In 1986, Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France, outracing an elite field of cyclists over 2,544 miles of daunting terrain. In 1989 and 1990, LeMond won the Tour’s yellow jersey yet again. Over the years, he was at the forefront of the peloton in experimenting with radical technical innovations: clip-in pedals derived from ski bindings, lightweight carbon frames, aero bars for time-trials, and more.
Yet he had another secret weapon that was equally innovative — his breathing. While other riders focused on building leg strength, LeMond also performed deep-breathing exercises to expand his lung capacity and power.
And he was an early cycling proponent of VO2-max testing, which measures maximal oxygen consumption and aerobic power output. His overall goal was improved breathing efficiency.
LeMond’s secret weapon was not really so secret. He was tapping into wisdom, dating back millennia: Breathing can enhance performance and endurance.
The Art of Breathing
Every 3.3 seconds, 16 times a minute, 960 times an hour, 20,000 times a day, some 670,000,000 times in an average lifetime — we take a breath. Each breath sucks in sextillions of air molecules, which help build our bones, blood, muscles, brains, organs, all of us.
We tend to think of breathing — when we think of it at all — in simplistic, binary terms: We breathe oxygen in, exhale carbon dioxide out. Breathe in fresh energy, exhale stale energy. Breathing equates to life; not breathing, death.
But breathing is not simple, and we’d all do well to think about it more.
Every 3.3 seconds, 16 times a minute, 960 times an hour, 20,000 times a day, some 670,000,000 times in an average lifetime — we take a breath.
Thanks to high school Biology 101, we know that breathing fuels our life: We inhale air containing oxygen into our lungs, down bronchioles, and into alveoli and capillaries — some 1,500 miles of these passages in our lungs alone — to reach our blood.
The oxygen is picked up by hemoglobin within the red blood cells: Every one of the 25 trillion red blood cells holds 270 million hemoglobin molecules, each of which can transport four oxygen molecules, adding up to more than a billion molecules of oxygen per red blood cell. This enriched blood then disperses via the heart’s pumping power through 62,000 miles of arteries and capillaries to fuel every nook and cranny of our bodies.
As the blood offloads oxygen, it picks up carbon dioxide — a byproduct of metabolism — and carries it through veins back to the lungs through the alveoli, up through the throat, and out via our nose and mouth as we exhale.
It’s an awe-inspiring, near-magical feat all by itself.
“Breathing is a missing pillar of health,” says journalist James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. “No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are — none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly. . . . It all starts there.”
The health-giving, performance-enhancing power of breathing was well understood — even honored and worshipped — in early civilizations.
Today, with sophisticated VO2-max tests, MRIs, and ICU ventilators, we can map, examine, and measure our breathing, but we may not understand it as well as the ancients.
“We’ve lost touch with our most basic and important biological function,” says Nestor.
Experts now understand — thanks in large part to the 72-year longitudinal Framingham Study of more than 5,200 subjects, as well as other research — that the greatest indicator of our longevity may not be diet, exercise, or genetics, as previously believed, but lung capacity.
Scientists are also discovering — or rediscovering — what the ancients understood: Our breath is more than fuel, helping to control our nervous system and thus our physical fitness, mental health, and overall well-being.
Breathing for Performance
For Greg LeMond, breathing was a key to going faster for longer. To understand this, consider the two ways your body makes energy. Aerobic energy is your mainstay: It’s derived from oxygen fueling mitochrondrial metabolism in your cells. Anaerobic energy comes from glucose, derived from your food. It’s a sort of turbo boost for extreme efforts when your body craves more oxygen.
Both means are essential, but we rely on aerobic energy most of the time. Our intake of air versus food and water supports this.
Each day we consume some 4 pounds of food and 5 pounds of water — compared with an incredible 30 pounds of air. That’s a lot of something that’s relatively weightless.
It may seem obvious then that maximizing your breathing efficiency can maximize your performance. And — not discounting the proof of LeMond’s enduring victories — multiple studies have borne this out in different types of sports at different levels.
