Breaking Down Breathing

Everyone is all geeked out about Wim Hof’s badass and elaborate breathing techniques, but Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, is presenting an incredibly simple and scientifically validated alternate idea: we breathe too much oxygen, breathe too much overall, and the big objective for a healthy life and wonderful sports performance is to minimize breathing in general. 

The solution is simple: breathe as lightly as possible, through your nose, at all times. (You can make an exception however if/when you are playing hard sports and are literally gasping for air ― then, sure, open your mouth!) As McKeown explains in his book, there is a benefit that comes from slowing down breathing and not taking so many breaths per minute. This is because for every breath that you take into your nose (or mouth), not all of that air will actually be able to reach the small air sacs for gas exchange to take place. This means that for every breath that you take, 150ml of air remains in dead space (to watch McKeown explain how this process works alongside a helpful graphic, click here).

But, by merely slowing down our respiratory rate, we can increase our breathing efficiency to the point where we are getting about 20% more oxygen into the small air sacs of our lungs. It may sound odd at first, but decreasing oxygen intake actually helps us increase our oxygen uptake.

He also has this BOLT test (Body Oxygen Level Test), which is the end all to improve your breathing efficiency and carbon dioxide tolerance. Check it out here (it’s only 5 minutes!), but no cheating! Trust me, there’s no sense in trying to be the tough guy or gal. Just measure the time until you experience that “first definite reaction or desire to breathe.” 

Truthfully, I can’t believe how poorly I scored on the first try (well under 20 seconds). I realized that after ignoring breathing as a component of athletic performance my entire life, I now can see that I’m looking at a huge performance benefit when I build my skills in this area. After only a couple days of paying more attention to toning down breathing, I’m already surpassing my initial 20 seconds! 

This has become especially clear during exercise, as I’m now doing my 10 Ways To Skip drills trying to breathe through my nose only. Since these drills are quite strenuous, I’m right on the edge each time, and have to recalibrate after with a couple few heavier breaths, opening up the mouth for a bit, or blowing my nose again and again to clear the airways (something McKeown says is actually part of the process of getting more skilled at nose breathing!).

Measure your BOLT Score now

To obtain an accurate measurement, it’s best to rest for ten minutes before measuring your BOLT score. Read the instructions carefully first and have a timer on hand. 

You can measure your BOLT now:

1. Take a normal breath in through your nose and allow a normal breath out through your nose.

2. Hold your nose with your fingers to prevent air from entering your lungs.

4. Time the number of seconds until you feel the first definite desire to breathe, or the first stresses of your body urging you to breathe. These sensations may include the need to swallow or a constriction of the airways. You may also feel the first involuntary contractions of your breathing muscles in your abdomen or throat as the body gives the message to resume breathing. (Note that BOLT is not a measurement of how long you can hold your breath, but simply the time it takes for your body to react to a lack of air.)

5. Release your nose, stop the timer, and breathe in through your nose. Your inhalation at the end of the breath hold should be calm.

6. Resume normal breathing.

How did you do? Like I said, while I didn’t do too well the first time, it only took a couple of days for my results to start improving. If you’re curious to learn more, check out Patrick’s book, The Oxygen Advantage here. Give this revolutionary breathing technique a few tries, and then give it a go the next time you’re doing some drills (maybe start small with three basic running drills for beginners here, or you can try my new favorite, skipping drills), and let me know how it goes for you!


Brad Kearns
Brad Kearns
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