Mark’s Story: Nasal Breathing to Increase Performance and Decrease Stress

Several years ago, Mark Hunkele, 52, was training for one of the many marathons he’s run. As the head coach for Pine-Richland High School’s varsity cross country and track teams, he knew the importance of performance training. But Mark was also hoping to improve his own training routine.

So, he met with Ron DeAngelo, MEd, LAT, FAFS, director of sports performance at UPMC Sports Medicine. But the exercises DeAngelo taught Mark weren’t the kind that involve lifting weights or going to a gym. Instead, they were breathing exercises.

DeAngelo is the only Pittsburgh-area advanced instructor of the Oxygen Advantage program. This program focuses on “scientific breathwork to optimize health, mental clarity, and performance.”

It also teaches breathing skills for training at high altitudes. This method can help athletes who are at risk of asthma attacks as well as those still living with the effects of COVID-19.

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Why Nasal Breathing Is Best

Most runners can breathe through their nose until their running gets too intense. Then, they open their mouth to get more oxygen. But studies show that you can get 20% more oxygen to your blood just by breathing through your nose.

Nasal breathing during exercise is the latest performance-enhancing hack. But its basis is in real science.

Humans breathe through the nose because it filters and warms the air before it goes into the lungs. It also adds moisture, so airways don’t get too dry or irritated.

Nose breathing also engages the diaphragm, which leads to a more stable core and better stamina. It also slows the breath, giving the lungs more time to pull oxygen from the air. Slow breathing also can fight anxiety and stress.

Improved Performance, Less Stress

Mark says that working with Ron made a difference.

“I began the breathing training with Ron and felt that it definitely helped with my performance,” he says. “The results were twofold: Controlled breathing improved my performance but also kept me calm. It helped with focus and concentration, which lessened the stress and anxiety of race day.”

Mark’s two oldest daughters also came to DeAngelo for breathing training. Angelina, a runner at Pine-Richland, and Elizabeth, a runner at the University of Pittsburgh, went through breathing drills with DeAngelo about once a week. Then, they practiced the drills at home for 15 to 20 minutes every day before working out and at bedtime.

“My daughters definitely felt that the breathing drills helped,” Mark says. “They felt that they could breathe more through the nose, which made them calmer and more relaxed for meets.”

Mark was so impressed with how his daughters did with the program that he invited DeAngelo to his high school. There, he presented workshops for its cross country and track teams.

“I noticed that, after Ron held the workshop, a number of our student-athletes took an interest in the breathing exercises and practiced the drills on their own,” he says. “It’s such a great tool that is not only applicable to sports performance, but also to feeling better, sleeping better, and just having better overall health.”

Mark again recruited DeAngelo to help coordinate a running camp for middle and high school athletes preparing for the cross-country season in July 2023.

The camp taught running technique, strength, mobility — and, of course, breathing — to 36 student-athletes. The camp was put on with the help of RUN Varsity, a program of sporting events management company P3R in Pittsburgh.

“Group sessions allow me to give an overview of Oxygen Advantage,” DeAngelo says. “I give them a taste of the technique and why it’s important. Then they can download a free app that lets them track their improvement.”

DeAngelo says nasal breathing exercises combine balance and breathing to calm the autonomic nervous system. This system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response. The result of this is more controlled breathing, leading to higher concentration and peak performance.

How Breathing Training Works

Each athlete begins the Oxygen Advantage program with a baseline reading of their ability to hold their breath. The resulting measurement is the person’s body oxygen level test (BOLT) score. The program’s breathing drills and exercises can improve BOLT scores over time.

The way you breathe during exercise affects how much oxygen (O2) reaches your muscles to support endurance and recovery. When you’re breathing, you inhale O2 and exhale carbon dioxide (CO2).

CO2 plays an important part in breathing chemistry. It triggers the hemoglobin in your red blood cells to release oxygen to the body. It’s CO2 — not O2 — that makes you need to breathe.

When you exert yourself, your brain can sense when there’s too much CO2 and not enough O2. When it does, it pulls O2 from the limbs to the vital organs. The buildup of CO2 is what produces the feeling of air hunger that limits your exercise capacity.

If you’re sensitive to changes in your blood CO2, you run out of breath sooner. Your performance also will suffer as the CO2 turns to lactic acid in your muscles.

The more CO2 you can tolerate in the bloodstream, the more oxygen your brain will send to the tissues. This effect promotes better air exchange, better tissue oxygenation, and better performance.

“The drills are easy to learn and start out basic and then progress,” Mark says. “There’s light breathing in and out through the nose and diaphragmatic breathing. You practice breathing while walking and then running.”

“You can progress to using tape over your mouth or a special training mask that prevents you from mouth-breathing and makes the workout harder. The mask mimics altitude training by making it harder to breathe.”

DeAngelo says that Oxygen Advantage works not only for track and cross-country but also for other sports that involve running. These can include soccer, football, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, and more.

“In fact, you don’t even have to be an athlete to benefit from the nasal breathing techniques,” DeAngelo says. “They can be used to reduce stress and anxiety and have been known to improve sleep, reduce snoring, and provide a deeper, more restful slumber.”

For more information about breathing training at UPMC, including the Oxygen Advantage program, visit UPMC Sports Medicine. To schedule an appointment with Ron DeAngelo, call 1-855-937-7678 or contact us online.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.