One researcher who reinforced this was not a sports physiologist but a choir conductor. Carl Stough went on to help emphysema patients and train Olympians.
Your circulatory system pumps an average of 2,000 gallons of blood through your body daily — much more, no doubt, if you’re racing the Tour de France, or even running a local 5K. Your heart does its circulatory duties, but for breathing, your thoracic pump — the in-and-out pressure inside your chest — is activated by the diaphragm, which moves some 50,000 times a day.
If you emphasize the exhale with your diaphragm, it not only clears out as much CO2 as possible, it also leaves a vacuum in your lungs to charge your next intake of oxygen.
LeMond’s tactic built on this. He was striving to use his complete lung capacity and fully employ his diaphragm. It’s often termed “belly breathing,” because your belly moves in response to your diaphragm’s action and the corresponding intake of air.
Yet many people engage as little as 10 percent of their diaphragm’s range, even during exercise; LeMond was aiming for optimal efficiency.
Surprisingly, though, your body can use only so much oxygen. At a normal breathing rate, your lungs absorb about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air to a maximum of 97 to 99 percent of blood-oxygen level. More than “enough” is simply exhaled.
What your body really needs is more carbon dioxide, according to Nestor. While oxygen sparks energy, carbon dioxide isn’t just waste; you need it to separate oxygen from hemoglobin, maintain your blood’s pH balance, and enhance blood-vessel dilation to facilitate blood flow.
CO2 is as essential to the body as any vitamin, Nestor says. Or, as Yale University physiology professor Yandell Henderson, PhD, hails it in the definitive Cyclopedia of Medicine, “Carbon dioxide is the chief hormone of the entire body; it is the only one that is produced by every tissue and that probably acts on every organ.”
So, when we optimize our breathing technique, we are also benefiting from carbon dioxide.
The good news is that you don’t need to train for the Tour de France to boost your breathing. Inhaling through your nose is a simple tactic, notes Ayurvedic practitioner John Douillard, DC, CAP, who has worked with elite athletes, including former pro-tennis star Billie Jean King and the New Jersey Nets, to enhance performance.
As reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience, Douillard compared subjects who breathed through their noses with those who breathed through their mouths while riding a stationary bike to a maximum exertion rate of 200 watts — medium, nonrace exertion. He found that nose-breathing subjects required 70 percent fewer breaths, felt half the perceived exertion, were calmer, and exhibited more relaxed brain waves and coherent thought — all while substantially enhancing performance and endurance.
Try focusing on breathing through your nose while running or riding — supplementing with mouth-breaths as your exertion demands — and see how it affects your own performance.
Deep-breathing exercises like LeMond’s can build lung power, although there’s some dispute over whether it increases lung capacity. But there’s an easy solution: Even moderate exercise like walking, jogging, or recreational cycling has been found to increase lung capacity by up to 15 percent.
Breathing for Strength
Optimizing your breathwork isn’t just about all-out performance; it can help build slow-and-steady strength as well. “Breathing is important for training, especially with heavy weights in the strength-and-conditioning world,” explains Toronto-based strength coach Lee Boyce.
The foundation of strength-training breathing is to exhale on the concentric (raising) phase of a given movement and inhale during the eccentric (lowering) phase. But there’s more to it, he says.
“Breathing correctly through the abdominal cavity involves allowing your diaphragm to lower to create more room for the lungs to expand. This is of supreme importance not only to maximize the volume of oxygen you can take in per breath, but also to avoid the potential for breathing-related injuries like dislocated ribs or hernias.”
How do you know when you are belly breathing and engaging your diaphragm rather than merely chest breathing?
“The stomach will grow and shrink on each deep breath, more so than the shoulders and chest raising and lowering,” Boyce says. “Try deep stomach breaths in the mirror and note the differences in how it looks and feels.
