[FAFQ] How Do I Stop Feeling So Out of Breath After A Workout? – The Science of Breathing

If you’re like the vast majority of the population, you’ve probably experienced the feeling of being winded after a workout. Riding along on a stationary bike, gasping for air. Panting after jogging half a mile when you haven’t done much running before. Feeling like your lungs are burning during a kickboxing workout. You get the idea.

It’s a really unpleasant feeling and it also limits you from reaching your full potential. If you’re winded you can’t keep trying your hardest, because to catch your breath you need to slow down. It can be a really frustrating feeling, and sometimes it can feel impossible to overcome. But thankfully, the solution is simpler than you think.

To get at how to solve the problem, let’s consider why you might feel out of breath. It’s likely one of two reasons, or a combination thereof:

  1. You’re out of practice with exercise and your body isn’t used to managing so much exertion
  2. You’re not breathing correctly

Let’s consider these each in turn:

1. You’re out of practice with exercise

When your body isn’t used to exertion, and you suddenly start exerting yourself a lot, your body doesn’t know what to do. Your lungs haven’t been used very much, so they’re likely smaller than their optimal size–and it hurts to stretch them–so you’re limited physically in what you can accomplish.

To get around this, the easiest solution is just to do more exercises that involve a lot of help from your respiratory system. This means don’t just lift weights–as this mostly strains your muscles, not your lungs–but also do some intense cardio for short bursts. Try biking or running up a steep hill, or maybe some kickboxing. It doesn’t need to replace weightlifting, but you will need some of it to help you expand your lung capacity.

(This is pretty much what I look like after I try to run any more than about half a mile as a complete non runner. Clearly I need to practice more! I look a lot more put-together after kickboxing, though, where I’ve put in a lot more reps.)

2. You’re not breathing correctly

Even if you’ve built up some breathing strength from consistent practice and working out–and you don’t think reason #1 is the cause of your breathlessness–you still might be doing something wrong. Something as basic as breathing!

It turns out there is a right way and a wrong way to breathe.

Most people breathe through their mouths, instead of their noses, which is suboptimal for many reasons:

  • Mouth breathing leads to issues with sleep–such as snoring, sleep apnea, and dehydration levels–which can have a big impact on workout performance, as sleep is key to recovery and muscle group.
  • When you breathe through your mouth, you do not produce Nitric Oxide (NO) the way you do when you breathe through your nose. NO helps regulate blood flow and blood oxygen levels, and can help get more oxygen to your muscles during a workout. When you breathe through your mouth, your muscles actually get less oxygen from each breath, which can lead you to fatigue quickly. But when you breathe through your nose, you’ll get maximum oxygen levels and can potentially perform better.
  • Nasal breathing activates the part of your body that’s relevant to rest and recovery rather than the part associated with fight or flight, so nasal breathing can help you relax and perform your workout for longer.
  • The posture required for optimal nose breathing is optimal for reducing injury, because it forces you to position yourself more upright rather than hunched over.
  • When you breathe through your nose, you are able to perform fewer breaths and maintain a lower heart rate, which means you are able to sustain exercise for longer (increasing your endurance), and with less strain put on the body.
(Nose breathing can help with endurance and keep you going strong!)

How Do You Fix The Problem?

Now that you know that nose breathing is better than mouth breathing, how do you go about shifting the breathing habits you’ve had for your whole life and find a better strategy?

Here’s a few steps that might help:

  1. Start by being aware of your own breathing. Notice when you breathe through your mouth or through your nose. What seems to be triggering the switch between the two? Are you mostly breathing through your mouth or through your nose? Is this the same when you work out? Different for different exercises?
  2. When you catch yourself breathing through your mouth, try to stop yourself and switch to your nose instead. It will feel really weird at first, but if you practice (see step 3) it will start to become more normal.
  3. Practice doing small nose breathing sessions for a few minutes at home, not under the stress of workout conditions. Take 5-10 minutes and just practice breathing in and out at a steady rate using only your nose. Keep your mouth shut the whole time. Some people swear by physically taping their mouths shut, and you’re welcome to try this if it helps you! Just be careful not to do it to an extreme.
  4. Attempt to incorporate nose breathing into your workouts. The next time you’re doing cardio and start to feel out of breath, try to take longer, slower breaths through your nose instead of panting with your mouth.
  5. As this gets easier, lengthen your practice sessions and make nose breathing a bigger part of your workout until it becomes second nature!
(Make sure to practice nose breathing in a non-exercise, breathing-focused situation before you integrate it into your workouts! Setting up a meditation-like session is a great way to do this!)

Nose breathing may feel uncomfortable at first, mostly because sometimes it can feel like you are not getting enough air. But realistically, you almost certainly are! Your body is just not used to the action, and nose breathing can feel like it produces a lot of resistance if you’re just getting started. But stick with it if you can. There’s a lot of science, dating back hundreds of years, that backs up the benefits of breathing through your nose.

How To Learn More

If you want to learn more about the importance of breathing through your nose, and how to train yourself to do so, I recommend the following books:

Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art – James Nestor [Link]

“There is nothing more essential to our health and well-being than breathing…Yet as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences. Journalist James Nestor travels the world to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it…Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is.”

Summary of “Breathe”, as written on the inside of the book’s jacket.

The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter – Patrick McKeown [Link]

“In The Oxygen Advantage, the man who has trained over 5,000 people—including Olympic and professional athletes—in reduced breathing exercises now shares his scientifically validated techniques to help you breathe more efficiently. Patrick McKeown teaches you the fundamental relationship between oxygen and the body, then gets you started with a Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) to determine how efficiently your body uses oxygen. He then shows you how to increase your BOLT score by using light breathing exercises and learning how to simulate high altitude training, a technique used by Navy SEALs and professional athletes to help increase endurance, weight loss, and vital red blood cells to dramatically improve cardio-fitness.”

Amazon book overview for “The Oxygen Advantage”.

So what are you waiting for? If you’ve been feeling out of breath, start looking into how you breath, and how often you do it! Just a little bit of work and focus and bring you a long way in the right direction.

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