How Ayurvedic and Yogic Breathing Get Athletes into the Zone

Your 6-step pranayama and nose-breathing guide for improving athletic performance.

In This Article

John Douillard’s Triathlon Training

Based on personal experiences moving in and out of “the zone” as a triathlete in the early 1980s I was fascinated by how and why the body could be mediocre one minute and then effortlessly breaking PRs (personal records) the next.

Through Ayurveda, I learned how a less-is-more approach to training could enhance my performance to such a degree that I started finishing in the top 10 in many races. Basically, I saw the value of recovery on performance. I started training less and resting and meditating more.

I found that that getting into the zone was analogous to being in the eye of the storm. In nature, the bigger the calm eye of a hurricane the more powerful its winds. The zone is a state in which the body is dynamically active while the mid is perfectly still. It’s a state in which mental calm, like the eye of a storm, co-exists with forceful winds and personal records.

My introduction to the zone was after a meditation retreat where I stopped training and meditated and rested for three days. After the retreat, my performance surged. I came to realize that the more rest I got, the better I performed and the more access I had to the zone.

A few years later, after spending more than a year in India studying Ayurveda, I added nose breathing to my training and began teaching it in small focus groups.

The combination of nose breathing, yoga, and meditation delivered workout recovery and deep rest on demand. I saw massive personal gains while regularly slipping into the zone—that state where my best race seemed effortless. Soon I started getting constant feedback from my students that nose breathing had changed their lives.

In fact, Billie Jean King who wrote the forward to my book Body, Mind, and Sport said that nose breathing changed her life too!

In this article, I’ll share with you how to use nose breathing to enter “the zone,” where your best race will become your easiest race.

See also The Best Workout for Your Body Type

Nose Breathing is Back!

While researching nose breathing for Body, Mind and Sport in the early 1990,s I was told by numerous pulmonologists and comparative anatomists that there is no difference between mouth and nose breathing.

Compelled by my Ayurvedic training in India, I kept perusing the value of nose breathing as a more efficient breathing technique, and in 1996 I partnered with researchers around the globe and we published a study in The International Journal of Neuroscience. We called the project Invincible Athletics. The study measured the many benefits of nose breathing over mouth breathing during exercise.

In the early years of my practice, I worked with top athletes, including world champion triathletes Scott Molina and Colleen Canon, mountain bike racer John Weisenreider, and Olympic trial cross country ski racer Tara Sheehan, as well as with the MIT women’s rowing team.

Though my work with all of them, I began to see how high-performance nose breathing was possible during competitive aerobic sports.

I also saw nose breathing boost performance for tennis stars Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Gigi Fernandez, and John McEnroe. Later, as the director of player development for the New Jersey Nets, I introduced yoga and nose breathing to the team, which was the third most injured team in the league. The combination of nose breathing, yoga, a nutrition program, and sports chiropractic helped the team finish that year (2000) as the third least injured in the league.

Almost 30 years after my initial research, and decades after my work with select professional athletes, nose breathing is becoming a preferred technique in fitness settings. Both James Nestor and Patrick McKeown write about how nose breathing has caught on among athletes in their books Breath and The Oxygen Advantage.

See also The Science Behind Why Nose Breathing is Better

Athletes and Nose Breathing

Using nose breathing to boost athletic performance requires having a diaphragm that is fully functional, which is not the case with even most elite athletes.

In one study with professional athletes, 50% of them did not have a diaphragm that was contracting and relaxing fully, which led to premature diaphragmatic fatigue and less than optimal performance.

See also New Science on Breath and Aging + a Breathing Exercise for Longevity

Why aren’t even athletes using their diaphragms to their fullest potential? While fitness buffs aim for 10,000 steps a day, and Olympians do train with complex breathing exercises, this type of activity is dramatically different than what our ancestors experienced.

We intersperse our steps and training with a lot of sitting—on the way to and from the gym, work, and school. We sit to eat, watch TV, or surf the web or our phones. Our ancestors combined walking with squatting (to eat, forage, gather, and cook), and they rarely sat. Sitting in a chair or couch jams the front of the rib cage down into the belly, pushing the diaphragm into a pre-contracted position. This makes it impossible to fully contract the diaphragm in order to fully inflate the lungs and bring air into their magical lower lobes. Overtime, even with intense physical training, it is hard to fully activate the lower lobes of the lungs.

See also 15 Benefits Of Breathing Through Your Nose During Exercise

How Nose Breathing Gets You into “the Zone”

But deep nasal breathing forces the air all the way into the lower lobes of the lungs, where the majority of parasympathetic receptors, blood rich aveoli, and the vagus nerve receptors predominate.

When you breathe through the nose properly, the diaphragm fully engages the muscles of the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. A full breath that contracts and relaxes the diaphragm triggers an internal massage that stimulates the vagus nerve and slips the brain into a meditative state that creates both recovery and a neurological calm during vigorous exercise.

According to our study, breathing deeply through the nose into the lower lungs is the secret to entering into “the zone.” When we measured nose breathing versus mouth breathing during exercise, nose breathing caused brain wave coherence and alpha wave production, which is typically only seen in a meditative state.

Graphs of Alpha and Beta Brain Waves Associated with Nose Breathing

Alpha brain waves associated with nose breathing.
Beta brain waves associated with nose breathing.

See also Boost Fat Metabolism with this Breathing Technique

In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, researchers looked at the brain function of athletes while in “the zone” and found that brain waves, perception of exertion, and experience of inner calm was identical to the finding we documented in the study we published back in the early 1990s.