“Next, use light weights in your workout and try applying it to the reps you perform, using good technique. It may take some getting used to.”
Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters also use breathing techniques for all-important bracing, such as the Valsalva maneuver: Take a deep belly breath, then close your epiglottis (the flap over your larynx and windpipe) by stopping the airflow in your throat and exhale against it.
This internal pressure helps brace your core for producing maximal force in Olympic moves, squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. (For more on core and glute engagement, see “How to Engage Your Core and Glutes”.)
And your breathwork doesn’t end with your exercise — it can also ease you into recovery, Boyce advises. “Before or after workouts, try three sets of 12 deep belly breaths to help with your performance, circulation, and recovery. It will help bring your heart rate down, as well.”
Breathing for Calmness and Meditation
Our breathing also provides us with a power that science can’t qualify or quantify. In ancient India, breathing was understood to bring what was known as prana, which translates as “life force” or “vital energy.”
In China, this was called “chi” or “qi.” A similar concept was held by myriad other cultures, including the Greeks, Jewish mystics, and the Iroquois.
By breathing with intention, they believed, we could focus that energy for clarity of thinking and meditation, to balance our minds and moods, and, ultimately, to live better and longer.
Your breathing affects and is affected by your autonomic nervous system, and there are two key aspects of this. At the top of the lungs, close to the bronchial entrance, there are nerves connected to the sympathetic nervous system. So, taking short, quick breaths — as you do when you’re scared or when you’re sprinting — activates your fight-or-flight response, ideal for dealing with danger or running a race.
Your lungs’ lower lobes contain nerves connected to the parasympathetic nervous system — the rest-and-digest part. Long, deep breaths will activate these nerves and relax your body, aid digestion, and calm your mind.
Yoga is perhaps the quintessence of optimal breathing. Yogic teachings of some 5,000 years ago focused on breathwork to build on prana’s vital force. Later, the practice evolved to include asanas — postures and movements — that coincided with the breathing.
“The word ‘yoga’ means ‘union,’ and it starts with breathing,” explains Tory Schaefer, Life Time’s national director of yoga operations. “The poses are secondary. Your breath is there to help you become connected.
“The breath allows you to stay present, which supports you in listening to your body in a pose without reaction or attachment,” he continues. “By bringing focus to the breath, it calms the fight-or-flight responses in the body, which allows muscles to relax and gain greater mobility.”
And the discipline of yogic breathing carries over into other aspects of life.
“That’s the purpose, really!” Schaefer says. “Yoga is training for life. We practice being present with our breath during yoga so that when uncomfortable or challenging situations arise in life we can find our breath and be present to make the best choices without reaction or attachment.”
Nose Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing
We have evolved with two airways to breathe through — our nose and our mouth. The mouth is a backup ventilation system: It’s available when you have a cold and nasal congestion or need supplemental air during exertion. Most of the time, the nose rules.
Your nose is a wonder of aerodynamics and thermodynamics, biological simplicity and efficiency. It warms the air you breathe and moistens it to aid absorption. The nasal passages speed the air for quicker delivery and pressurize it so the lungs can extract optimal amounts of oxygen.
Your nose filters out particles and pollutants as it clears and purifies your breath. Mucus — one of your body’s first lines of immunity defense — catches invading allergens, pathogens, and bacteria; it escorts them down your throat and into your stomach, where they’re sterilized by acids. They’re delivered to the intestines for excretion.
And your nose even boasts erectile tissues similar to the penis, clitoris, and nipples. It is more intimately connected to your genitals than any other organ, playing a key role in sexual arousal.
Even your two nostrils and nasal cavities play different, interrelated roles. If you close your left nostril and inhale just through the right, it works like a gas pedal: Breathing through this side activates your sympathetic nervous system, triggering hormones that put your body into an elevated state of alertness.
The right nostril also feeds more blood to the left hemisphere of the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with logical decision-making.
