Mouth Wide Shut: Adventures in Nostril Breathing – Part I

Eighteen years ago when I was a competitive marathoner and a graduate student in exercise physiology, I picked up a rather unorthodox new book called Body, Mind and Sport, by John Douillard. One of the book’s chief doctrines was that of employing nostril breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) instead of mouth breathing during aerobic exercise. The author believes that nostril breathing is beneficial not only for yoga, but also aerobic activities such as running or cycling. The book contains several testimonials of professional and amateur athletes who made great gains in their fitness and performance after switching to nostril breathing.

Douillard believes it’s possible for anyone who trains using nostril breathing to achieve the effortless “Zone” of peak performance. Indeed there’s some evidence that breathing through the nose during aerobic exercise is beneficial. Apparently it increases CO2 saturation in the blood which allows the body to maximize its ability to absorb oxygen from inhaled air. Nostril breathing can also help warm the air entering the lungs (great for the cold weather workouts this winter). Douillard also asserts that the nose provides a better filtration system, resulting in cleaner air and fewer allergens being absorbed by the lungs. Perhaps most importantly, Douillard asserts that nose breathing has a calming, stress-reducing effect on the body, which, over time, translates into a lower state of perceived exertion during high intensity levels of exercise.

At the time I picked up Douillard’s book back in 1994,  I was a young, somewhat impatient, impetuous athlete focused on racing marathons and qualifying for the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. As intrigued as I was by Douillard’s premise, I didn’t stick with the concept after the novelty wore off. Furthermore, I just didn’t see how it was going to translate into a faster marathon for me. As much as I felt good doing it during my training runs, I wasn’t convinced that nose breathing would work during a race and I didn’t want to risk experimenting with it during competition.

Fast forward 18 years and today my main goal is to run for pleasure and without pain – and to keep up with fiance,” Chris”, on our weekend runs together. So several weeks ago when he asked me what I knew about nostril breathing I said I remembered reading a book about the subject. Miraculously I was able to find Douillard’s book on my shelf. Chris became very enthused as he read the book and even more excited about nostril breathing as he began applying it during his runs and bicycle rides. I was surprised by his quick assimilation of it and as during our runs together I consequently became more aware of the sound of his breathing and his lack of dialogue (hey it’s hard to nostril breathe and carry on a conversation simultaneously).

Despite my skepticism, in the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” spirit I decided to give “aerobic nostril breathing” another try.

In my next post, I’ll tell you what happened this time. In the meantime…

Be Well,


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