Nasal Breathing/Breath holds

With the dominance of Pauline Ferrand Prevot this year I noticed her mouth was almost always closed in both short track and XCO events. I have been reading “The Oxygen Advantage” which has some pretty amazing claims with nasal breathing during exercise and performing breath holds to increase hemoglobin, natural EPO, simulate altitude etc. Any thoughts or additional research to support/denounce these claims? Thanks!


I would be interested to hear what other (people who know this) have to say. I have been reading this book ( I am going to look into the book you mentioned. It seems to have similar thoughts.

Thanks for this question and welcome to the community @Ish27. The topic of whether the lungs & respiratory system are overbuilt or actually a limiter to exercise has been a long-standing debate in exercise science. In 2020 Jerry Dempsey, a world leader in this area, wrote a review with exactly this perspective. The main conclusion is that, with very well-trained endurance athletes, there may be some cases where the respiratory system is a limiter. The respiratory system was also discussed on a FT episode with Dr. James Hull, a co-author on this review.

My take on the field is that breathing is largely a subconscious act and that you can’t really control your breathing during exercise, unless you’re a freediver. For most of us, it’s so subconscious that trying to change your breathing pattern often requires more physical and mental energy than it’s worth. Above 35 L/min ventilation, you largely subconsciously switch to mouth breathing dominance. Having said that, focusing on relaxing and not being really tight with your breathing pattern can help to reduce stress during exercise, as breathing is such a primal urge that impaired breathing is a big panic signal to the brain.

As for breath-holding (apnea) to increase Hb levels, I actually peer-reviewed a paper on this exact topic. The authors incorporated apneas into a cycling warmup prior to a 4 km TT, with the theory that apneas will cause the spleen to contract and release red blood cells. This did seem to happen slightly but did not improve TT performance.

So to summarize, my thoughts are to not consciously force yourself to maintain nasal breathing. Rather, just focus on “comfort” while breathing.

This seems like a great topic for an article or slideshow, so I’ll follow up with it!

Stephen Cheung


Former multi-time Ironman world champion Craig Alexander used to do nasal-only breathing workouts. I read about these in his book and tried them myself on easy zone running workouts. Interestingly, there are some Australian multisport coaches like Michael Jacques who recommend including nasal-only breathing in workouts, I think most often as part of warm-ups.

I will say that nasal breathing is hard to start because, well, you can’t breathe as well through your nose as your mouth! But it is amazing how well your nasal air passages will begin to open up – and continue to open up after 5-10 minutes.

Just my two cents.

Dave Trendler


And for quick reference, here’s the episode on The Science of Breathing, with Dr. James Hull.

Dr. Hull’s simple takeaway was to essentially do what you’re doing: “My feeling is that, generally speaking, the system is so well attuned to exercise, to adapting to the loads that are placed on it, and the regulation of carbon dioxide and excretion of waste gases that have been working well, and it isn’t causing you any problems, I wouldn’t go near trying to mess around with it.”

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Great replies by everyone! One other use I like for nasal breathing is as a pre-race warm-up. I’ve used a yogic breathing technique previously to prepare for races. It definitely seems to calm the nerves and help with sharpening the focus. Specifically, the alternate nostril breathing technique has been my go-to.

I can and do try to nose breath on easier rides. And now here comes the big BUT. If you have allergies and it is not above 75 it’s a fools errand.

I remember a talk I heard probably 30 years ago on breathing. The jist was concentrate on the exhale and the inhale will take care of itself. If you don’t exhale deeply you can’t take in as much air because your lungs were not empty. I think his tag line was in through the nose out through the mouth.

Pollen allergies were so bad last summer in the midwest, that there was no nose breathing all summer long.

Yes! Would love to see a deeper dive into this topic. From the book, the nasal breathing exercises are are claimed to improve the off-loading of oxygen, by increasing nitric oxide, increasing Hb content etc., which is generally agreed to be the rate limiting step. It also seems to suggest this process would take months and months of practice, before getting any results.

The research cited is somewhat “selective,” and it does not exactly prove long term effects and especially performance, but still seems like there is something there. Fitness Guru Brian McKenzie is into it, and it appears Colby and Julie from episode 130, are also intrigued.

On a logical level I can not agree with the “if it is not broke don’t fix it” approach when it comes to improving human performance, through new, stimulating overload methods. For example, I would never choose to race in a big gear at 55 rpms, yet coaches prescribe this work, because the adaptation can help us when we pedal “normally.” If, and this is a big if, nasal breathing techniques have these positive adaptive effects, I could easily see using it in training as long as workout goals can be achieved, and then breath by choice for racing or peak efforts.

