Training Tips

Gain the Edge Naturally

Rob Svarich
July 22, 2022

The Benefits of Proper Breathing Mechanics and a Dedicated Breathing Program

Reduce Physical Injury and Fatigue

The key to reaping the benefits of physical activity without putting your health at risk lies in controlling the amount of stress put on the body during exercise; specifically, oxidative stress, which results from too many free radicals washing about in our system. In an attempt to deal with the potentially detrimental imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals, athletes are often encouraged to take large, regular doses of antioxidant supplements. At first glance this might seem like sound advice but studies exploring the use of dietary antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress and exercise induced muscle injury have been met with mixed results to date. An alternative and totally natural method of protecting against the excessive build-up of free radicals is to supplement regular exercise with breath holds and increase your BOLT score. This method is cheap, non-toxic and less controversial than supplements. Research has shown that breath holding exercises can improve an athlete’s tolerance to hypoxemia (an abnormally low level of oxygen in the blood) and reduce the acidity of the blood eliminating oxidative stress and lactic acid build up. 

Breath holding after an exhalation causes a decrease in O2 saturation, which triggers an increase in lactic acid. At the same time CO2 levels also increase, leading to a rise in the concentration of hydrogen ions, which further acidifies the blood (pH=potential hydrogen). Repeated practice of breath holding exercises offset the effects of lactic acid, inducing the body to make adaptations to delay acidosis (increased acidity in the blood), and enable the athlete to push harder without experiencing the same level of fatigue. 

While breathing naturally increases during physical exercise, individuals with a low BOLT score breathe more heavily than normal, creating an even greater quantity of free radicals relative to their physical work rate. A higher BOLT score corresponds to a lower breathing volume, producing fewer free radicals and reducing the risk of muscle damage, injury, fatigue and premature aging-possibly even extending the length of life. Breath hold techniques offer a simple and effective way to increase antioxidant production in athletes who exercise intensely and can easily be incorporated into regular training.

In short, improving the way you breathe during rest and exercise will have positive repercussions on your general health as well as your athletic performance, reducing the risk of injury and enabling you to perform beyond your previous limits.

Improve Oxygenation of the Heart

As discussed, breathing in excess of normal metabolic requirements causes a reduced concertation of CO2 in the blood. This state of hypocapnia can affect cardiovascular functioning by decreasing the circulation of blood in the blood vessels and reducing blood flow to the heart. The result of this is decreased delivery of O2 to the heart

A major benefit to nasal breathing is that nitric oxide is produced within the paranasal sinuses surrounding the nasal cavity and as you breathe through your nose you end up pulling that nitric oxide into your lungs. Important roles of nitric oxide include: reducing cholesterol, reversing the buildup of plaque in blood vessels, helping to prevent clotting, all of which reduce the risk of heart attack. Producing sufficient nitric oxide enables blood flow to be directed effortlessly throughout the body, ensuring that vital organs receive sufficient nutrients and oxygenation. As blood vessels relax, the heart is able to normalize the pressure required to distribute blood throughout the body.

It is only logical to summarize that a poorly oxygenated heart is less able to cope with the demands of intense physical exercise. Yet every month we see reports of children, teenagers, and adults in the prime of their life dying from undetected heart conditions. Upon hearing the news I often wonder: could this tragedy have been avoided if the victim had been encouraged to breathe normally and through the nose? The breathing volume of athletes and non-athletes alike is crying out for attention, and greater awareness would be worth all of the effort if even just one young life were saved

Eliminate Exercise Induced Asthma

While asthma has been around for a very long time it affects more people today than ever before. Exercise induced asthma affects an estimated 4-20% of the general population and 11-50% of certain athlete populations. Interestingly one study showed that while 55% of football players and 50% of basketball players displayed airway narrowing conducive to asthma, athletes from the sport of water polo showed significantly fewer asthma symptoms. Why did the narrowing of airways not affect polo players? The answer; water polo training involves breath holding and swimming under water, resulting in a higher tolerance to CO2, increased amounts of nitric oxide and reduced breathing volume. With a normal breathing volume asthma tendencies don’t appear.

A study at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane found that when the breathing volume of adults with asthma dropped from 14L/min to 9.6L/min their symptoms reduced by 70%; the need for rescue medication dropped by 90%, and the need for preventer steroid medication decreased by 50%. The study found a direct relationship between breathing volume and improvement of asthma. The closer the breathing volume reduced to normal, the greater the reduction of symptoms. Furthermore, the trials’ control group, who were taught the hospitals’ in house asthma management program, made zero progress; reason being there was no reduction in breathing volume. Further studies reinforce these findings and show that people with asthma who practiced reducing their breathing volume had far better asthma control with a significantly reduced need for preventative steroid and rescue medication within 3-6 months.

Since asthma is a condition characterized by difficulty in breathing, a logical approach would be to attempt to find the root cause by first addressing poor breathing habits.  Based on the fact that a number of clinical trials have shown that asthma symptoms and the need for asthma medication are significantly reduced following the employment of reduced breathing exercises, there is no doubt that over breathing is a significant contributor to asthma. Mouth breathing causes a reduction in lung functions in people with mild asthma and plays a significant role in exacerbation of asthma symptoms.

How mouth breathing affects asthma:

  • Air taken through the mouth is not filtered of airborne particles, including germs and bacteria
  • The mouth is simply not as effective as the nose at conditioning air to the correct temperature and humidity prior to entering the lungs.
  • Because the mouth provides a larger space to breathe through than the nose, breathing volume will be higher, causing too much CO2 to be expelled from the lungs. CO2 is the natural “opener” of smooth muscle in the airways. The loss of CO2 therefore causes asthmatic airways to narrow even more. 
  • Unlike nasal breathing, mouth breathing does not allow us to benefit from nasal nitric oxide, which supports the lungs defensive capabilities.

