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Breathing Techniques to Improve Your Workout

April 24, 2015 

Story at-a-glance

  • Learning to breathe correctly can improve your health and fitness by optimizing oxygenation, lowering your blood pressure, reducing stress, balancing your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
  • Common breathing mistakes include overbreathing (hyperventilating) and mouth breathing, the adverse effects of which have been thoroughly documented
  • During exercise, breathing through your nose will help you optimize performance, endurance, post-exercise energy levels, and even your ability to metabolize fat

By Dr. Mercola

Did you know you can improve your health and fitness simply by learning to breathe correctly? It's true. As noted in the featured articles,1,2 breathing correctly will optimize oxygenation to your muscles and internal organs, and help you:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Reduce stress and anxiety by lowering the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and releasing mood-boosting hormones like serotonin
  • Balance your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
  • Improve athletic performance
  • Improve mental focus and boost brain health

While you may think there's nothing anyone can teach you about breathing—after all, you do it all day long, without giving it a second thought—chances are you may be breathing incorrectly without even realizing it.

Most people overbreathe—in other words, they chronically hyperventilate3 — and during exercise this can have a number of adverse consequences. Mouth breathing is another common mistake, especially during more vigorous exercise.

Mouth and nose breathing differ dramatically in terms of the depth of your breath, how the air is "prepared," and the physical effects they produce.

For example, during exercise, breathing through your nose will help you optimize performance, endurance, post-exercise energy levels, and even your ability to metabolize fat.4

So the first step to attaining optimal breathing is to breathe through your nose, not through your mouth, and this applies both in and outside of the gym.

Signs of Inefficient Breathing

How do you know if you're breathing incorrectly? As noted by Patrick McKeown, one of the leading teachers of the Buteyko Breathing Method (see video above), there are a number of signs or symptoms that can alert you to the fact that you're not breathing as efficiently as you could. This includes:

Mouth breathing Upper chest breathing
Frequent sighing Noticeable breathing during rest
Taking large breaths prior to talking Erratic breathing
Chronic rhinitis (nasal congestion and runny nose) Sleep apnea5,6,7,8

The detrimental effects of incorrect breathing,9 such as mouth breathing and overbreathing, are well-documented. Up to 50 peer-reviewed papers on the importance of breathing through your nose can be found on the Buteyko Clinic's website.10

The Importance of Nose Breathing

The Buteyko Method teaches you how to bring your breathing volume back toward normal or, in other words, to reverse what's called chronic hyperventilation or chronic overbreathing.

One of the most important aspects of proper breathing is breathing through your nose. Part of the benefits of nose breathing is related to the fact that there is nitric oxide in your nose, and when you breathe through your nose, you carry a small amount of this beneficial gas into your lungs.

Nitric oxide not only helps maintain homeostasis, or balance, within your body, it's also a bronchodilator and vasodilator, and has antibacterial properties that helps neutralize germs and bacteria.

Nose breathing also helps normalize your breath volume. This is important because when you chronically overbreathe, the heavier breathing volume that's coming into your lungs can cause a disturbance of blood gasses, including the loss of carbon dioxide (CO2).

The Hazards of Overbreathing

Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it's very important that your breathing volume is normal, in order to maintain a certain level of CO2 in your bloodstream.

As explained by Patrick, if you're breathing too heavily you lose carbon dioxide, which causes the smooth muscles around your airways to constrict. This creates a negative feedback loop that can lead to chronic hyperventilating and, potentially, exercise-induced asthma.11,12

While you might believe that taking deeper breaths through your mouth allows you to take more oxygen into your body, which should make you feel better, the opposite actually happens. You can test this out by taking five or six big breaths in and out of your mouth. Most people will begin to experience some light-headedness or dizziness.

This occurs because you're eliminating too much carbon dioxide from your bloodstream, which causes your blood vessels to constrict—hence the light-headedness. So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen that's actually delivered throughout your body due to lack of carbon dioxide, which causes your blood vessels to constrict. The loss of carbon dioxide caused by heavy breathing also reduces blood flow to your heart, which in some unfortunate cases could lead to cardiac arrest or heart attack.

