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Nasal breathing - is it just a load of hot air?

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

I first came across nasal breathing when I was recommended a book to read during lockdown. ‘The Oxygen Advantage’ by Patrick McKeown was tipped as being the book that would open my eyes to the importance of how we breathe and the impact it has on how we train, recover and sleep...

The benefits I’ve noticed are as follows:

- Improved recovery post exercise
- Lower breathing volume per minute
- Improved sleep quality
- General increase of fitness and stamina

Here is a bit more of background and 'why'...

It all started with a BOLT score. The Body Oxygen Level Test is a relative breathing volume assessment to determine breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical activity. It is an assessment which, although it has shown profound benefits as far back as research in 1975, is massively overlooked.

Establishing your bolt score is easy. You rest for 10-15 minutes, then after 2-3 large inhales and exhales through the nose only, you force as much air out of your lungs as possible via the nose, pinch the nose so not to let any more air in, and count how long you can last...easy right?

I thought so too. The tricky part is to make sure that you remove all willpower from the test and stop counting immediately after any NATURAL desire to breathe. With willpower you could probably easily add another 5-10 seconds on to your score, but this isn’t going to be an accurate representation of your breathing volume. So if you are naturally competitive you need to leave that s**t at the door.

So, what does the score mean? A lower bolt score means that you have a lower breathing volume, therefore you’ll become breathless much quicker when performing physical activity or exercise. The average score for adults who exercise regularly is around 20 seconds, so you can imagine my reaction when my first score was only 12 seconds.

How do we improve our bolt score? It couldn’t be easier...we breathe through our nose. Nasal breathing has been proven to allow more oxygen to reach muscle tissues, because after all, the nose was designed for one specific purpose, to support our respiratory system. The nostrils and nasal passageways are designed to help in facilitating air filtration before it reaches the lungs, the mouth was designed to aid digestion, hence mouth breathing being a sub optimal choice. Nasal breathing releases nitric oxide which is needed to create carbon dioxide in the blood, which is an important part of the oxygen releasing process.

We’ve all been there, we’re in the gym, or out on a run, or playing sport, wherever it is, we’re working hard! This usually results in heavy mouth breathing in an attempt to get as much oxygen in to the body as possible in order to ‘recover’. What is actually happening is that we are offloading way more Co2 than we should be, which, as we’ve highlighted above, is vital for oxygen being released in the body in to our cells.

The best place to start is to nasal breathe during your warm up, just take 5-10 minutes to really focus on your breathing rate and volume whilst you prepare for the main part of your session. I’ve been doing this recently after transitioning in to a more ‘functional’ style of training...yes, I’m now a CrossFit w***er. Nasal breathing during my warm ups has helped me to really focus on the movements I am doing, and prepare myself both physically and mentally for the session ahead.

Nasal breathing lights up part of the central nervous system that supports rest, recovery and digestion, so the benefits to nasal breathing generally day to day are also in abundance. But even in high stress ‘fight or flight’ situations like intense exercise, nasal breathing can help us to function better.

At first, nasal breathing during high intensity exercise is difficult, but stick with it, the body needs to adapt to this new breathing process, the key is to be patient.

So, give it a go, embrace how difficult it is to begin with, focus on your breathing, try yoga, and most importantly, don’t be a mouth breather.

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