The left nostril is like a brake. It’s connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-digest mechanism that lowers blood pressure, cools your body, and eases anxiety. And it flows blood to the brain’s right side, which instigates creative thought and emotions.
Your body naturally balances these two forces via breathing. But when required, it focuses on one or the other. And we can override this and redirect it when we want, too.
As journalist James Nestor sums up in his book Breath, “The nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.”
While the nose rules, many of us breathe through the mouth much, if not all, of the time, eschewing the nose and all its functional glory. Temporary mouth breathing is normal, such as when you’re congested or exercising at high intensities. But chronic mouth breathing can create problems.
“The body is not designed to process raw air for hours at a time, day or night,” states Nestor.
Without the helping hand of the nose, mouth breathing has been implicated in a variety of ailments: allergies begetting more allergies; asthma; snoring, sleep apnea, and insomnia; high blood pressure, ADHD, and autoimmune diseases; even anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues.
Mouth breathing can be untrained: Just as you would with any other breathing technique, focus on consciously breathing through your nose, augmenting with mouth breaths when needed.
Progressive healthcare experts are integrating pulmonology, physiology, dentistry, and other research in creating rehabilitative and reconstructive techniques to build up the resilience of atrophying nasal passages.
The Perfect Breath
If we can breathe better to enhance extremes of performance and ease our mind, what about in our daily life? And can haphazard breathing harm our health, and optimal breathing enhance it?
Nestor began his decadelong investigation into breathing in a quest to overcome his own respiratory problems, including shortness of breath, wheezing, and recurring pneumonia as well as other issues, such as stress and growing general-health concerns brought on by modern living. He studied yoga and meditation, retrained his mouth breathing, and in the end learned to optimize his everyday breathing.
We rush our breathing, he says — which is no surprise, considering our busy lives. The consequence is that we overbreathe, which makes it harder for our bodies to efficiently use oxygen and causes a lot of unnecessary wear and tear. He recommends breathing more slowly, less often, and more consciously.
“The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for about 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air,” James Nestor says.
“The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for about 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air,” Nestor says. “You can practice this perfect breathing for a few minutes, or a few hours. There is no such thing as having too much peak efficiency in your body.”
And it’s no coincidence, he adds, that Buddhist mantras, yoga asanas, Hindu mudras (hand poses), and the Catholic Ave Maria, as well as Taoist, African, and Native American prayers, correspond with the breath: These ancient prayers served as codes, maps, directions to breathing well. “Breathing, for all these people, all these cultures, was powerful medicine,” he says.
“My hunch is, in the next few years, breath training will be the biggest thing going in fitness,” Nestor continues. “In some circles, it already is.”
6 Breathing Exercises
Rapid, deep breaths can instantly energize, explains yoga instructor Tory Schaefer. It’s known as bhastrika pranayama, or the breath of fire. “This rapid-breathing technique pumps and floods the body with oxygen, which gives the body a pep of energy and helps to detox the body.”
- Inhale quickly through your nostrils, deep into your lungs; you should feel the breath in your navel.
- Squeeze the breath out by squeezing in the muscles of the belly and the navel area. If you feel light-headed or dizzy, stop and rest.
Controlled Race Breathing
Olympian and three-time national middle-distance-running champion Carrie Tollefson strives to maintain control over her breathing. “The best advice I have been given for breathing and running is to not overthink how you are breathing, but rather relax and stay in control. Think about trying to not force it one way or the other — not tensing as you fatigue. Keeping your arms, shoulders, and face loose will also allow you to stay calm. Running is not easy for anyone, but if we are tense or tight, everything seems to get harder.
“If you can stay in control with your breathing you will see better results. If you think about how you feel if you are breathing really fast — starting to panic — everything gets really hard. So when those tendencies present themselves, trying to slow your breath down will definitely help. If you are starting to breathe really rapidly or even hearing that wheezing some people get, that is when I would start a new pattern of breath. If you aren’t in control of it, then regain the control and focus on the positives rather than the negatives.” Here’s her technique:
- Inhale for 2 seconds or counts (breathe in on the right foot).
