For the past month I’ve been paying close attention to my breath. More specifically, how I breathe, and when I breathe.
The result? I’ve been sleeping noticeably better (quality and duration), and on many days I can swear I feel better overall too.
Of course, it could be other factors like cooler temperatures making sleep better, but changing my breathing is without doubt helping me fall asleep sooner than previously.
It all started with my fascination with the nuances of freediving, where breath is literally life. Through my research into that pursuit, I discovered Patrick McKeown’s excellent Oxygen Advantage teachings on how apnea (breath holding) increases CO2 levels and allows our blood to offload 10-20% more oxygen to the brain. He has a list of research resources on his site oxygenadvantage.com.
There are other benefits, including nitric oxide being released in the nasal cavity and taken into the lungs, and then into the bloodstream, which widens blood vessels and improves blood flow. Watch Patrick discuss how mouth breathing as a child affects the structure of the head as an adult, and how it reduces lung performance in the lecture below (12:45).
(It’s tailored to coaches teaching better breathing techniques to their athletes, but is pertinent to non-athletes too.)
A fortnight later, I stumbled on the findings of journalist James Nestor on the science of nasal breathing via an online freediving seminar.
During his 12-minute interview on the Mulligan Brothers Interviews YouTube channel, James shares simple, easily actionable advice like “Control your breathing, control your stress”.
More specifically, he says “Breathe though your nose as often as you can. Don’t worry about it if you’re breathing through your mouth for short amounts of time. Exhale fully. Breathe slowly. Breathe less.”
For us trail runners, James says “Think how athletes get most of their energy. You say ‘Oh, through their food.’ No. We get most of our energy through our breath, and if we are not breathing in a way that is efficient, and our inhalations and exhalations aren’t closely coordinated, we’re never really going to be able to hit that state of peak performance.”
Watch the interview below (12:52).
Here are some of the improvements I’ve seen in my life since being more aware of how and when I breathe.
Nasal breathing while running
I’ve been nasal breathing during afternoon walks, and found it effective to wind down and calm my mind after a busy day. Now I’ve progressed to doing it during my morning road runs (mostly on level terrain). I focus on breathing slowly and fully inhaling and exhaling. At first, it feels a little strange, and forces you to run at a fairly slow pace, but you’ll find you still get a good cardiovascular workout.
There’s something meditative about following the breath so closely, that just feels great. In June’s cooler air temperatures, I find that my nose starts running (I enjoy the company, as long as it doesn’t start running ahead of me!), so I’d suggest you take along a hanky or similar to keep your nasal passages clear.
Think about using nasal breathing when you find yourself running with someone much slower than you. Or if you are running at a faster pace and need to breathe through your mouth, hold your breath for a set number of paces, and see how that changes the game for you. You can simulate any kind of low oxygen condition simply by not breathing. No altitude mask required!
Breathing to sleep better
At night, I mostly now fall asleep in a few short minutes while doing this breathing technique: I lie flat on my back (no pillow), arms at my sides, while inhaling through my nose for four seconds, then hold for four seconds, then exhale through my nose for four seconds, and end with a hold for four, then repeat.
During the night, I usually wake twice to go to the bathroom, and sometimes after the second time I take a while to fall asleep, especially if my mind is processing something. In that case I find also listening to downloaded episodes from sleep apps like Get Sleepy help relax me even more. [*And no, I’m not sleep-deprived.]
Awareness during daily tasks
It’s easy to mouth breathe while awake and be unaware of it.
Maybe you’ve got a blocked nose, and nasal breathing isn’t possible.
Or maybe you’re under stress, and are hyperventilating as a coping mechanism.
Monitor yourself. Are you inhaling through your mouth in the mistaken belief that you’re giving your brain more oxygen, or to distract yourself from an unpleasant emotion, sensation, or even pain? You’re not enriching your blood with more oxygen. You’re really removing carbon dioxide, which helps offload oxygen from your red blood cells into your tissues, so the opposite is happening. Your blood oxygen content is being reduced.
I used to do deep forceful breathing through my mouth, thinking this was a calming mechanism and would improve oxygenation of my blood.
Perhaps worst of all, I would do this when wanting to fall asleep, until my research showed me that it was actually raising my heart rate and making me less relaxed.
At work, focus on nasal breathing while sitting at your computer. Be mindful of using nasal breathing when you walk to your car, around the supermarket, on recreational walks, and when you’re driving.
Nasal breathing can help us be more appreciative of the present, improve our sleep, reduce heart rate, attenuate blood sugar, protect our lungs from cold air and pollution, provide more oxygen where we need it, and improve our mental well-being, amongst other benefits.
Consider making it a lifelong habit to enhance your life experience, starting today.
Related topic on this site: Better breathing for running.