Blow it out your (nose) hole

I first got congested in my early teens, and completely stopped breathing through my nose by the time I turned twenty. About two months ago, as I approached the bottom of the the short climb up from RAT Beach, it occurred to me to try using my nose to breathe.

Twenty-eight years is a long time for an organ to sit around doing nothing, and my nose immediately rebelled against the onslaught of air by discharging a clot of yellow and green stuff so sticky and stringy that, had it gotten tangled up in my spokes, it would have thrown me over the bars. It felt like I was suffocating, and that’s because I was: my lungs had their air supply cut down by at least eighty percent.

One thing that happens when you stop getting oxygen is that you slow down, a lot. I refused to give in to the urge to open my mouth, and by the time I got to the top I was crawling. Most of the crud had either been blown out on exhale or sucked down and swallowed on inhale, but the passage of air in this gooey and cobwebbed section of my skull caused a massive and ongoing fluid release from my sinuses.

If it don’t work, give it time

I would have immediately switched back to mouth breathing had I not noticed something: When you breathe through your nose, your legs don’t get tired. That’s partially because you’re not going very fast. It’s also because your legs can’t go any faster than your lungs can breathe, and if your breathing is regulated, then so are your legs.

This is a convoluted way of saying that you can’t get enough air while breathing nasally to really hammer your legs.

The result was that I went really slowly all the way up Via del Monte, breathing nasally the whole way. What struck me was that at the end of the day I always crawl up VdM, but it usually hurts. Something about nasal breathing is either more efficient at funneling away lactic acid, or at limiting something that otherwise makes climbing uncomfortable even at slow paces.

Ramping up to full nasal

Every day I for the last eight weeks I’ve focused on breathing only through my nose. Here are some quick conclusions:

  1. Nasal breathing reduces or completely eliminates fatigue at moderate to low efforts.
  2. Although nasal breathing gives way rather quickly to mouth breathing when the intensity increases, with practice you can delay the onset of mouth breathing. This seems to keep your legs fresher for longer.
  3. With practice, your diaphragm becomes very powerful at nasal breathing. In the beginning your breaths feel like thimblefuls, but after a while your diaphragm gets strong enough to really haul in the air.
  4. As you run out of nasal capacity, rather than switching to full mouth inhalation/exhalation, the next step is to inhale nasally but to mouth exhale. It seems like the longer you are at least partially nasal breathing, the easier it is on your legs and the longer it delays leg burn.
  5. As effort increases, it’s not important to inhale strongly, but it’s crucial to exhale sharply and deeply. The intake is autonomic and completely fills your lungs in almost exact proportion to the strength and depth of the exhalation.
  6. When you’re going balls out, rapid fire, powerful exhalations actually help your legs recover. Usually when you’re tired you focus on slowing your breathing to help your legs recover, but by increasing the intensity of your exhalations you’re cycling more air to your muscles and carrying off the crud. In other words, and somewhat paradoxically, by continuing deep and powerful exhalations as the pace slackens, your legs recover more quickly.
  7. You can’t hyperventilate when you’re going hard. The deeper and more sharply and more rapidly you exhale, the longer you can hang on before blowing, and the more quickly you can recover after you’ve popped.
  8. Even after you’ve switched to full-mouth inhalation and exhalation, once the effort backs off you should reverse the process so that you’re eventually fully nasal breathing until the effort picks back up.
  9. Everyone will notice your weird wheezy sounds and think you’re a dork, or more of a dork. A pace line of 20 nose breathers would likely get arrested for making indecent sounds in a public area.
  10. Those cool little nostril expander strips that Ullrich used to wear in the Tour are useless if you’re breathing through your mouth.
  11. The expander strips will come unstuck due to the oil in your skin and the sweat on your nose unless you use the Joe Yule Noseclamp Method: Daub your schnoz with menthol rubbing alcohol, then dry it with a Kleenex prior to sticking on the strip. Be prepared for it to rip most of the skin off your honker when you’re ready to peel it off, and be prepared for another stupid addition to your already stupid collection of stupid cycling tan lines.
  12. Once you’ve developed the ability to breathe nasally and to modulate it with mouth breathing as intensity increases, the addition of the nose strips will make you feel like you’ve had a turbocharger hooked up to your lungs. The amount of air you’ll pull in is amazing.
  13. The CVC or generic pharmacy brand of “breathe-right” strips is much cheaper than the actual “Breathe Right” brand.
  14. Double blind trials of nasal expander strips have concluded that they are worthless for improving performance, air intake capacity, or the ability to repeat more high intensity intervals. However, none of the studies measured whether or not the strips extended the amount of time that the test subjects could continue nasal breathing, thus slowing the march to lactate threshold.
  15. This is all anecdotal, and probably worthless. A general survey of “nasal breathing cycling” on Google reveals that nobody really knows what they’re talking about, unless you want to take your training advice from some Ayurvedic guru at an ashram in Marin County.

