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The Nose Knows and It Always Knew

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You just picked up the barbell to knock out 15 hang cleans at a light weight – no biggie. Now you have 20 jumping lunges into 15 cals on the bike. After 4 jumps, you realize that you’re almost out of gas. What gives? You did 10 of these jumping lunges in the warm up without issue. You finally finish the lunges and hobble over to your bike. Drudging through the first swings of the handles and push of the pedals feels like moving through quicksand. One eternity later, the odometer turns over – 1 cal.

When the heart rate is jacked-up, your lifeline comes from your breath. And more specifically – from your nose:

According to many experts, like Dr. Elizabeth Gardner of Yale School of Medicine, “nasal breathing stimulates the rest and digest system, known as the parasympathetic nervous system, rather than the fight or flight system. It can induce a sense of calm, even in the midst of stressful, high-intensity activity. This has the potential to improve focus and even, potentially, performance.”  (Remember our deep dive into parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system responses via the Wim Hof Method? If you missed it, check it out here!)

A 2020 article from Connecticut Magazine interviewed several doctors on the importance of nasal breathing. A few of the benefits outlined are improved sleep quality, less anxiety, lower blood pressure, improved cardiovascular function, better immune function, and even better oral hygiene. Since we are CrossFit athletes, lets check out the benefits to our cardiovascular health and sports performance.

According to Dr. Gardner, breathing through the nose releases more nitric oxide into the blood. Nitric Oxide is a potent vasodilator, expanding the blood vessels and ensuring more oxygen gets to the muscles that need it.

The nasal passages are smaller than those in the mouth, so it takes more time for air to be expelled through the nose, which gives the lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air and move it into the bloodstream to go to tissues in the body.

Mouth breathing, on the contrary, is not effective at stimulating nitric oxide, carbon dioxide, and finally, oxygen in the blood. Less oxygen in the blood can lead to fatigue. When we are exercising hard, many of us end up hyperventilating through the mouth which gets rid of carbon dioxide and makes it more difficult to oxygenate our cells.

“In intense moments, nasal breathing is the ideal way to oxygenate our systems” – Jae Berman, Washington Post.

Brian Mackenzie, author of the Art of Breath, explained that optimal nasal breathing not only has a direct impact on the general population but is at the heart of how elite athletes can optimize performance. Breathing through the nose is also difficult if we are not used to it during high-intensity activity. When we are “oxygen hungry”, so to speak, the impulse is to take quick deep breaths through the larger vessel available – the mouth.

However, nasal breathing is so important to optimum performance that many athletes tape their mouths during sports to train, the Australian Rugby team the Wallabies being a great example.

No one is saying that this adjustment is easy to make, but most are saying that the benefits are worth it.

Nasal breathing promotes a more relaxed sate, gets more oxygen to the blood during exercise, and can also aid in exercise recovery because the breath is more efficient.

So the next time you’re on that air bike feeling like your peddling through drying concrete, try your best to close your mouth and take deep breaths through your nose. It will feel difficult of course, but the benefits are already on the way.

You’re instantly working to slow your rapid heart rate. You’re allowing nitric oxide to widen your blood vessels and allow more oxygen into the body. Once you become more adapted to nasal breathing, you will likely see an increase in your performance during these WOD’s too.

Fear not, your body knows what to do. The nose knows, and it always knew.

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