Could breathing correctly be the secret to achieving Sub7 & Sub8?

maximising human, then athletic performance through breathing correctly

News broke recently (The Guardian, BBC Sport) of an upcoming attempt by British Triathletes Alistair Brownlee and Lucy Charles-Barclay to break 7 and 8 hours respectively in Ironman.  A challenge reminiscent of Roger Banisters’ 1954 4-minute mile and inspired by the more recent Ineos 1:59 challenge, Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon project (wearing of course, Nike’s Zoom Alphafly NEXT% shoes).  The attempt will be backed by the Pho3nix Foundation and will, in Brownlee’s case, involve swimming at the pace of an Olympic open-water medallist, cycling at an average of more than 48kmph and running a sub 2hr 30min marathon.  As Brownlee said to the BBC, “Pushing myself as hard as I can is just what I do.”

The biomechanical, physiological and psychological demands on the athletes involved will be enormous, as Charles-Barclay said “it’s testing the limits of human achievement”.   On top of these demands, nutrition and liquids will be crucial.  Brownlee spoke about “fuelling correctly for 7 hours” and “having to get your fluids right.”  

Yet there is one aspect of performance that is hardly ever discussed but underpins everything mentioned above.  Breathing.  It is the catalyst for nearly every function of the human body, it is the conductor of the orchestra.  As James Nestor [1] writes in his best seller ‘Breath,’ “How we breathe really matters.” And it all starts with the nose. 

The nose is the organ specifically designed for breathing and automatically regulates the volume of inhaled air.  It naturally forces us to take lighter, lower (deep into the lungs) and slower breaths and is the key to breathing correctly, even during intense exercise.  Breathing impacts our biomechanical movement, physiology and psychology, as well as dehydration levels, recovery & sleep.  As per McKeown [2] “all we’re really doing is assisting the body in working the way it was meant to work in the first place.”

Contrary to the advice of many sports coaches, it is actually far more advantageous to breath in and out through the nose.” 

In very simple terms, inhaling through the nose dictates how efficiently we are getting oxygen into our lungs (oxygen uptake), and how we exhale regulates how well we can deliver that oxygen from our blood to our working muscles and brain (oxygen delivery).

The slower we breathe, the more efficient we are.  We waste less air per breath in dead air space, and as per Dallam [3], we reduce our required ventilation by approximately 22% (vs orally) given the same workload, equating to a logical reduction in muscular work and metabolic cost.  In the Triathlete Training Podcast [4], Dallam noted respiration is 15% of an athletes total energy cost.  Could 4d breathing be the key to make efficient use of the energy resources available to Alistair & Lucy?

The same study by Dallam [3] noted subjects “achieved adequate oxygenation in spite of reduced ventilation while breathing nasally by increasing total oxygen diffusion (delivery).”  Intuition tells us that inhaling as much oxygen as possible (e.g. via the mouth) during exercise would be key, but this negates the fact that the trigger to breathing isn’t influenced by our desire or need for oxygen (at sea level, humans are already saturated with enough oxygen, and during exercise, an increased respiratory rate takes care of our increased need).  Our catalyst to breath is in fact triggered by carbon dioxide (you know, that ‘waste’ gas that gets a bad rep for causing global warming) is the gas that, as per Anders Ollsen [5], “controls breathing.”  Against all of our instincts, less is more.

Exhaling through the nose regulates exhalation of CO2.  We need the right levels of CO2 in our blood to instigate the effective and efficient delivery of oxygen to our working muscles. Exhaling through our mouth removes too much CO2 and limits our ultimate ability to deliver oxygen where it is needed most.  Could 4d breathing be the key to more efficient oxygen delivery to allow Brownlee & Charles-Barclay to go sub7/8?

Additionally, mouth breathing increases dehydration.  In a study by Svenson [6] “net water loss increased by 42% when the breathing mode was switched from nasal or oral expiration.”  This feels logical, exhale onto your phone screen using your nose, and then your mouth, and notice the difference.  The impact of dehydration on the performance levels of endurance athletes is well established, so could 4d breathing improve their ability to better manage fluid levels? 

By breathing nasally, we naturally send air into the lower lobes of our lungs and engage our diaphragm which, whilst being the main muscle controlling respiration, also stabilises the core & spine and subsequently impacts posture & functional movement.  As per Bradley [7], “disruption in one function can negatively affect the other.”  Therefore, our breathing mechanics will impact the consistency of our movement pattern for better or worse.  As Chapman [8] sums up “if breathing is not normalised, no other movement pattern can be.”  Can a 4d breathing pattern improve running efficiency (and reduce the risk of injury), given the biomechanical demands of running a marathon?

From a psychological perspective, a study by Travis et al [9] concluded that deep/nasal breathing during physical exertion offered the existence of “an inner calm” and “a composed mind in the midst of dynamic activity” with reduced perceived effort & fatigue given similar physical outputs.  These claims were supported by lower respiration rates, increased parasympathetic activity and brain activity characteristics seen in meditation.  We are all aware of the psychological demands in high performance sport, so could breathing correctly help improve the psychological states of these triathletes through their toughest challenge?

Professional athletes who seek to maximize performance may want to consider including a breathing coach in their team.” [10]

The adaptation to nasal breathing can take time, mostly to realise that the air hunger experienced isn’t due to a lack of oxygen.  The best way is to integrate changes into the athletes ‘human’ life first, be it using Myotape whilst sleeping / watching tv, working on breathing mechanics just before bed, or using breath hold techniques whilst walking the dog.  Then, as an ‘athlete’, 4d breathing can be used initially in low intensity/recovery sessions where the bike/running pace is dictated solely by the breath.  Over time, the air hunger will reduce, as will CO2 sensitivity, and the athlete will be able to bring 4d breathing into higher intensity sessions (of course swimming offers a very different breathing challenge altogether).  Athletes will be helped by using a nasal dilator (such as the Turbine by Rhinomed).  This small piece of rubber keeps the nostrils fully open at all times.  Brownlee spoke of utilising the latest technology to aid the effort, but could a simple dilator be all the additional technology required?

Could breathing correctly be the secret to achieving Sub7/Sub8 and help both Brownlee and Charles-Barclay create their own Bannister & Kipchoge moment?

Be nosey, not mouthy.

Matt Collings is an Oxygen Advantage advanced breathing instructor and founder of collings performance.

collings performance - first human / then athlete - maximising human, then athletic performance through breathing correctly. collings performance proudly supports Sport In Mind.

References

[1] Nestor, J. (2020).  Breath.  The New Science of a Lost Art.  Penguin Books.

[2] McKeown, P. (2015).  The Oxygen Advantage.  Piatkus.

[3] Dallam, G. et al (2018).  Effect of Nasal vs Oral Breathing on V02Max and Physiological Economy in Recreational Runners Following an Extended Period Spent Using Nasally Restricted Breathing.

[4] Triathlete Training Podcast, Episode 4 with George Dallam.  http://triathletetraining.com/triathlete-training-podcast-episode-4/

[5] Ollson, A.  (2020).  Breathcast Podcast, episode 16.

[6] Svenson, S. et al. (2006).  Increased net water loss by oral compared to nasal expiration in healthy subjects.

[7] Bradley, H. et al (2014).  Breathing Pattern Disorders & Functional Movement.

[8] Chapman, E (2016).  A clinical guide to the assessment and treatment of breathing pattern disorders in physical activity.

[9] Travis, F. et al (1996).  Invincible Athletics Program: Aerobic Exercise and Performance without Strain.

[10] Flannel, M (2019).  The Athletes Secret Ingredient: The Power of Nasal Breathing.