*Note: No Freds were offended or harmed in the creation and distribution of this post.

23 thoughts on “Blow it out your (nose) hole”

  1. excellent post ..for more info on exhale hard and the air comes in for free ,,check out the ancient book breath play i think by the late alan jackson its a ripper ..john howard swears by it ..go figure

  2. sorry ian jackson not andrew ..lots on it on the net …and it works (for me )
    i believe alexi grewal was another guy who used it

      1. love your work …you may have just done it …i am still trying to work out how to include the line ..long hair .. short hair ..makes know difference when your legs are shaved …into a job interview to watch the hr dickheads response !!!

  3. From a confirmed life-long mouth breather (read into it what you want), I have the hottest tip ever – seriously. Like Wanky, I never breathed through my nose, even as a kid. Just one of my many defects. Then I spent some extended time in the Caribbean where I swam in the ocean every day. One day, I noticed, for the first time in my life – no congestion!! Unable to relocate there, I found a way to get the same results – Neilmed nasal rinse. It’s nothing more than a saline solution douche for the nose – it’s simple, takes no time and costs pennies. Do you brush your teeth daily? Then do this in conjunction. Make it part of your daily routine, even if you don’t cycle. You’ll be appalled at the gook that lives in the deep recesses of your nasal chambers. Available at any RiteAid, etc.

    This has been a public service announcement.

      1. Har!

        Easiest way to decongest is to shut your flipping mouth and breathe through your nose. When faced with suffocation and certain death, your body magically finds a way!

  4. I was a mouth-breather for most of my life until 2 years ago, when I had a septoplasty (deviated-septum repair), a turbinectomy (reduction of the turbinates), and the removal of sinus polyps. Since the surgery, I have had fewer colds, sinus congestions, and snoring. I can breathe through my nose. My eustachian tubes are open to the point where it no longer hurts to fly in an airplane. In fact, I went skydiving twice this past year without any problems or pain.

    I agree with The Fred Hunter that the nasal rinse with a saline solution (or swimming in the ocean) is an excellent way to keep the sinuses clear. I’ve often wondered if surfers ever have nasal problems??? I use a bulb syringe with saline solution every day to get the crap out of my sinuses and then I used flonase, a prescription nasal spray, to keep my head clear. Just be sure to not use Afrin, as it’s addictive and makes your problems worse in the long run.

    Finally, if you need your body to get more air when exercising and/or at altitude, try “pressure breathing”, which is similar to what Ken Hillier was referring to. I climbed two 14,000 foot peaks this summer (Mt. Rainier and Pikes Peak) and pressure breathing helped me a lot, especially since I live in Iowa (altitude = 800 feet).

    1. I can barely get organized enough to brush my teeth once a month, whether they need it or not.

      I’ve just been shutting up and nose breathing. Never mind the jet spray!

      1. And depending on the Santa Monica Bay drainage pipe you’re swimming near, it enriches and greatly diversifies your intestine’s bacterial flora.

  5. Okay, this is hysterical – damn, I am glad I met you, Seth. Neti Pot hands down – use distilled water, doctor told me – I hate using that contraption, but it works – I first used it a few months back after being ill for months and seeing several doctors who said I had allergies and asthma. Bullshit ! I had snot-cyclist nose filled with all sorts of crap from PCH and dirt, because I am usually last and eating dust on the MTB – Off to a well-known allergy doctor I go – I told him I had an important arbitration coming up and I cannot have a pile three feet high of Kleenex on the floor — I was desperate and nearly suicidal, I swear — it was really bad!!

