1.2: Healthy breathing for sport; nasal breathing and training with the nose

1.2: Healthy breathing for sport; nasal breathing and training with the nose

The post that will make you think possibly more than any other, and at the same time make you question what you think you know about sport, breathing and training in general. Is it possible to train at a maximum heart rate while slowly breathing with your nose and lowering your max heart rate? Find out!

Resources :
“Mind, Body & Sport” by Dr John Douillard
Breathe Easy strips or Turbine Nasal Stints
Neti pot, Olive oil and Ear buds

Sport and exercise are all around us; Walking up steps, digging vigorously, painting a house, carrying our shopping or chasing our children. We all have memories of weekends away in the country engaging in some form of physical labour and returning to our suburban home feeling powerful with a wonderful sense of wellbeing.
The addictive, high heart rate, endorphin-inducing cardio programs lull prospective athletes into a false sense of fitness. Exercise programs that promise fat-burning heart rate zones, targeted fat loss zones and performance are products of PR and advertising companies preying on the impressionable Dereks, Zoe’s and Jay’s of this modern era who are susceptible to their own lack of self-confidence and perception of body image.

Real performance comes from understanding how the body reacts to breathing, heart rate, training stimulus and recovery. The most healthy of indigenous cultures spent 80%-90% of their moving time in a low-to-medium heart rate zone while nose breathing and the remaining 10% at high-to-maximum heart rate mouth-breathing zones. Coupled with this was extended periods of recovery and seasonal eating.
Due to their broad, well-developed facial structures, indigenous cultures reduced their heart rate by engaging their parasympathetic nervous system while nose breathing.
An insight into Dereks athletic capability draws us towards his natural, underlying physical structure. Derek has a large forehead and broad nose, reminiscent of the powerful, natural athletes from ancient cultures that allows large movements of unrestricted air. His lung-capacity is enormous, and his ribs have well-defined movement when allowed to move naturally.

A healthy, modern-day male exhales roughly 40% of the oxygen they just inhaled while mouth breathing, leading to a chronic hyperventilation in their daily life, even while at rest.
Sadly, this type of chronic hyperventilation becomes ‘normal’ and we accept mouth-breathing as part of daily routines, unaware that this habit is slowly eroding our health, concentration and wellbeing.

Developing high-performance at a low heart rate requires re-training our mind and body to accept efficient breathing with the nose as much as possible. For athletes competing in endurance sports their wellbeing and health can be massively effected by re-training their Heart Rate Zones to nose-breathing.

Zoe’s friend Amy introduced her to Ayurveda after the birth of her son when she was having trouble losing the weight she had gained during pregnancy.
Zoe was someone who was not overweight but was ‘built strong’. She put on muscle easily, and would slide into quiet depressions that would end in weekend-long sugar-and-film binges. Being someone who was naturally strong she would then embark on a new fad; Yoga, P90X, Crossfit, Rowing, Cycling, Marathons; all of these had been accomplished on a post-downer exercise binge. But, being a mother of a young child her time was limited and the luxury of exercises binges were no longer feasible.


