29 Nov 2018 - The Importance of Nasal Breathing, Pt. 3

The brain has an area dedicated solely for monitoring of the respiratory responses. This area has many connections to stress sensors in the body as well as modulators of behaviour. The feedback loops that control our response to the environmental stimuli are vast. In essence, breathing patterns control much of the physiological responses in the body.

In our prior blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2) we discussed how we should be breathing, the Bohr Effect and carbon dioxide tolerance.

A quick re-cap:

How you breathe can impact health and performance.

The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating.

A certain level of carbon dioxide is required in the blood to facilitate oxygen transfer (Bohr Effect).

Those who breathe through the mouth (the majority of us) "over breathe" and expel too much carbon dioxide.

As a result receptors in our brain have a lower tolerance to carbon dioxide (not good!).

To truly develop our aerobic system’s efficiency, we need to increase our tolerance to carbon dioxide and use breathing mechanics appropriately for our specific level of intensity.

We also suggested you try the following test (all you need is yourself and a stop watch!):

Find a comfortable sitting position

Take 3 normal* breaths in and out through the nose

After the 4th inhale (through the nose), start the timer and begin to exhale** (again through the nose) as slowly as you can.

When you stop exhaling or need to take a breath in, stop the timer

*Normal = Do not take large, deep breathes. Just whatever is normal and natural.

** This is a timed continuous exhale, as soon as you pause or need to breathe in, you stop the timer

What we would like to see is 40+ seconds, if you are getting over 1 minute, then that is a strong score! Anything under 20 seconds is, well, not so good…

This test gives us some insight into how your body and your brain react as carbon dioxide begins to build up in the blood. Receptors in the brain are what monitor levels of carbon dioxide and they trigger your respiratory muscles to breathe.

Research has shown that those who over-breathe actually expel too much carbon dioxide (as discussed in Parts 1 and 2), which has been linked to a number of health issues including heat diseases, sleep apnea, hyperthyroidism, stress & anxiety disorders and asthma and, of course it leads to a decrease in performance, training and competition.

So, how do we improve our breathing?

In Part 1, we gave our first tip: breathe through your nose during normal everyday activities, unless you are talking or about to put food in your mouth, keep it closed.

If you want to take it a step further you can spend 5-10 minutes, a few times a day working on your breathing (all nasal breathing of course!).

A simple method is to take the time from your timed exhale from the Carbon Dioxide Tolerance test and divide it by six, this will form the rate (in seconds) of your inhale and exhale. For example if you scored 30 seconds on the carbon dioxide test you would divide this by 6, which is 5 seconds, you could then practice the following:

5 second inhale + 5 second exhale.

Once comfortable with this, you can add in a hold after the inhale:

5 second inhale + 5 second hold + 5 second exhale.

Again, once comfortable, you can add in a hold after the inhale AND the exhale:

5 second inhale + 5 second hold + 5 second exhale + 5 second hold.

As you progress, you can begin to increase the times of your breathing and your holds.

This is just scratching the surface of developing your breathing for performance. In order to understand how we can train our breathing and develop our energy systems, we need to use an analogy…

Think of the different stages of breathing during exercise as 'gears' (like on a bike or a car), as we require more from our engine and we put our foot on the gas pedal, we need to move up through the gears.

Whilst we all have these gears, they are not all the same. Imagine a banged up old car, in first gear this can maybe hit 15-20 mph before you have to change up to gear 2. Now imagine a Porsche, this can probably hit 50-60+ mph in first gear.

If we want to perform at our best we have to be able to optimise our output at each 'gear', with gear 1 being completely aerobic (nasal in, nasal out) and gear 5 (our top gear) as fully anaerobic (mouth in, mouth out). Of course, there are gears in-between and it's not as clear cut as we have made it sound…but it's a pretty nice analogy!

When we learn about and develop our gears, we can control the energy systems we use in a workout. We can push hard when we need to and tap into our anaerobic systems at the appropriate times, we can hold back at other times and rely on aerobic systems, and we can use our breathing to actually recover and bring our heart rate down whilst still working.

This is where the 'go so hard' mentality starts to break down. It will develop us to a certain point, but there is a ceiling we will hit when progress at certain levels of intensity stalls. Whilst we can control intensity by controlling how hard we push, if we are not breathing correctly for the intensity we are at, we are leaving a lot of potential progress behind.

What these gears are, how we breathe to access each gear and optimally use our energy systems, and the methods we use to develop these could run on for many more blog posts. So if you want to get into details and explore this yourself, you just have to wait until Cycle 6+7 of our training program, beginning in January!


“CrossFit Open 14.5 / 16.5”
Thruster (42.5/30 kg)
Bar facing burpee