    He insisted I get that pot – bought the damn pot from Whole Foods. It came with some sea salt that should have been gold up your nose for $30.00 – I starred at it on the counter for weeks before I got the nerve to try it! Not normal pouring warm salt water in your nose, while breathing through your mouth and waiting for it come out the other side.
    Holy SHIT – suddenly my ears popped, squeaked, and I could hear, breath, and a few other things – My life changed and never a stuffy nose since (I use it often)

    Any way, fucking bargain for me. With all the shit we breath in, MTB and road riding, no wonder I could not breath. Not to mention at my job, snot can just be running into my steno machine, while I am coughing and snorting, and attorneys don’t seem to notice when the reporter is not breathing. The Neti Pot saved my career too. That damn pot made me a lot of money in that arbitration. I should sell them, come to think of it.

    That being said: Shit, Seth, I read your post right before leaving my house at 6:15 for a long hot day of mountain biking – found myself pedaling my ass as fast as I could and NASAL BREATHING = lol – then these noises were coming out when I HAD to exhale through my mouth – laughing and happy nobody was around me. Most of the day I focused on nasal only breathing. I think it helped, but, you are right, at times, I felt like I was going to suffocate – I kept saying, “Seth said you cannot hyperventilate while riding”
    Hoping you were right.
    Thanks for the tips, Dr. Seth – looking forward to growing my diaphragm and riding faster –
    BTW – it was 114 up there today and I could not always breath through the nose – off to go Neti Pot (geez that sounds nastier than it is) but it is sort of gross.

    1. The nose knows! 114 is damned hot…the Donut wasn’t over 90 and people were melting like butter in the pan, me included.

  6. Was than an advice sausage moment?
    Ima get me some o them strips.
    Gonna wear three at a time!

    Thanks for the write up man, that’s some good info.


    1. They make an extra large one for your rear end, to allow for easier passage when you slam on your brakes in the middle of a fast moving wankoton.

    2. Depressing thought for today on the future of the human race: More than a thousand people on planet Earth have nothing better to do on a Monday morning than read this blog. Hopefully, it’s Friday somewhere. Wait, that would be even worse.

  7. I discovered once they were warming up on their Turbos, some of them had cotton wool up their noses. Is this since it is advisable to breathe through your mouth than nose? If so, why don’t they have cotton wool up their noses during the actual race?

    1. The cotton/wool is saturated with vodka. Once the race starts, they shove it up their, uh, …

  8. I went through a similar transition (oral to nasal breathing and daily use of a Neti pot)) about 6 years ago following a lifetime of exercise training (swimming, water polo, cycling, triathlon) disturbed by too frequent upper respiratory illnesses, exercise induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and recurrent sinus infections. This approach has greatly reduced my illness frequency resulting in more consistent training (triathlon the last 31 years). The process of increasing the workload I could perform nasally to a VO2 max level (roughly mile pace in running for instance), so that I could accomplish this while racing, took about a year although I’ve had conversations with others who did so in as little as six weeks. I think this is typically in people who’ve used nasal only breathing already at lower levels such a martial artists (mouthpiece for sparing). I was always an oral breather from the onset of exercise previously. I’ve begun studying phenomenon in my lab recently, as I’m a professor in exercise science and health promotion at CSU-Pueblo. We are looking at fully adapted nasal breathers (able to do so while racing 5-10K) and comparing their responses to a graded exercise test in both breathing conditions. Our pilot work so far suggests that a fully adapted nasal breather can reach a comparable peak workload to that reached breathing orally, however at a lower peak ventilation and oxygen uptake (VO2). This suggests that overall economy (O2 use) is actually reduced at the same workload when breathing nasally, probably because total ventilatory work is reduced. In other words the energy cost of breathing necessary to achieve a given power output may be less when breathing nasally only versus orally only, so the total energy cost is also reduced. This improved breathing efficiency parallels work from the 80s looking at peak work capacity in non-adapted nasal breathers who could not reach comparable peak workloads, but were still more efficient when breathing nasally at the same workloads (lower VO2 to ventilation ratio). This study will take several years to complete due to the scarcity of fully adapted to nasal breathing endurance athletes. If you are anywhere near Pueblo, meet the criteria, and want to participate as a subject. please look me up.

    George M. Dallam, Ph.D.

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