Twenty-two years ago when I was a young, competitive marathoner and a graduate student in exercise physiology, I picked up a rather unorthodox book called Body, Mind and Sport, by John Douillard. One of the book’s chief doctrines was that of employing nose breathing instead of mouth breathing during cardiovascular exercise. The author argued that nose breathing is beneficial not only for yoga, but also aerobic activities such as running or cycling and that it’s possible for anyone who trains using nose breathing to achieve the effortless “Zone” of peak performance. The proverbial runner's high may be more accessible on a regular basis with nose breathing during aerobic exercise.
We rarely think about breathing, but it's something we do 26,000 per day. So it seems logical that how we breathe is critical to our health and performance. Iit turns out that nose breathing increases the ability of the body to get rid of CO2 (breathing waste product), more efficiently allowing for a greater intake of O2. Nose breathing can also help warm the air entering the lungs (great for the cold weather workouts). Douillard also asserts that the nose provides a better filtration system, resulting in cleaner air and fewer allergens being absorbed by the lungs. Douillard also asserts that nose breathing has a calming, stress-reducing effect on the body, which, over time, translates into a lower state of perceived exertion during high intensity levels of exercise. There's even evidence that nose breathing increases fat burning. According to Douillard, fat is broken down in the aveoli (the small sacs liniing the lungs) and then expelled as CO2. Studies have shown that there is a significant increase in CO2 released during nose breathing compared to mouth breathing suggesting that by breathing through the nose more CO2 is exhaled, and therefore the removal of fat in the form of broken down triglycerides (which happens in the lungs) would theoretically be increased. Furthermore, by increasing nitric oxide production in the sinuses, nose breathing can boost both energy levels and the immune system.
At the time I picked up Douillard’s book, I was a young, somewhat impatient, impetuous athlete focused on racing marathons and qualifying for the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. As intrigued as I was by Douillard’s premise, I didn’t stick with the concept after the novelty wore off. Furthermore, I just didn’t see how it was going to translate into a faster marathon for me. As much as I felt good doing it during my training runs, I wasn’t convinced that nose breathing would work during a race and I didn’t want to risk experimenting with it during competition.
Fast forward 18 years and today my main goal is to run for pleasure and without pain. So a year ago when my husband (then fiance) asked me what I knew about nose breathing I said I remembered reading a book about the subject. Miraculously I was able to find Douillard’s book on my shelf.
Despite my skepticism, in the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” spirit I decided to give “aerobic nose breathing” another try along with my husband.