by Lars Hundley
Recently, I read a book called The Oxygen Advantage: Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques to Help You Become Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter. (https://amzn.to/2rvYpGe) The gist of the book is that nasal breathing is substantially more efficient. You can train yourself to breathe through your nose even during most levels of exercise, which leads to increased athletic performance.
One of the chapters of the book featured Tom Piszkin, a cyclist, bicycle designer and certified USA Olympic Triathlon Coach. It’s clear that breathing technique can provide advantages with swimming, but does it also apply to cycling or running? I emailed Tom directly to see if he’d be interested in providing more details. He kindly agreed to answer my questions.
The book describes how you were shot at point blank range during an armed robbery at a bus stop in 1974, with the bullet lodging in your left lung. It was trying to regain your previous fitness as a runner after recovering that led you to study breathing efficiency?
When the 38 special bullet ripped through my left lung it miraculously lodged squarely in my fifth rib, shattering a 3″ section. If it had gone between my ribs I would have bled out through a massive exit wound. So yes, you could say this event launched my quest to regain the aerobic performance level I enjoyed as a collegiate runner.
Is it really possible for an endurance athlete who wants to go fast to perform well just breathing through his or her nose?
My experience is that nasal breath training enhances your aerobic power. This isn’t to say that just breathing through your nose makes you go faster. In any VO2 max effort like a 20km time trial or 5km footrace you will be breathing through your mouth as well.
The common understanding among endurance athletes is that you need to breathe deeply and breathe hard if you want to go faster, because you need more oxygen. Breathing nasally seems to fly in the face that.
Successful endurance athletes have mastered what’s often termed “belly breathing.” They learn how to utilize the lower areas of their lungs by exerting their diaphragms. This requires much practice and concentration, especially with runners who are trying to manage their core stability at the same time. A simple way to bring the constant attention necessary to master diaphragmatic breathing is to slow it down. Breathing only through your nose accomplishes this.
So how would someone approach it from a practical perspective as a cyclist? Would you just ride your bike and try to keep your mouth shut, or is there more to it than that?
This is exactly where I would start. Try it during your warm up. One trick that makes it easy is to connect your crank rotation to your breathing pattern. Inhale through your nose–like you were snorting–as you push down on each pedal–two distinct inhales for one full crank rotation. Exhale distinctly three time in the next 1-1/2 crank rotations. Repeat. Two inhale pulses followed by three exhale pulses. Each pulse is timed to pushing the pedals through 3 o’clock. This is something I learned 30 years ago from John Howard and Ian Jackson (author of BreathPlay). The big picture goal is to be aware of your breathing all of the time!
The same principle is easily applied to running. Inhale on three successive footfalls, exhale on the next four successive footfalls. Always emphasize the exhale phase. This forces conscious engagement of the diaphragm and better empties the lungs completely before the next inhale cycle.
How long does it take someone to adapt to breathing nasally during exercise?
Like any other learned motor skill, the time required for mastery will vary. The athletes I’ve coached have figured it out after a couple of months of dedicated effort.
You contend that learning to breathe exclusively through your nose and practicing restricting your breathing can increase your VO2 max? Is that really possible?
VO2 max is primarily related to the ability of your heart and lungs to transport oxygen and the ability of bodily tissues (muscles) to use it. Simply speaking, practicing restrictive breathing promotes a fuller utilization of your lung capacity.
Does it have to be all or nothing? It sounds like you really have to be dedicated to change the way you breathe all the time. Is there some way to do it on a smaller scale and still see benefits?
Like most things in life, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The pharma solution has yet to be developed. The serious answer is that you’ll need to dedicate about 20 minutes a day for a couple of weeks to sense improvement. The breath hold test in Patrick’s book is a good way to gauge progress.
How did you come to be featured in the book, The Oxygen Advantage?
Patrick became aware of the nasal breathing product I developed in the 90’s and asked if I would like to collaborate on the book. It was a great opportunity to marry two distinct bodies of knowledge: asthma treatment and elite aerobic fitness practices. Like Einstein’s unified field theory, but maybe not as historic. 🙂
You have been a triathlete since the early 90s, and you are a triathlon coach now. What kinds of athletes are you coaching? Do you also coach them with their breathing, and do they see any results?
My first triathlon was in 1986. Given my collegiate running experience I was “nominated” to lead the track workouts for the Triathlon Club of San Diego in 1987. One of the athletes I coached went on to win the Canadian Ironman in 1994. Five years later I was hired to coach Masters athletes at UCSD. I have always presented my athletes with the techniques of restrictive nasal breathing and the supporting science. Because discipline and perseverance is required it’s not always an easy sell.
I read in an article in Triradar about you that said you ran a 4:53 mile at 39 years old. Were you training then by breathing through your nose and are you still doing it today? And what about the actual effort itself? When you ran the mile like that, surely you were breathing through your mouth, weren’t you?
Yes at 39. Yes at 65. And yes I breathed through my mouth the last half of that 4:53 mile effort. When I need to summon courage, this is one of the events I often revisit. Life is about creating epic experiences when we’re in our prime so we can relive them as we decline.
What does your training schedule look like these days?
After my first hip replacement (2004) my doctor told me that running would only wear the hardware out faster. By then I had chocked up a substantial catalog of wonderful memories so it wasn’t difficult to stop. With only elliptical training I managed a 7 minute mile on my 60th birthday. These days most of my training is at the gym where I rotate between aerobic elliptical workouts, hard intervals on a stationary bike and full-body strength training… always making time to stretch afterwards.
You even designed your own bike after a back injury and have a company that sells them. Is it mostly triathletes who ride it?
Interesting that it was initially designed for my triathlon racing, but half of my customers come from the ultra-cycling (RAAM) world–where comfort trumps speed. The TitanFlex can be switched from triathlon to road geometry by simply adjusting the titanium boom’s length with the same ease you would adjust seat post extension.
Have any of those RAAM cyclists had success with the TitanFlex?
TitanFlex has five RAAM highlights to its credit:
- Overall mens winner: Gerry Tatrai, 1998
- Overall female winner: Cat Berge, 2005
- First 60 year old official finisher: Pete Lekisch, 2000
- Youngest official finisher: Ben Couturier, 2005
- Race Across the West record-setting winner: Tom Lavallee, 2010
About Tom Piszkin
Tom Piszkin is the son of an aerospace engineer and master tinkerer. His career is dotted with several innovative products. As a teenager Tom helped his Dad build an experimental aircraft in their garage. With a Cal MBA in hand he started in the auto industry as a product planning analyst and left as the Manager of Advanced Passenger Car Plans for a major manufacturer. This experience fueled a knowledge base that led to multiple US Patent awards and successful business ventures over the last 35 years. Most of those ventures have intersected with Tom’s athleticism–something he inherited from his Mom. Check out www.JackRabbit.bike for a look at his latest endeavor.
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