Have you ever thought about to how you breathe? I don’t necessarily mean in a moment of panic during a WOD while you gulp air like a fish out of water. I mean thinking about and practicing how you breathe as a regular part of your training?
I began incorporating nasal breathing into my training earlier this year. Twice a week, during the active part of my warm up (when I’m getting my heart rate up), I choose to breathe only through my nose. It might look like this:
3 rounds of:
10 muscle snatch (empty barbell)
10 overhead squat (empty barbell)
During this warm up, I try to do it “for time,” knowing that the nature of nasal breathing will dictate how fast I am actually able to go. If my mouth drops open, I need to pull back. But I fight to keep my mouth closed. As I work my way through three rounds, I find that my lungs expand, I can tolerate going harder while breathing nasally, and that panicky feeling of “I can’t get enough air!” subsides.
But why put yourself through all that, you may wonder? Well, check in right now while you’re reading this – are you breathing with your mouth open? Do you ever pause between breaths? Did you recognize yourself in the opening paragraph, as someone who regularly finds themselves gasping for air during your workouts? If this sounds like you, hang in with me while I try to explain the science behind it.
The problem lies not in a shortage of oxygen, but a poor delivery of it.
CO2 is the delivery system for oxygen to get to our cells and muscles doing work. The chemical relationship between oxygen and carbon dioxide is explained by The Bohr Effect. It states that increased levels of CO2 leads to increased release of O2 by hemoglobin. So more CO2 in your system means more O2 gets to your working muscles.
However, if you don’t have a high tolerance for CO2, it triggers you to breathe too much, or at too fast a rate. We wind up eliminating too much carbon dioxide, which means less CO2 is available to carry oxygen, which means we can do less work…and then we find ourselves on a vicious loop of gulping for air and feeling like we can’t get enough all at once.
So how does nasal breathing factor into all of this?
There are many reasons why nasal breathing is beneficial, and some of those have nothing to do with exercise. Nasal breathing reduces stress, helps us tap into the parasympathetic nervous system (which promotes recovery), and triggers the delivery of nitric oxide – which helps us fight viruses (I’m looking at YOU Coronavirus!), strengthens our immune system, and is a vasodilator, which increases circulation and lowers our blood pressure.
However, if none of these are reason enough for you, then try this – nasal breathing will help you become fitter over time. The fact is that nasal breathing practice increases your tolerance for higher levels of CO2. The higher your tolerance of CO2 you have, the better oxygen will be delivered to your working muscles, which translates into being able to do more work. And fitness is just that – increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.
Convinced? Curious? Start slowly and build your tolerance. As I mentioned above, I practice nasal breathing during warm ups. Tomorrow, during the class warm up, I challenge you to give it a try! See what you think! And I’d love to hear how it went in the comments.
CrossFit Invictus did a great series on this topic. Here are links to those articles if you want a deep dive.
Also, for those interested in some other health benefits of nasal breathing check out:
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