I define being in “the zone” as experiencing your best race as your easiest race. This can be measured by the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion. In our study, intense workouts while mouth breathing were mostly experienced as a 10 (10 being the most intense experience of exertion). Athletes performing the workout done with nose breathing averaged just a 4 out of 10 on the exertion scale.

Graph of Perceived Exertion with Nose Breathing

Perceived exertion with exercise

A full breath also acts more as a waste-removing respiratory device than an oxygen (O2)-delivery system. One of the causes of exertional fatigue is an inability to efficiently breathing out metabolic waste.

Shallow mouth breathing also chronically activates a stress response by stimulating a fight-or-flight nervous system reaction—with each breath, that’s nearly 26,000 times a day.

See also 3-Step Breathing for Diaphragm + Lung Strength

Nose breathing also slows down the breath. Breathing rates for the same vigorous workout plummeted from 48 breaths per minute with mouth breathing to 14 breaths per minute with nose breathing.

Chronic shallow breathing through the mouth also causes something called over-breathing, which is when we take more breaths in than we need. By some estimates, 75% of the oxygen we breath in is sent right back out unused. In the process of over-breathing, we also blow off more carbon dioxide (CO2) than is healthy. Low CO2 and high O2 causes oxygen to stay tightly bound to hemoglobin in the blood, leading to tissue hypoxia. During vigorous exercise, there is an extreme demand to deliver oxygen to muscle cells and remove carbon dioxide as a waste product of muscular contraction. Chronic over-breathing binds the oxygen in the blood, leaving insufficient oxygen available for the muscles while allowing the CO2 to build up and cause premature muscle fatigue.

Long, slow nasal breathing allows time for CO2 levels to rise and triggers the release of oxygen into the tissues. When you’re focused on boosting athletic performance, it’s critical to develop a higher level of CO2 tolerance. More CO2 will allow the most efficient delivery of oxygen into muscles, which will boost performance.

Nose breathing activates the diaphragm, reverses the negative effects of over-breathing, and delivers nitric oxide (NO), which has been found to act as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and repair agent for the entire respiratory tract and digestive system. Research shows that NO is only produced when you breathe through your nose.

See also Are You an Over-Breather? Balance CO2 and O2 for Mood Support

Dr. John’s 6-Step Performance “Zone” Training

When athletes attempt to breathe through the nose during intense competition, many give up because it becomes too difficult. But here are six quick tips to get you, and the best athletes, into the zone, even during the most intense workouts, events, or races.

  1. Take deep, long, slow nasal breaths at the beginning of your workout as a warm-up. Notice that there is a natural space, or slight pause, between each nasal inhalation and exhalation. Try to maintain that pause or space between the breaths throughout the workout. As you increase intensity, slow down if you begin to breathe faster through your nose, have to open your mouth, or you lose the space between the breaths.
  2. Go For a walk and count how many steps you take for each inhalation and exhalation. By lengthening your breath, slowly build up to 10 steps for the inhalation and 10 steps for the exhalation. Once you reach 10 steps on each, comfortably begin to further lengthen the exhalation. Your goal is to take 10 steps on the inhalation and 15-20 steps on the exhalation while continuing to walk.
  3. Tape your mouth closed while you sleep each night. Use a 3M Micropore tape for sensitive skin. At first, just tape from under the nose to the middle of the chin. Once you are convinced you are not going to suffocate, tape across your whole mouth.

See also Change Your Life Overnight with Mouth Tape: 20 Reasons to Nose Breathe While You Sleep

4. Start and end your workout with sun salutations. Coordinate each posture with a full nasal inhalation and exhalation. The breath rhythm you set during sun salutes can set the breathing rate or pace for your entire workout. This exercise is also ideal for fully contracting and relaxing the diaphragm.

See also How to do Yoga Sun Salutations

5. Diaphragmatic training with breath holds is a key part of performance training because it fully contracts and relaxes the diaphragm with each breath. In Ayurveda, this technique is called pratiloma, and in Western medicine it’s called inspiratory muscle training. On inhalations, the nostrils are partially closed, which forces the diaphragm to work harder to fully contract. This technique also includes a breath hold after exhalations. This creates a state called intermittent hypoxia, in which CO2 levels rise and oxygen leaves the blood stream, and fully oxygenates your tissues. This technique is key to building CO2 tolerance and optimal diaphragmatic function.

See also Strengthen Your Lungs Now: Pratiloma Pranayama + Inspiratory Muscle Training

6. Once you get established and somewhat comfortable with nose breathing during workouts, you may still find that you quickly resort to mouth breathing when climbing a hill or sprinting. When this happens, I use something called the 12-Minute Workout, which starts with a slow 2-minute warmup with nose breathing, followed by a series of 4 30- to 60-second nasal breathing sprints with 60 second recovery periods. The workout ends with a two-minute slow walk with deep nasal breathing.

Still confused on how to put it all together? Check out my book Body, Mind, and Sport and LifeSpa Podcast Episode 32: Exercise, Fitness, and Nose Breathing.

1 thought on “How Ayurvedic and Yogic Breathing Get Athletes into the Zone”

  1. You have been a pillar for me for years now. My journey has been that of feeling amazing, so much so that I drop my routine, then the feeling of stagnation sets in. Every time I turn to you for guidance . Thank you very much for all The Free Health advice, sharing the wisest, oldest and newest method that one can use to improve our health and well being! I so appreciate your work. You always set me back on the right path and I remain a BiG Fan of your work and lifestyle 🙏

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