Amy was also someone who had weight problems from time to time, but in the opposite direction – she would lose weight, and due to her excessively vegetarian/vegan diet she had started to have problems with her reproductive cycle and the early symptoms of arthritis. She was naturally thin, and from her earliest childhood was the ‘odd one out’; wearing jumpers in summer, covering up in the sun, eating very little and always somewhat ‘dreamy’, obsessively working on her projects late into the night, to the detriment of her friendships.
During another one of her green-juice fasts, she started to read the work of Dr John Douillard, a former athlete and Ayurvedic Doctor based in Colorado. In his book, Mind, Body & Sport, he introduced exercises and foods for athletes of differing body and personality types. Why would Amy be delving into sports books? Because, on top of being a thin vegetarian she was also mad about marathons and ultra-marathons. She was burning 1000’s of calories per day eating cold, dry foods and was slowly winding her way towards arthritis and osteoperosis as she depleted her body and immune system.
Fortunately, this downwards spiral was stopped as she started taking the nutritional advice in the book and lowering her heart rate due to the nasal breathing techniques contained therein.
Her first training session using the nasal breathing method was a revelation, she lowered her heart rate by 20BPM at threshold and returned to the house after an hours endurance session calm, serene and without the usual dry throat and ache in her back and knees.
This feeling of calm progressed until she was comfortably adding extra training sessions to her diary, and her health was improving as her diet took on a functional, pleasurable and comforting form.
Her friend Zoe was on her mind, and when she heard of Zoe’s latest battle with weight gain she introduced her to the principles in the Mind, Body & Sport. For Zoe, hearing about the body-typing of Ayurveda and its associated qualities was a big ‘Aha’ moment, like a light bulb switching on. Soon, like Zoe she was back on track, following nutritional guidelines for her larger body type and running calmly with a runners baby buggy, nasal breathing calmly and capable of running more than she thought possible and gently losing the extra weight that was so stubbornly ‘stuck’ to her.

The Respiratory System

The respiratory system (or ventilatory system) is a biological system consisting of specific organs and structures used for the process of respiration in an organism. The respiratory system is involved in the intake and exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between an organism and the environment.

Breathing is the shaping of the abdominal and thoracic cavities during respiratory movement. The spine supports these cavities and the diaphragm accommodates for this space change.
The abdominal cavity (or belly) moves like an inflating and deflating balloon during breathing, and this movement is critical to organ health: The diaphragm pushes down on the soft organs (stomach, liver, gall bladder, spleen, pancreas, small and large intestines, kidneys and bladder), effectively squashing them against the pelvic floor, massaging them and activating them thousands of times a day.
– We need to breath with optimum movement to maintain our internal health as well as surviving.

When we breathe in and out, we rely on the barometric pressure of the earths atmosphere to ‘push’ the air back into our lungs, shaping the abdominal and thoracic cavities into whatever shape the muscles of respiration allow them to move into.
If we have a tight chest then the movement of our thoracic cavity will be limited to whatever the muscles of the thoracic cage allow.

As well as barometric pressure we have gravity and its effects to contend with when breathing.

How efficiently are we dealing with gravity and our need to move?
– Breathing is how we mobilise the space in our bodies against gravity
– Posture is how we stabilise our body in space against gravity

Gravity effects our posture massively. A person with a head drooped forward and a hump in their back will be hunched forward as they surrender to gravity and over time this will compress their thoracic cage, leaving them with a pigeon chest and often a protruding belly, a sure sign their body has mobilised their lower-belly (abdomen) as a space to breathe into.
What happens to our breathing when we live in an environment where gravity is not an issue (ie in space)? An astronaut’s muscles including heart and respiratory muscles will reduce in size and atrophy, making walking and breathing on their reentry potentially difficult until they build up their strength again.

For healthy breathing, we coordinate and integrate our movement with the movement of the diaphragm. How well we are able to change the shape of our body is a sign of how well we are able to breathe.

When we inhale one of the first things we notice is movement in our chest or stomach – this can be approached with an eye to balancing one or the other (or both), and from these movements we gain clues on our current state of mind and being.
The most visual clues we can see in someone is WHERE they move when breathing; Upper chest, mid-chest or belly.

A good example is a baby:
A calm, resting baby will breathe into their belly with very little motion in their chest.
A hungry, screaming baby will contract their belly into a tight ball of muscle and inflate and deflate their chest rapidly.

Like a baby, we can judge how a person is breathing and what effect and state their nervous system is being placed under:
Breathing into the belly; calm and using the Parasympathetic nervous system (like a parachute slowing us down)
Breathing into upper chest; stressed, and using the Sympathetic nervous-system (a primal flight-or-flight response initiated)

Helping a student breathe correctly for their activity level and mental state involves helping them at times to re-learn how it is that they breathe, and where they can(not should) breathe to help them reach their life’s goals.

