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:
- Nasal breathing reduces or completely eliminates fatigue at moderate to low efforts.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Those cool little nostril expander strips that Ullrich used to wear in the Tour are useless if you’re breathing through your mouth.
- 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.
- 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.
- The CVC or generic pharmacy brand of “breathe-right” strips is much cheaper than the actual “Breathe Right” brand.
- 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.
- 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.