Breathing For Optimal Performance

Breathing For Optimal Performance

How do you breathe throughout the day? Through your nose, or mouth? How you breathe the majority of the time, we’ll call ‘baseline breathing’. As you read through the article keep in mind what your baseline breathing pattern is. This article will give you the knowledge to:

  • Understand what happens when you breathe
  • Understand why you even need to breathe
  • Determine if you are over breathing
  • Practice efficient/optimal breathing
  • Continue improving your breathing pattern

Before we jump into what over breathing is and how we can become more efficient breathers, we need to look at what happens when we breathe and why we even need to breathe in the first place!

What Happens When We Breathe?

Oxygen is brought in from our mouth or nose to our lungs; from our lungs it travels into the alveoli (sacs in our lungs that are used for gas exchange). The alveoli exchange the oxygen we just inhaled with carbon dioxide from our blood stream. The oxygen enters our blood stream and is then transported to the rest of our body where it is needed, and carbon dioxide is exhaled.

Why Do We Breathe?

Breathing regulates gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) and maintains pH levels in our body (side note: the human body naturally maintains a healthy balance of acidity and alkalinity. To high or too low of pH levels can cause problems in our body); but the primary function of breathing is to remove excess carbon dioxide from our body. Carbon dioxide acts to regulate blood pH and optimizes blood flow by dilating our blood vessels. If we need carbon dioxide, why do we want to get rid of it? Excess carbon dioxide can harm our organs and can possibly lead to respiratory failure. So we need a balance (homeostasis).

There’s another reason we need a good balance of carbon dioxide, which can be explained by the Bohr Effect. The Bohr Effect states: hemoglobin’s oxygen binding affinity is inversely related to both the acidity and concentration of carbon dioxide.

What the heck does that mean? It means that if the amount of carbon dioxide is too low in the bloodstream where oxygen is trying to be delivered, hemoglobin - which is the carrier protein for oxygen and carbon dioxide, to and from the lungs in the bloodstream - will not be able to release the oxygen it is carrying to the muscles. If oxygen is not dropped off at our muscles we can’t use it.

As runners, our main energy system is the aerobic energy system. This system requires oxygen to produce energy for our muscles to use to keep us moving. If hemoglobin is not able to drop off oxygen for our muscles to use because we do not have enough carbon dioxide present to release it, don’t you think that would hinder your muscles’ ability to produce energy to be used and negatively impact overall running performance?

So how do we make sure that we are breathing optimally and utilizing all of the oxygen we are breathing in? Before we talk about that let’s identify if we are over breathing.

Are You Over Breathing?

Over breathing, typically associated with mouth breathing, is defined as breathing in excess of what the body needs. Over breathing should not be confused with hyperventilation - there is not an overt correlation to anxiety. When we are exercising at a moderate to vigorous intensity, we inevitably reach a point where we have to breathe through our mouths. In terms of baseline breathing, mouth breathing is considered an inefficient pattern.

How do you know if you are over breathing? Possible causes, signs, and symptoms of over breathing include:


  • Chronic Stress
  • Sedentary Lifestyle
  • Diet
  • Overheated Home
  • Lack of Fitness
  • Aka Modern Living

Signs, & Symptoms

  • Huffing & Puffing
    • Easily gassed during aerobic workouts
  • Chronic Fight or Flight
    • Can increase risk for:
      • Anxiety
      • Depression
      • Digestive Problems
      • Headaches
      • Heart Disease
      • Weight Gain
      • Memory & Concentration Impairment
  • Poor Posture
  • Bad Breath
  • Poor Sleep
  • Increased Fatigue
  • Decreased Mental Clarity
  • Decreased Exercise Performance
  • Snoring/Sleep Apnea

“But when I use my mouth to breathe I can get more oxygen in, how is mouth breathing over breathing?”