Learn Diaphragmatic Breathing to Combat Stress

As noted in Men's Health Magazine,13 if you're overly stressed, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing may be the best exercise you can do at that moment. Fitness coach Geoff Neupert writes, in part:

"[T]here are some important benefits to regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing. You can do it to replace a workout when you're overly stressed... or you can do it at the end of your workout... Here's how to do it: Pick a comfortable position to lie down, either on your stomach or on your back. Then close your eyes, think about your favorite vacation, and just breathe for the next 5 minutes or more.

You'll be surprised by not only how good you feel after you've done it, but by how well you'll sleep that night and how recovered you'll feel for your next workout. Sure, diaphragmatic breathing may not be 'killer,' but it might just be what you need to end a killer day."

Again, while doing this, be sure to breathe through your nose. Nose breathing has the automatic side effect of helping you breathe more lightly, which can not only help reverse rhinitis and chronic nasal congestion, which often results from mouth breathing, but also helps reduce anxiety and panic.14 Remember, the deeper and more quickly you breathe, the more constricted your blood vessels will be, which means less oxygen will be delivered to your tissues—including your heart and brain.

So the trick is to breathe lightly and evenly, through your nose, focusing on breathing with your diaphragm rather than your upper chest. This slows down and regulates your breathing, improves your oxygenation, and has a calming effect because it activates your parasympathetic nervous system.15,16

Practice Abdominal Breathing Before or After Your Workout

Becoming aware of your breath is the first step toward changing how you breathe. A couple of times a day simply focus on your breath and notice how you're breathing. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, and focus on taking slow, regular breaths through your nose. On the inhalation, your belly should rise before your chest. As noted in Men's Health, the warm-up is a great time to incorporate some abdominal breathing techniques:

"By focusing on your breath prior to exercising, you're reinforcing proper breathing mechanics before any heavy lifting or HIIT takes place. The result: Less huffing and puffing once the exertion commences, leading to a more efficient workout."

Right after your workout, during the cool down phase is another great opportunity to focus on your breath. As suggested by Dan Ketchum:17

"Focus on breath control as you cool down and stretch... Simply breathe in and out in a controlled fashion, creating a consistent rhythm of smooth breaths with no rattles or pauses. You can also use this moment as a form of meditation to calm your mind after exercise."

During Exercise, Breathe Through Your Nose

During your workout, be sure to breathe through your nose the entire time. If you start sucking air through your mouth, back off on the intensity so that you can go back to breathing through your nose. In time, you'll be able to exercise at greater intensity and still breathe through your nose—a sign that your fitness is improving!

I am now successfully able to complete all of my Peak Fitness Exercises with my mouth closed, even when my heart rate is well above my calculated maximum of 162. I thought this would be impossible for me to achieve, but with persistence and gradually increasing the time into the exercise I was nasal breathing, after a few weeks I was able to do it. It is a challenge as air hunger hurts, but it gets easier with practice.

Remember, mouth breathing can elevate your heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes resulting in fatigue and dizziness.18,19So while you may initially feel relief from breathlessness by quickly sucking in air through your mouth when you exercise intensely, over time your performance and endurance will actually be adversely affected. The elasticity of your lungs also depends on nasal resistance, which you only get from nasal breathing, due to the smaller diameter of your nasal passages. 20

The Buteyko Breathing Method

The Buteyko Method includes a simple self-test for estimating your carbon dioxide levels. Dr. Buteyko discovered that the level of carbon dioxide in your lungs correlates to your ability to hold your breath after normal exhalation. You can use a stopwatch or simply count the number of seconds to yourself. Here is the process:

  1. Sit straight without crossing your legs and breathe comfortably and steadily.
  2. Take a small, silent breath in and out through your nose. After exhaling, pinch your nose to keep air from entering.
  3. Start your stopwatch and hold your breath until you feel the first definite desire to breathe.
  4. When you feel the first urge to breathe, resume breathing and note the time. The urge to breathe may come in the form of involuntary movements of your breathing muscles, or your tummy may jerk or your throat may contract.
  5. Your inhalation should be calm and controlled, through your nose. If you feel like you must take a big breath, then you held your breath too long.

