Thanks to James Nestor's book called Breath, more people are aware that the way we breathe is actually important. In short, breathing through our nose helps dilate our lungs to accept more air and making our exhales longer than our inhales improves our parasympathetic tone (rest, digest, heal). If you haven't read the book yet, I highly recommend it. In the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, we know that if we don't breathe while we sleep due to sleep apnea, all sorts of systemic issues arise. It's pretty scary stuff, actually. Read that one too, if you haven't.
From a PT standpoint, the goal is to take 360 degree breaths when you inhale. This means feeling the front, back, and sides of your ribcage expand evenly. During the exhale, the goal is to initiate the exhale at the lowest part of your abdomen right above your pubic bone and trickle that movement upward towards the lower ribs. If this sounds bonkers, check out this great video about how to do it and why these movements are very important for SO many things. Everyone would benefit from mastering this!
After you've practiced this breathing technique, try this really neat challenge the next time you are out for a walk or run: coordinate your inhale by alternating footsteps. For example, when your right foot strikes the ground, inhale through your nose then exhale (nose or mouth) for a few steps and inhale next when the left foot strikes the ground.
A total cycle looks like this:
inhale (right, left)
exhale (right, left, right, left, right)
inhales (left, right)
exhale (left, right, left, right, left)
Besides driving us nuts, what is the point of this? Well, when we exhale, we have more stability in our trunks. Wouldn't it make sense to alternate our breathing so that both sides get a chance of more stability? Also, this breathing pattern encourages you to have exhales longer than your inhales. If you're doing a long endurance event, wouldn't it be great for our nervous systems to stay in a calmer state as much as possible? This can be used with swimming, cycling, and basically any rhythmic exercise. Obviously, if you are going at a high intensity such as climbing a hill or going at a faster pace, you may switch to breathing through your mouth and that's completely normal. But, the coordination remains! Give it a try for a few walks or funs and see what you discover.
By the way, if you have difficulty breathing through your nose because it's always stuffy or clogged, I highly recommend manual therapy and the nasal release technique. Check out these two very unflattering photos of myself below. I had no idea I had one nostril smaller than the other nor would I have agreed that I had trouble breathing through my nose. But I do have a history of being delivered with forceps, dental braces, and a couple of head bumps. The picture on the left is before I did the nasal release technique on myself. See how my left nostril is more narrow and my left eye slopes lower than my right side? My nose actually looks crooked. The picture on the right is the morning after my late night nasal release technique class. I couldn't believe the difference in my nostrils and my eyes. The theory is this technique makes adjustments to some of the cranial bones and improves airway. Anyhow, just wanted to share that with you because it was too interesting not to :).
Happy breathing, everyone!