In breathing that involves active exhaling (such as blowing out candles, speaking, singing, as well as various Yoga exercises), the musculature surrounding the two cavities contracts in such a way that the abdominal cavity is pushed upward into the thoracic, or the thoracic is pushed downward into the abdominal, or any combination of the two.

The shape of the diaphragm is created by the organs it encloses and supports. Deprived of its relationship with those organs, its dome would collapse, much like a stocking cap without a head in it. It is also evident that the diaphragm has an asymmetrical double-domed shape, with the right dome rising higher than the left. This is because the liver pushes up from below the right dome, and the heart pushes down from above the left dome.

A cyclist sprinting for the line should definitely be using their Upper-Ribs (Sympathetic nervous system) breathing system, while later that evening they would benefit from calming Belly-breathing (Parasympathetic nervous system).

The feeling of being unable to breath at Altitude exists because we cannot rely on the pressure of the atmosphere to push the air back into our lungs, and we have to physically make our diaphragm pull in the air. If we have very little movement in our thoracic cage then we will be faced with a very challenging situation when at Altitude.

Energetic qualities of breathing

Prana and Apana are two Sanskrit names used to explain the energetic quality of the breath.


Prana takes charge of the upward and inward flow of energy; a good example is an inhale – our chest raises and the air flows into the body.
This is a simplistic view of the term Prana, as it also means Great Goddess, The Divine; it is obviously powerful and when engaging in breath exercises we have a chance to transcend our limits, and for an athlete who has felt that feeling of limitless power it is an insight into the power available. If this has never been experienced, be ready, as this feeling of limitlessness will become more apparent as you progress.
Think of Prana as an arrow going up, like your chest rising on an inhale


Apana is the opposite of Prana. Apana takes charge of the downward movement of energy within the body; Excretion, urination, menstruation and the downward and outward flow of energy; a good example is an exhale – the chest slides down and the air leaves the body outwardly from the mouth.
The use of extended, maximal exhales and breath-holds in SAT (Simulated Altitude Training) can increase the Apana in the body to a large degree, with a need to excessively urinate, defecate and at times menstruate at times that are inappropriate and surprising.

Tidal Volume

“The volume of air entering the lungs with each inspiration and expiration cycle is called tidal volume. The minute-ventilation of the lings is tidal volume per minute. Changes in minute-volume always reflect changes in metabolism in a healthy individual. High minute-volume reflects increased activity such as running, while low minute-volume reflects a low level of activity such as rest. In a healthy individual, breathing rate usually follows minute-volume. Rapid breathing accompanies a high minute-volume, while slower breathing goes with a lower minute-volume.”
Dr. Robert Fried

Blood Alkalinity

Since the introduction of vegan and extreme vegetarian diets, blood alkalinity has become a buzz word, and is widely misunderstood. Too alkaline is just as dangerous as too acidic, yet an alkalinizing, vegan diet is considered very yogic and healthy.
What is not taken into account is what factors make our body more acidic outside of the foods we eat, and what natural functions in our body balance pH.
Our body adjusts pH naturally via the lungs, buffering agents and renal system – this is a constant, life-long process that happens automatically.
Our Kidneys are the prime source of balancing pH in the blood because of their natural Bicarbonate-producing functions. PH balancing by the kidneys is a slower process than what is manifested by the lungs and buffering agents, and is also the prime source of alkalinising urine.
To manually engage the kidneys in pH balancing activity we increase the lengths of our exhales until we reach our maximum exhale time, then hold the breath. This manual breath-hold increases the CO2 in our bloodstream and body, therefore lowering the pH (more acid). Our kidneys sense this increase, as do our lungs and buffering agents, and begin secreting Bicarbonates into the bloodstream, thereby balancing the body pH.
A vegetarian whose kidneys are not functioning due to malnutrition and breathes excessively with the mouth will find their body remaining acidic, while a vegan may find themselves struggling with muscle spasms and problems with concentration and consciousness due to excessive alkalinity.

Start your personalised Healthy Breathing for Sport program with Nick today.
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Photo by Eric Froehling on Unsplash.