Breathing Through Your Mouth Might Hinder Your Performance
Since I was a kid, I’ve always been told to breathe through my nose, especially during high-intensity exercise.
I didn’t pay too much attention to nasal breathing right away, but after I got a cramp in my stomach in the middle of a fitness test, I knew I had to master it.
At first, it was difficult to keep my mouth shut during running. But every time I didn’t pay attention, I started to take up oxygen through my mouth which resulted in getting cramp in my diaphragm. So I came up with an idea of chewing a mouth guard to avoid opening my mouth. That worked! After a couple of running sessions with this new technique, my time got better and I never had to experience that horrible pain in my stomach again.
Fifteen years later, and now a coach, I became familiar with Triphasic Training and Cal Dietz (founder of Triphasic Training). Besides his weight training routine (which is amazing) to increase athletic performance, he swears by nasal breathing so much, that he tapes his athletes’ mouths.
I’m not kidding! He literally uses duct tape over his players’ mouths to force them to breathe through their noses. Now, you might find this extreme, but let me just tell you that his team at the University of Minnesota is world-class; they won numerous championships, and science supports his method. -Study
Nasal Vs. Oral Breathing
The main function of the nose is respiration, whereas the main function of the mouth is starting the digestive process. The nose also adds moisture and warmth to the air for smoother entry to the lungs.
Nasal breathing has other advantages over oral as it helps to release nitric oxide to active tissues which leads to more energy and less fatigue in muscles. (study)
The nose also regulates air volume. It’s impossible to hyperventilate throughout your nose - and that can be a game-changer in high-stress situations. And this not only applies to performance but everyday life as well.
Whenever you come to a stressed situation, take a deep breath through the nose, hold, and breathe out slowly through your mouth. This drill will put you back to parasympathetic … or a chilled, calm state.
And here is where you will notice the biggest difference in your performance. The recovery state.
Sympathetic Vs. Parasympathetic
Our body has two states. Think about it like a lightswitch. When we are resting, eating, talking or sleeping, this is all parasympathetic. This is ‘Peace Mode’.
When there’s danger or stress and we have to perform fight or flight, that’s when our body switches to the sympathetic system: ‘War Mode’.
Your body can’t do both at the same time. You’re either eating or running. You might have felt at one time that you wanted to throw up working out shortly following a bigger meal. It’s because your body stops digesting and starts sending increased blood to your leg muscles.
For a long time, we thought that being hyped up is the best state when it comes to performance, and while being in war mode has obvious advantages (increased alertness, focus, and reflexes), it also has its cost. The mind loses the connection with the environment, as well as evoking tunnel vision and burnout.
Now, physicians believe that being in peace mode is a much more beneficial state of mind, and our goal is to go back into this state as soon as possible after high stress.
Fixing our breathing after a hard set will help to recover faster and get us ready for the next one.
If you can’t bring your heart rate down after or during a workout, here are some drills I use with my clients:
Belly Breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing is breathing that is done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity.
According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, "Diaphragmatic breathing allows one to take normal breaths while maximizing the amount of oxygen that goes into the bloodstream. It is a way of interrupting the 'Fight or Flight' response and triggering the body's normal relaxation response." - link
Do 20 Belly Breathing between training sets to bring down your heart rate.
Lie down: This is easy. Ground your body and become one with the universe. Close your eyes, relax and inhale for 7 seconds, exhale for 7 seconds. You can try to take 7 breaths into your belly, 7 to your chest and 7 to your shoulders. - video
This technique is only applicable after training and before sleep.
Music: After a hard workout you want to switch to recovery mode ASAP. Listening to your favourite slow beats is the easiest way to do that.
This study concluded that music hastens post-exercise recovery, and slow music has greater relaxation effect than fast, or even no music. It can return blood pressure and heart rate back to normal if done post-workout.
Researchers also found it increases serotonin and dopamine hormones that are known to promote recovery.
Pick your chill beat. Mine is always some good old hip hop from the 90’s.
How to get better at Nasal Breathing:
Pay attention in everyday life. This sounds obvious, but it’s harder than you would think. Close your mouth while going upstairs, taking the rubbish out or chasing your dog.
Do low-intensity training with your mouth closed. Now, this is where it gets difficult. If you are trying to change your breathing pattern, start with easier, cardio exercises like cycling and incline walking. Also, start fixing your air uptake after a heavy set through your nose. Belly Breathing if possible.
Hold water in your mouth. This works really well for me and my higher-level athletes. Get a sip of water, but don’t swallow it. Hold it until your set lasts. We use it with interval training, and its forces you to use your nose for breathing.
Tape your mouth while sleeping. Here we go. I know, taping the mouth sounds shocking not just for you but for others who see you. They might mix you up with Bane from Batman. Nasal breathing leads to more efficient blood oxygenation, more consistent deep sleep, less snoring and overall more restful nights. This is crucial for muscle and nervous system recovery.
Oral Breathing is like a turbocharger in a Porsche. Use it to takeover hard situations, but don’t rely on it all the time, otherwise, it will burn out your engine. For longevity, practice breathing through your nose.
Although Nasal Breathing can be hard at the beginning, it will serve you well in high-stress conditions. Use the tips I gave in the article to master it.
Better for recovery - effectively utilizing oxygen is not just beneficial during training, but by switching to the parasympathetic state, it will release hormones to help with recovery, lower your blood pressure open your vision.
Managing emotions is a skill. Deep, slow breathing into the belly is strong medicine for anxiety, fear, and anger. When we cry, for example, we usually gulp air into our upper chest. It is almost impossible to cry and breathe into our belly at the same time. Belly breathing loosens the grip of emotion. Return to upper chest breathing and the overwhelming sensations and tears will return. In the midst of strong emotion, controlling your breathing can be utilized to ease emotional pain and stress.