The time you just measured is called the "control pause" or CP, and it reflects the tolerance of your body to carbon dioxide. Short control pause times correlate with low tolerance to CO2 and chronically depleted CO2 levels. Here are the criteria for evaluating your control pause (CP):

  • CP 40 to 60 seconds: Indicates a normal, healthy breathing pattern, and excellent physical endurance
  • CP 20 to 40 seconds: Indicates mild breathing impairment, moderate tolerance to physical exercise, and potential for health problems in the future (most folks fall into this category)
  • CP 10 to 20 seconds: Indicates significant breathing impairment and poor tolerance to physical exercise; nasal breath training and lifestyle modifications are recommended (potential areas are poor diet, overweight, excess stress, excess alcohol, etc.)
  • CP under 10 seconds: Serious breathing impairment, very poor exercise tolerance, and chronic health problems; Dr. Buteyko recommends consulting a Buteyko practitioner for assistance

In summary, the shorter your CP, the more easily you'll get breathless. If your CP is less than 20 seconds, NEVER have your mouth open during exercise, as your breathing is too unstable. This is particularly important if you have asthma. The good news is that you will feel better and improve your exercise endurance with each five-second increase in your CP, which you can accomplish by incorporating the following Buteyko breathing exercise.

Improve Your CP with a Simple Buteyko Breathing Exercise

The first step to increase your CP is to learn how to unblock your nose with the following breath hold exercise. While this exercise is a perfectly safe exercise for the vast majority of people, if you have any cardiac problems, high blood pressure, are pregnant, have type 1 diabetes, panic attacks, or any serious health concern, then please do not hold your breath beyond the first urges to breathe.

The following exercise is very effective for decongesting your nose in just a few minutes. Repeat the following exercise several times in succession, waiting about 30 to 60 seconds in between rounds. And do the exercise on a regular basis. If you have nasal congestion, you will likely experience decongestion after six rounds or even less.

  • Sit up straight.
  • Take a small breath in through your nose, if possible, and a small breath out. If your nose is quite blocked, take a tiny breath in through the corner of your mouth.
  • Pinch your nose with your fingers and hold your breath. Keep your mouth closed.
  • Gently nod your head or sway your body until you feel that you cannot hold your breath any longer. (Hold your nose until you feel a strong desire to breathe.)
  • When you need to breathe in, let go of your nose and breathe gently through it, in and out, with your mouth closed.
  • Calm your breathing as soon as possible.

Breathing Exercise

Breathing Correctly Is a Simple and Free Way to Boost Your Health and Fitness

Whether you're seeking to improve your athletic performance, longevity and the quality of your life, sleep apnea, or anxiety, the Buteyko Breathing Method is a powerful and inexpensive tool. I strongly recommend you consider integrating it into your lifestyle, and when you're ready, into your exercise. Just remember to progress slowly with exercise and gradually decrease the time that you need to rely on mouth breathing.

Keep in mind that to increase your CP from 20 to 40, physical exercise is necessary. You might begin by simply walking with one nostril occluded. Then, as your CP increases, begin incorporating jogging, cycling, swimming, weight lifting, or anything else to build up an air shortage.

The rule of thumb is to not push yourself to the point where you are unable to maintain nasal breathing. If you feel the need to open your mouth, then slow down and recover. This helps your body to gradually develop a tolerance for increased CO2—and if you persevere, this will happen quickly.

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Tags: Breathing, Buteyko, Improve, Techniques, Workout, Your, asthma, exercise, sleep, snoring


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