I have gotten this question many times, and it makes sense to think this. Our mouth is a bigger hole so intuitively we think that it can bring in more oxygen. However, when we use our mouth we have less resistance to exhaling, meaning it is easier to blow off too much carbon dioxide, resulting in a decreased ability to utilize carbon dioxide because it’s not present in our bloodstream.

So what is the most efficient way to breathe?

Nasal Breathing - Optimal Breathing

Breathing through your nose is the most ideal baseline breathing pattern. When you breathe through your nose you are able to:

  • Warm, filter, and humidify the air you breathe in.
  • Resisted inhale: this promotes using your diaphragm (more on this later).
  • Resisted exhale: allows for an increase in oxygen uptake by the lungs and a decreased release of carbon dioxide.
  • Improve your response to carbon dioxide: physiologically and physiologically. You are able to utilize the carbon dioxide in your bloodstream to release oxygen from the hemoglobin because you aren't exhaling it and removing it from your system as quickly.
  • Slow your breathing: making it hard to over-breathe and helping us to relax.
  • Improve nitric oxide distribution: which helps to dilate lungs.

How Can I Practice Nasal Breathing?

The best way to start changing a movement pattern is to start with the basics. Start with learning how to breathe efficiently, add in bracing your core while breathing, and then move to practicing breathing while moving. Learning how to breathe and brace during low threshold movements will teach your body to do this reflexively. This sets you up for success with higher level movements in the future.

The basics:

  • Close your mouth:
    • I mean this in the nicest way possible. Practicing nasal breathing means that we have to keep our mouths closed. The best way to do this is to be aware of how you usually breathe throughout the day and work to make the majority of your breathing nasal breathing.
    • Research shows that by just being more aware of how we are breathing we will make way more progress than doing any number of drills.
  • Breath holds after sighing:
    • Hold your breath 2 or 3 times, for 5-10 seconds after letting out a large sigh to help increase carbon dioxide utilization.
  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing:
    • Use your diaphragm (also known as belly breathing)/ avoid chest breathing.
    • You can also practice this by pushing your stomach into a surface (like your bed, a ball, or other object.
    • This can be done lying down and is great to practice for 5 minutes before bed! It might even help you fall asleep.
    • Diaphragmatic breathing can help:
      • Anxiety
      • Stress
      • Posture
        • When we chest breathe we use our shoulder, back, neck and thoracic muscles to breathe, and end up relying on our diaphragm for core stabilization.
      • GI function
      • Pelvic floor function
      • Core stability
      • Nervous system
        • Increases time spent in rest and digest rather than fight or flight, because your diaphragm massages your vagus nerve, which controls this response in your body.
  • Brace your core:
    • Once you have mastered diaphragmatic breathing, try to brace your core and breathe at the same time.
      • To do this try coughing - you should feel your abdominals tense up. That is what bracing your core feels like.
    • After practicing this try adding:
      • Talking
      • Counting
      • Move your extremities
      • Add an external que (see the photo below)
        • Use a band anchored above and behind you, pull the band slightly so that you feel your stomach musculature contract. Hold this and practicing breathing.

    • Once you master this lying down. progress to:
      • Kneeling
      • Quadruped
      • Standing
      • Moving

Starting with the basics and working up to harder movements will set you up for success. Jumping straight into higher level movements does not allow you to properly change your breathing movement pattern. As a runner one way you can incorporate this into your workouts is to practice nasal breathing as long as you can when you start running. Of course, there is a point when we are working out, where we have to breathe through our mouths.

I won’t say there is a right and a wrong way to breathe, but we could say that nasal breathing is a more efficient way to breathe. Clients I have worked with who have added breathing practice into their daily lives have found benefits of:

  • Increased mental alertness
  • Decreases in stress and anxiety/ feeling more relaxed throughout the day
  • Improvements in physical performance during their workouts

I challenge you to try nasal breathing every night (or during the day) for a week and see if you find any benefits from it!

Happy Training!

Tunnel Marathons Personal Trainer