Researchers studied the beneficial effects of nasal breathing in exercise induced asthma; the study observed that most subjects with asthma spontaneously breathed with their mouth when instructed to “breathe naturally”. The authors found that mouth breathing during exercise caused the airways to narrow even further. In contrast, when told to nasal breathe during exercise, exercise induced asthma did not occur at all. The paper concluded that “the nasopharynx and the oropharynx play important roles in the phenomenon of exercise induced bronchoconstriction. In simple terms, the effects of nasal breathing during exercise are integral to reducing or avoiding exercise induced asthma completely

The general aim is to increase your BOLT score to 40 seconds. If BOLT score remains less than 20 seconds then asthma symptoms will persist. However when your early morning BOLT score is greater than 20 seconds symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, breathlessness and tightness in the chest will disappear. A BOLT score of 40 seconds is needed to fully eliminate asthma symptoms. With such a simple method, there really is no reason for anyone to suffer a single day more from the discomfort of asthma.

Quality Sleep for Performance

Having a BOLT score of less than 20 seconds and mouth breathing during sleep may result in many of the following symptoms: snoring, insomnia, night sweats, sleep apnea, a racing mind, needing to use the bathroom at 4 or 5am, disrupted sleep, nightmares, dry mouth upon waking, brain fog upon waking, fatigue first thing in the morning, fatigue during the day, upper and Lower respiratory complaints.

To reduce and eventually eliminate mouth breathing during sleep follow these guidelines:

  • Avoid eating within 2 hours of sleep, digestion increases breathing
  • Keep your bedroom cool and airy (but not cold)
  • Sleep on your front or left side. Sleeping on your back doesn’t restrict breathing
  • Tape your mouth closed
  • Breathe light to breathe right for 15-20 minutes before bed

Improve Brain Oxygenation

The symptoms of hyperventilation and anxiety are similar and have been found to be linked in some cases. A study from the department of psychology and statistics at the University of Albany in NY found that students with high anxiety had lower levels of CO2 and a faster breathing rate than students with low anxiety. The effect of this study is not surprising when you consider the effects of hyperventilation: dizziness, headaches, chest pain, and light headedness. Is it the anxiety causing the hyperventilation or is it the hyperventilation that is causing the anxiety? As we already know, hyperventilation reduces the concentration of CO2 in the blood. This leads to vasoconstriction and reduced delivery of O2 to the brain. An O2 deprived brain is more excitable and agitated, and as it floods with self-generated thoughts, anxiety kicks in. 

Proper Breathing for Proper Development of the Face and Jaws

Take a look at the structure of the faces and jaws of past Olympic medal winners including: Usain Bolt, Sanya Richards, Steve Hooker, and Roger Federer. What is strikingly apparent for this group, and the vast majority of top class athletes, is the forward growth of the face and jaws. Athletic success depends on having good airways, which in turn is dependent on good facial structure. Spend a lot of time with your mouth wide open or sucking your thumb during childhood and the face grows differently from how nature intended. 

According to American research, 95% of head circumference growth for the average North American white child takes place by the age of 9. Development of the lower jaw however continues until about 18. Based on these observations, for correct craniofacial growth to take place, early intervention with nasal breathing and tongue posture is essential. The negative effects of mouth breathing on the structure of the jaws and face will have the most impact when they occur before puberty, so there is only a brief window of opportunity to avoid the need for orthodontic treatment and significant changes to a child’s face.

Brazilian researchers investigating the prevalence of mouth breathing in children aged 3-9 found that 55% of a random selection of 370 subjects were mouth breathers. Children who regularly mouth breathe tend to develop negative alterations to their face, jaws and the alignment of their teeth. Mouth breathing affects the shape of the face in 2 ways:

  • There’s a tendency for the face to grow long and narrow.
  • The jaws do not fully develop and are set back from the ideal position, thus reducing airway size. If the jaws are not positioned forward enough on the face they will encroach on the airways

Mouth breathers tend to suffer from poor health, low energy, and reduced concentration. In the words of Dr Yosh Jefferson “these children do not sleep well at night due to obstructed airways; this lack of sleep can adversely affect their growth and academic performance. Many of these children are misdiagnosed with ADD or hyperactivity”.

For the correct development of the lower half of the face it’s imperative that a child habitually breathes through the nose. The forces exerted by the lips and tongue primarily influence the growth of a child’s face. When nasal breathing with a closed mouth the lips and cheeks exert an inward pressure on the face; the tongue provides a counteracting force. When the mouth is closed the tongue rests against the roof of the mouth, exerting light forces that shape the top jaw. Because the tongue is wide and u sharped, it follows that the shape of the jaw should be wide and U shaped also. A wide U shaped jaw is optimal for housing all of our teeth. However during mouth breathing it is very unlikely the tongue will rest in the roof of the mouth. Since the top jaw is not then shaped by the tongue, the end result is the development of a narrow, V-shaped top jaw. Aesthetically, this contributes to a narrowing of the facial structure, crooked teeth, and orthodontic problems. It has been well documented that mouth breathing children will grow longer faces.

Strong athletic performance requires large upper airways that enable air to flow freely to and from the lungs. Although having a high BOLT score and proper breathing technique are crucial for high levels of performance, having airways that function with little resistance is also very advantageous

Dr. Egil Harvold carried out extensive research into the development of the facial structure of monkey in the 1970’s. He discovered that the restriction of nasal breathing over several years led to the lowering of the jaw and crooked teeth, and other facial deformities. While today we would consider it dreadful to experiment on innocent animals in this way, hundreds of thousands of children take part in a similar experiment and experience the same craniofacial anomalies due to the effects of mouth breathing.

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