Nasal Breathing: the Secret to Optimal Fitness

In October of 2019, James Newbury got into a mountain bike accident. just earlier that same year he had finished fifth in the 2019 CrossFit games. The 29-year-old Australian suffered two broken bones in his back, three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Yet, just a few months later, Newbury not only recovered, he completed an Ironman competition.

Furthermore, he did the entire 5-hour bike ride and 4-hour run in the Ironman, breathing only through his nose. This nose-breathing technique is similar to one practiced in yoga, called ujjayi pranayama or victorious breath.

[See: How to Prevent — and Heal — Common CrossFit Injuries.]

Mouth vs. Nose Breathing

Most of us breathe through our mouths while exercising, especially during intense aerobic workouts. However, emerging research suggests nasal breathing might be more effective. And for many of the same reasons, yoga practitioners utilize the power of their breath.

A recent study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science looked at 10 runners, male and female, who implemented nasal-only breathing for six months while exercising. To compare their maximum oxygen intake rates, participants were tested — once with nasal breathing and then with mouth breathing. They were also tested for various other respiratory and exercise markers, including oxygen and carbon dioxide levels while working out.

Their maximum rate of oxygen consumption did not change from nasal to mouth breathing. But the study found that the runners’ respiratory rate, which are breaths per minute, and ratio of oxygen intake to carbon dioxide output decreased during nasal breathing. In other words, their bodies didn’t have to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen. Researcher’s believe this is because of the lower breath rate used during nasal breathing, which allows more time for oxygen to get to the bloodstream.

This study suggests that you can produce the same work and oxygenation (VO2Max) while breathing through your nose as you can with your mouth.

[SEE: Best Breathing Exercises for Asthma.]

Less Is More

“You’re doing less work of breathing to get the same oxygenation,” says George Dallam, the lead author of the study and a professor in the School of Health Sciences and Human Movement at Colorado State University — Pueblo. He is also the former National Teams coach for the USA Triathlon team.

“I so love people who have yoga backgrounds going into endurance sports,” Dallam says. “That’s a useful thing. The single biggest issue we have for aerobic exercise in this country is people go out and go at it too hard, and it’s horrendous for them.”

When you breathe slowly and deeply through your nose like you do in yoga, you extract more oxygen from each breath, which allows you to breathe less.

When you breathe through your nose, “you actually can perform your big physical tasks — running, cycling, things like that, you can perform them using less oxygen because you’re not having to breathe as much to perform them,” Dalllam says. “Which turns this not just into a health thing, but also into a performance thing too.”

Newbury also found that being efficient, especially when it comes to endurance training, is a key benefit of nasal breathing.

“You’re not going to be able to work out consistently for 10 hours holding your absolute lactic threshold the whole time. It’s not possible. You need to be able to find a nice rhythm, and that takes a lot of time building that aerobic base. The more time we can train heart rate zones while nasal breathing, we’re going to be a faster, more powerful athlete at a lesser effort,” Newbury says. “That’s the idea.”

[Read: How Yoga Can Support Heart Health.]

Alignment and Injury Prevention

The nose presents a longer passageway for air to travel compared to the mouth. Air experiences more turbulence in your nose than your mouth. It mixes with mucus, which creates more drag. It also adds moisture and warmth to more smoothly enter the lungs. As a result, when you breathe through your nose, these mechanics demand you breathe deeply and exercise more upright in your posture.

“Most people look at the surface and say that’s bad, that means it’s heavier breathing,” Dallam says. “The point is, that allows you to use your diaphragm better.”

Because your form and movement tend to be more aligned when you breathe nasally, it also helps prevent injury. This is something a yoga practice also teaches students.

“People who habitually breathe nasally, they appear to do better on functional movement screenings,” Dallam says. “It’s a test which is a series of movements to evaluate how well you move.”

Let Your Breath Be Your Guide

According to Dallam, you should adapt to nasal breathing during aerobic exercise like you would in a yoga practice, although it’s anaerobic.

Let your breath govern your effort. To progress, push yourself until you feel the sensation of what researchers call “air hunger,” or breathlessness, and only challenge yourself as much as you can while maintaining nasal breathing. This means slowing down significantly at first and being patient.

This process can take anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on your fitness level and how much you commit to it.

“I can understand that people would not particularly enjoy being humbled like that,” Newbury says. “But I think the really good athletes are able to take something that’s unique, and see the value in it.”

Newbury first learned breathwork from Brian Mackenzie based in San Rafael, California. Mackenzie is the author and founder of the Art of Breath, a program that teaches how to use breath to optimize performance.

“My introduction to breath work came through yoga,” Mackenzie says. “Somehow, some way, we missed this in the human performance world.”

To start, Mackenzie gave Newbury passive, cadenced breathing protocols, where he counted the seconds he inhaled, exhaled and held his breath. Newbury also practiced meditation to help him connect to his breath and calm down during stressful situations.

Then Newbury made the transition to nasal breathing during aerobic training and gradually saw results. But there was a learning curve.

“I remember getting on the bike and riding 90 seconds to 2 minutes before reverting back to mouth breathing,” Newbury says. “In my mind and my body, it felt like I just needed the oxygen and I was going to pass out if I kept restricting my ability to suck in oxygen.”

Meditative Effect of Deep Nasal Breathing

Newbury worked past the adaptation to nasal breathing in training, and in the 2018 CrossFit games, he put it to the test during the marathon row event — a grueling 43 kilometers on the rower.

“I just did that all through my nose,” Newbury says. “No talking, mouth shut. I was super relaxed, and it felt really comfortable.”

Similarly, in yoga, you breathe slowly to create relaxation and concentration. What is known as a parasympathetic state. Whereas hyperventilation, or rapid breathing, brings on a more sympathetic, or a fight or flight and freeze response.

According to Dallam, deep, nasal breathing could help activate lower portions of the lungs associated with the parasympathetic nerves.

“You’re dealing with what is called a vagal response,” Dallam says. “You’re actually activating your vagal nerve to do the action of the lung itself when you breathe that way. That’s why a relaxation breath is a deeper breath. If you breathe deeply and activate the diaphragm well, and activate the lower portion of the lung, then you create some immediate relaxation.”

Dallam believes that using yoga-like breathes during exercise would be a game-changer for the general population because it would be more enjoyable.

“That’s why there’s so few people exercising because they’re exposed to it in a way which makes it more like punishment than reinforcement,” Dallam says. “It’s all painful, and they don’t try it long enough to make these long term adaptations. We need to learn to introduce them to it in a way of making it reinforcing from day one where we minimize the downside as much as possible. And you do that in yoga. You don’t ever bring someone in a class and force them to do postures they can’t do. I would love to see that come over to endurance sports more.”

Approach exercise like a yoga practice — take your time. Only challenge yourself as much as you can while maintaining nasal breathing and don’t overdo it. This could make exercise less stressful and help you stick with it for the long haul.

Newbury currently has his sights on a new challenge: bobsledding. His focus is on getting faster and stronger, all while being guided by his breath.

“If we could master breath, everything after that is going to be handled a bit better,” Newbury says. “We’re going to live at a higher level.”

More from U.S. News

Ways to Improve Lung Health

How to Practice Yoga When You Have Arthritis or Another Chronic Condition

9 Misconceptions About Yoga

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