The techniques are challenging and uncomfortable, especially in the winter(a little south(Rochester, NY) of you ThermalDoc). However, my nasal passages have never been more open, and I do feel calmer throughout the day with this practice.

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I have read the book ‘Breath-The New Science of a Lost Art’ by James Nestor regarding this subject, and it was a big help. I suffer from a deviated septum and have found that making an effort to breathe through my nose whist cycling reduces my heart rate and relaxes my body. I also use a Navage cleaning system daily, and a Breathe Right nasal strip while I ride, both help tremendously. I have to disagree with the above comments that making a conscious effort to breathe in through the nose during exercise is a waste of time.


Thanks for posting and welcome to the forum @preinpost!

Thanks too for your comments about your own personal experiences. I think I can speak for @chris in saying that our comments come from our survey of the existing scientific literature. As I know only far too well, most scientific studies rely on means of a population, and there is a wide range of individual variability and responsiveness within that range of responses.

And that’s really the purpose of this community - to outline what we know from science while also having the awareness to take that science and see for ourselves what works best. So thanks for pushing the conversation forward!

Stephen Cheung

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This has been an interesting journey for me. It started with loud out of control breathing during high intensity in cyclocross. Tough to tell if it is eilo or just the demands pushing my body that hard. I try to seek out information in the context of sport. One thing I have decided is it can’t hurt to try nose breathing while doing lower intensity. With some practice you can get quite good at it. Anyway, it’s not necessarily something I will incorporate into my racing but it has certainly been helpful to learn more.

As mentioned by @ish27 I have spoken a bit about this on my podcasts. My take on it is that like any factor that can impact performance, you have to discern as an athlete if focusing on breath will ‘move the needle’ for you, or not.

In my observation, athletes who tend to benefit from breath work are those who would be described as “over breathers” in The Oxygen Advantage model. We have all seen [or heard] [or been] these riders in a group; you can hear them from about 100 meters away from you at any given moment. Breath is intricately linked to the response of the nervous system to stress, so it follows that if someone is ramping up their parasympathetic response to a race or interval situation, and they are over breathing, it could be limiting performance. I equate this basically to a bad habit - some bad habits are harmless but annoying [chewing nails] and others are detrimental to our sporting pursuits [bad posture on the bike leads to poor muscle tone in the core, which leads to a sloppy pelvis, which leads to back pain or saddle sores, to use a simple example]. I think some athletes simply don’t breathe very effectively, and they are probably giving something up because of it. Some of these riders tend to really “squirm” under effort, and when races or intervals get really hard, they make a horrendous pain face. This tells me that they have not yet mastered the flow of hard work under grace, which is certainly a goal for any high level athlete.

In my own practice, focusing on breath and doing breath work sessions has been a huge benefit. It began with yoga asana and focus on the breath, specifically ujjayi breathing. Later I began to experiment with nasal breathing on rides. In cold weather, you end up blowing a lot of snot, but it also protects your lungs from the air. If find this particularly helpful on rides where I get caught in a summer storm and am concerned about keeping my chest warm, or on a cold descent. When I breathe through the nose only, the air is warmed before it hits my lungs. After 35 years of racing and riding, if my chest gets too cold, I can pick up a little head cold quite easily: in Chinese medicine this is known as a “wind invasion”. so I am always with vest and frequently with neck gator, but nasal breathing is an added level of assistance.

In the last year I have tried several different breath techniques, including a program from Soma. For anyone who wants to try it, here is a free breath course that is an excellent intro into proper technique. It is 7 days, about 20 min/ day. One note: after the first day, you must page all the way down [past the comments!] to get to day 2, etc. The last day leaves you with a 22 min “daily dose” that is a great way to start off the morning.

One last point: breathing and core are also intricately linked. The deep core is made up of a “box” of 4 muscles. The floor of this box is your pelvic floor; the front wall is your Transverse Abdominis, the back wall is Multifidus, and the ceiling is also your primary breathing muscle: the diaphragm. My point being: If you have a breathing disfunction, you have a core disfunction. Think about that for a minute… when you breath IN, your belly should go OUT from the diaphragm contracting and pushing out your viscera. Watch yourself in the mirror and do an honest assessment. If your breathing pattern is inverted or inhibited, you will not stabilize your spine under load. Having a stable spine under load is very important for endurance athletes…

Breathe in, breathe out. Count of 6. Repeat…

Ride in flow,