- Then exhale for 2 seconds or counts (breathe out on the left foot).
To help brace your core for lifts, strength coach Lee Boyce recommends this:
- Take a long, slow, deep inhale during the eccentric (lowering) phase.
- Exhale on the concentric (raising) phase.
Focused Box Breathing
To maintain focus and calm in tense situations, U.S. Navy SEALs train with this technique:
- Slowly inhale to a 4 count.
- Hold that breath to a 4 count.
- Exhale to a 4 count.
- Hold to a 4 count. Repeat.
To calm yourself with a single breath, a long, slow exhalation will activate the vagus nerve to physically switch your system to a more relaxed mode, explains psychologist Greg Smith, PhD, author of Purposeful Breathing.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Form a small round hole with pursed lips, as if you had a straw through which you were breathing. Exhale slowly, letting the narrowness of the opening control the rate of the exhalation.
To shift your body into a state of deep relaxation, integrative-medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, MD, recommends these steps:
- Breathe in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a 4 count.
- Hold for a 7 count.
- Exhale through your mouth with a whoosh to an 8 count. Repeat for at least four breaths.
A Q&A With Author and Breathing Investigator James Nestor.
Journalist James Nestor spent a decade researching breathing in a quest to overcome his own respiratory problems, which included recurring pneumonia, as well as other life issues, such as daily stress and growing general health concerns. Along the way, he not only resolved his breathing worries but discovered much more about both ancient wisdom and modern science surrounding breathing. He chronicled his journey of discovery in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. We had a chance to talk to Nestor recently and here’s what he had to say.
Experience Life | Can you summarize the key lessons you learned during your 10 years of research?
James Nestor | No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or wise you are, none of it matters if you’re not breathing properly. And it turns out that the vast majority of the population today is breathing wrong.
This sounded crazy to me when I first heard it from a respiratory researcher. But one need only look at the data: asthma, snoring, sleep apnea, hypertension, and even metabolic issues like diabetes can all be either exacerbated or sometimes caused by improper breathing. I spent several years working with experts in the field to figure out just what went wrong (hint: it’s tied to our evolution) and how to fix it.
EL | We all know, thanks to our high school biology class, that oxygen is essential for our cells to burn for energy. But you also discover that carbon dioxide — which we were told was a byproduct of our metabolism — is also key. Can you explain the importance of carbon dioxide in our breathing and to our bodies as a whole?
JN | Most of us consider carbon dioxide a “waste gas,” just something we should be getting out of our bodies. This is a very narrow view of this wondrous gas. Carbon dioxide is as important to life, and the proper functioning of every cell in our bodies, as is oxygen. We need both.
It turns out that most of us breathe too much, and when we overbreathe we can exhale too much carbon dioxide. Without healthy stores of carbon dioxide, we inhibit circulation and can’t efficiently use oxygen. Take a dozen huge breaths and you can feel it for yourself: That tingling in your head or fingers isn’t caused by having more oxygen in these areas, but a decrease!
This is a very tangled, technical web, and it took me months to get my head around. But the short version is: By breathing slowly and less (and raising our carbon dioxide levels) we can get more oxygen, more easily. We can function at a much higher mental and physical level.
EL | You write that “breathing is a missing pillar of health”: Do you believe breathing is also an oftentimes overlooked aspect of athletic performance?
JN | Absolutely. Respiratory training used to be an essential part of athletic training, and those who adopted it showed huge gains. Then new potions and practices and technologies came around and everyone moved on.
But the science is clear, the data is clear: Dozens and dozens of studies conducted over the past few decades have shown that just a few weeks of respiratory training can offer huge boosts in performance and can cut recovery times by up to 50 percent.
My hunch is in the next few years breath training will be the biggest thing going in fitness. In some circles, it already is.
This article originally appeared as “Every Breath You Take” in the March 2021 issue of Experience Life.