is not the enemy or the waste product that we all see it as. And, oxygen is not this life-giving material that we need an unlimited supply of in order to survive.
I mean, we do need it to survive (please don’t stick your head in a plastic bag), but in the correct ratio to carbon dioxide.
So, while the primary function of the respiratory system is to take in oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, our goal is removing EXCESS carbon dioxide, not all carbon dioxide.
Quick Breakdown (Feel free to skip this if it’s too much info)
Muscles are used for movement, but that movement is fueled by energy called ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). This energy is produced from glucose. In order for your body to use this stored glucose, it has to break it down, and to do this it needs oxygen.
This oxygen is found by breathing in air via the lungs, which is transported to the heart, and then into the circulatory system via hemoglobin (protein molecule) in red blood cells (a super small portion 1.5ish % is dissolved into plasma on the spot).
The way this oxygen is then released into the blood is by something called the Bohr effect.
You can follow the link for the details, but essentially, as the muscles breakdown glucose, carbon dioxide is released in the blood, lowering the level of ph (acidity), which then creates a difference in pressure that allows oxygen to transfer efficiently into the blood. The greater the ph/carbon dioxide ratio, the more efficient this process becomes… to a point.
If we remove the CO2 too fast, we actually lose the efficiency of transferring oxygen into our muscle tissue through the reduction of pressure differences.
When we breathe without using the awesome benefits of our nasal cavity we are reducing the efficiency of transferring oxygen into our muscle tissue.
Bringing It Back To English
Most things in the body generally function through some type of ratio (because chemistry) between different substances. Same as how you can be dehydrated by drinking too much water, because hydration really is about the ratio of electrolytes to water (just like how your car battery works). Or, how you can seriously screw up your metabolism by not eating a good ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrates (you can get by without carbs, enter keto, but we’ll leave this for another day) .
So, moral of the story, science says that our blood (or to breakdown further hemoglobin) needs carbon dioxide to facilitate the transfer of oxygen to our muscles. So, when you breathe too much, you exhale too much carbon dioxide, intake too much oxygen, and you actually end up reducing the amount of oxygen you can transfer into your muscles.
When you don’t know how to control breathing, you breathe through your mouth, which makes it very hard to regulate the amount of oxygen entering your body due to the large amount of oxygen you can intake due to your communication device (your mouth).
That’s Dumb, Why Can I Breathe With My Mouth If I Shouldn’t?
It’s actually rare in the animal kingdom for airways to be connected from the nose to the mouth. As Patrick in the Oxygen Advantage explains, if you think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense evolutionary to have the two connected.
Mostly due to the huge choking hazard.
The greatest theory out there is that we developed this way in order to better communicate because it takes a lot of air to produce words. But regardless of which theory you go with, the majority conclude that we did not develop this way to breathe better.
As Patrick is prone to saying in his book the “Oxygen Advantage”, you breathe with your nose and eat with your mouth.
Now, you can write anything in a book, and with enough half backed studies science can back up anything, but at the end of the day it’s not worth anything if it doesn’t apply to real life.
The thing is, this is not new. Years ago Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, released a book called “On Combat” that discussed using the square method to breathe.
This method was utilized to slow and control breathing, facilitate performance, increase mental clarity, and give the participant a measure of mental control in difficult situations and was primarily developed for the United States Special Forces.
Granted, he discussed breathing in with your nose and out with your mouth, but it is the same principle.
The principle of learning how to control breathing to ensure the correct oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio to not only facilitate better physical performance but also have the added benefit of calming you down. It prefaced that using this method of breathing, made you think clearer and perform better.
Same idea that Patrick is getting at, the only difference is breathing out with your nose as opposed to your mouth. My guess is, that either one works because the process is regulated by the inflow of oxygen through your nasal cavity.
Though, I’ll argue that you’ll look cooler and better if you just breathe with your nose, instead of looking like a gasping fish. The latter of which is why I’m pretty sure the Marine Corps likes to hype on recruits not to be “mouth breathers”, because you just look dumb.
My Personal Case Study: Control Breathing While On The Move
So, for last 3 months I’ve been testing this out.
Focusing on breathing only through my nose, to include while working out and while recovering.
You might even have noticed these starting to weave their way into the Daily Dose.
So what are the results?
Overall, I think it’s too early to tell if there has been a significant change in my athletic ability. My workouts were already showing signs of drastically increasing my overall run times, so I can’t discern what is caused by what.
I will say that while during my runs I feel like I’m suffocating, I feel 100 times better afterward and throughout the day.
It also removed a “sigh” problem. Randomly throughout the day, for most of my life, I would have this random urge to let out a lot of extra air. I never thought about this as weird until my wife pointed it out a number of years ago.
Even then, I figured it was just something I did once or twice a day and I didn’t worry about it.
Patrick brought this up in his book and hit the nail on the head, apparently it’s caused by a dysfunction in breathing. This is one of the things that convinced me to give this a shot.
But, this is not the only data collected. There is a test called the BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) that tests your breathing. (Test procedures below).
My BOLT first came out to be 22, which is a little more than what he considers average or an athlete that has poor breathing, or breathing dysfunction.
I’d like to think I’m on the latter end of that because of my endurance exploits, but who knows.
So, the moral of the story is, I’ve stuck to the breathing techniques, made sure I paid attention to it when sitting while driving, and even when I was going to bed.
I have noticed a significant change in my recovery from runs, my sighs have gone away and I showed a 33% improvementin the BOLT from the start to the end. Which is pretty significant. So, for me, I think this is here to stay.
- Gently breathe in with your nose
- Gently breathe out with your nose
- Upon the exhalation of breath, hold your nose shut and clamp your mouth shut
- Set a Timer
- Stay that way until you have an urge to breathe, other mentally or physically, this is not a battle of the wills.
- At the urge to breathe, stop the timer and go back to breathing normally. That time is your BOLT score.
Putting Breathe Control Into Practice
While it is best to practice breathing techniques throughout the day, we all know that we forget about these things with all the other much more important items going on in our lives.
So, where we get the biggest bang for our buck is during working out (just like we have been preached to by our coaches).
Like most athletes, at the end of a hard workout, or during sprints, or while running hard we all have this huge tendency to take big breaths with our mouths.
You have to fight the urge.
And to be honest, you might feel like you are suffocating for the first week or so. Since It’s the time of COVID, we all are probably getting a taste of this now, this just will be like you are wearing two or three, except instead of a piece of cloth it will be your own nose.
The other piece is trying to control breathing through your nose while working out, especially while running. During all-out sessions, this might be too much at first but take it slow and you will get there.
Also, if you are like me, you likely have seasonal allergies. Which may or may not lead to a series of disgusting nose running events while running, all while your brain is feeling like it is be supercooled.
But, don’t be discouraged, this cleared up in a couple of weeks.
At the end of all of this, my BOLT score came out to be 33 (an increase from 22), my sigh went almost entirely away, my running recovery improved, and it takes zero extra time out of my day. So, for me, this is here to stay.
Maybe just while running and when I think about it during the day, but the risk-reward is pretty good in my favor and it could be in yours.
Besides, it doesn’t cost you anything to try this for a couple of weeks and see how you feel. If it works great, and if not, throw it in the corner with the rest of the “made for TV” type things and move on, but if you don’t try it, you won’t know.
– Coach T