Understand the research behind a runner’s high or being in the zone when you work out. Hint: it has to do something with how you breathe.
LifeSpa Studies on Nose Breathing
If you are a nose breathing geek like me, or obsessed with the “runner’s high,” “the zone,” or “the flow,” state, this article will be a gold mine for you! It will offer some very compelling evidence that we can achieve “the zone,” actually enjoy exercise, and even compete with higher performance and less stress than previously thought.1,2
Back in 1993, about a year before my book Body, Mind and Sport was published, we did some groundbreaking research comparing nose breathing exercise with mouth breathing exercise. The results were remarkable and some of the findings were truly unprecedented.
We did three studies:
- A case study with me as the subject – don’t miss that one!
- A pilot study with 3 subjects – both studies 1 and 2 were unpublished until now!2
- A final study with 5 subjects comparing nose and mouth breathing exercise published in 1996 in the International Journal of Neuroscience.1
In this article, you’ll find a copy of the first two unpublished studies, whose positive results spawned the third and final published study. I have printed the abstract for the final study at the end of this article, as the full published study is only available for purchase online from the reference below.1
See also The Risks of Vigorous Exercise
Summary of Findings
All three studies compared mouth breathing to nose breathing (nasal breathing) while riding a stationary exercise bike. In all three studies the findings were very similar. Here are some of the results from the first two studies:2
- HEART RATE: There was no significant difference in heart rate between nose and mouth breathing exercise. Previous studies suggested that heart rates should go up during nose breathing, even if the workloads were the same. In our studies, they stayed the same, suggesting an ease and comfort during exertion using nose breathing that was unprecedented.
- BREATH RATE: Breath rates were consistently lower during nose breathing exercise (nasal breathing exercise) in both studies. For example, if you look in my case study you’ll find that at the maximum exertion of 200 watts of resistance on the stationary bike, the rate of breath for the nose breathing technique was a mere 14 breaths per minute compared to the whopping 48 breaths per minute while mouth breathing.
- PERCEIVED EXERTION: In both studies, perceived exertion was significantly lower with the nose breathing technique. To measure this, we assigned a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most stressful) on the stationary bike at maximum exertion (200 watts). During mouth breathing, the perceived exertion topped the scale at a 10. During nose breathing? It was a comfortable 4.
- NERVOUS SYSTEM: Parasympathetic nervous system activation increased significantly during nose breathing as compared to mouth breathing. To make this determination, we measured the respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), or the variability of the heart rate in relation to respiration. The more variable the heart rhythm, the more relaxed the individual or the more active the parasympathetic tone.
At the same time, the tone of the sympathetic nervous system – the system responsible for the “fight or flight” mechanism – was lowered with nose breathing as compared to mouth breathing. This suggests that the individual may have experienced a “zone state,” as both nervous systems were functioning symbiotically to induce calm and focus during exercise. This is what athletes describe when they state, “my best race was my easiest race experience.”
- BRAIN WAVES: Though studies typically suggest that the brain becomes more incoherent during periods of stress and exertion, our studies show the opposite: brain wave measurements showed higher coherence using the nose breathing technique. This suggests that the entire brain pattern was more relaxed while engaged in nose breathing exercise compared to mouth breathing.
- ALPHA PATTERNS: Alpha brain wave patterns – the brain waves associated with deep relaxation and meditative consciousness – were significantly higher during nose breathing in both studies. In the first case study, the brain produced an unprecedented 15 second alpha wave burst. I signaled when I thought I was in the zone, which ended up correlating with when the brain went into the alpha burst. Until these studies, alpha brain wave activity had not been documented during exercise at all!
- ENDURANCE: Endurance was significantly higher in both studies using the nose breathing technique as compared to mouth breathing.
See also How to Bliss Out While You Workout
The Nose Breathing Exercise Research
Studies 1 & 2
Physiologic functioning was compared during conventional athletics and Invincible Athletics – a new exercise program designed to remove stress, rejuvenate the body, and so enliven ones physical and mental potential. Results from three studies are reported: one case study, and two within studies with three and five subjects respectively. The same pattern of results were seen in each study. Heart rates were not consistently different during either workout. However, during Invincible Athletics: (1) breath rates and perceived exertion were consistently and significantly lower; (2) RSA, perceived comfort, and central-parietal EEG alpha coherence were significantly higher; (3) central-parietal EEG alpha power tended to be consistently higher, and (4) endurance was significantly longer. The findings of these three experiments suggest that Invincible Athletics leads to a discrete, repeatable physiologic pattern during exercise that is different than during conventional athletics. RSA decreases with physiologic and mental stress. The observed heightened RSA during Invincible Athletics could infer that the athlete is easily adapting to the demands made upon him. This is supported by subjective reports of greater comfort and less exertion, observed increased endurance, and objective finding of increased alpha coherence and power during the Invincible Athletics protocol.
Study 3 – Invincible Athletics Program: Aerobic Exercise and Performance without Strain
This study compared physiologic patterns during conventional aerobic exercise to those during Invincible Athletics- a program emphasizing balance and comfort during exercise to increase strength, endurance, and mind-body coordination gradually without the negative effects of the stress/recovery cycle. While heart rates were similar during both workouts, during Invincible Athletics:1 perceived comfort tended to be higher and perceived exertion tended to be lower;2 breath rates were significantly lower;3 respiratory sinus arrhythmia and central-parietal alpha relative power were significantly higher; and4 endurance was significantly longer. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia decreases with physiologic and mental stress. Heightened respiratory sinus arrhythmia and EEG alpha relative power along with subjective reports of greater comfort, less exertion, and observed increased endurance suggest that during Invincible Athletics athletes may be more easily adapting to the demands made upon them.