January 9, 2016
Podcast from: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2016/01 /brian-mackenzie-performance-breathing
[00:00] Introduction/National Academy of Sports Medicine
[02:06] Kimera Koffee
[03:08] Organifi Green Juice
[06:19] Brian Mackenzie
[10:38] The Training Mask and Other Breath Hold Training Techniques
[24:34] A Typical Breathing Workout
[27:10] What People Learn In a Performance Breathing Clinic
[31:23] What Is Focused On During These Breathing Protocols
[38:36] Hyperoxia and Performance Breathing
[41:47] Power Breathing
[45:10] How One Can Increase Their Breath Hold Time
[50:21] Brian's Use of Self-Quantification
[57:21.3] End of Podcast
Ben: Hey. It's Ben Greenfield here, and you may know or may not know, I don't know, depends on how much you stalk me that I was a personal trainer. I was a personal trainer starting from the age of 18 and spent about 10 years operating personal training studios, personal training gyms, and it was an incredibly fulfilling career. Now you can actually become a personal trainer, and it's quite fun. You don't have to do it full time, you can even moonlight or part-time as a personal trainer. But it's pretty fun stuff to be able to have a gym, or use a gym, and be able to be standing there in the flesh helping people change their bodies and become better at what they do.
So we are sponsored today by an organization that allows you to become a personal trainer, and it's actually an organization that I respect. It's not one of these like weekend certifications where you take an online test to become a personal trainer that is then equipped with just enough dangerous knowledge to go out and kill people. No. Instead, this is a good certification that gives you the latest cutting edge stuff when it comes especially to sports medicine and being able to apply the latest and greatest techniques to helping people get fit.
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This podcast is also brought to you by Kimera Koffee. Kimerakoffee.com, that's KIMERAKOFFEE.com. I actually had a giant French press. I can't even say it, I shoulda' drank more. French press of Kimera Koffee just this morning. Now it tastes fantastic. But basically the way that it works is it also operates even more fantastically 'cause it's got alpha-GPC, taurine, l-theanine, and DMAE in? Hm? What are those? Those are all things that help your brain to fire really, really fast. Check it out. Kimerakoffee.com. You get 10% off the stuff when you use discount code Ben. You get this giant white and black bag full of tasty coffee infused with nootropics. Nootropics. Nootropics? I never know. Either way, check out kimerakoffee.com, use discount code Ben for 10% off.
And finally, this podcast is brought to you by FitLife. FitLife. So here's the deal with FitLife: they created a green juice powder that has two things in it that I actually really like. It's got coconut powder in it, which means you get a bunch of electrolytes and minerals to replenish the minerals and electrolytes that you lose through sweat, life, stress. Did you know your adrenal glands are actually a storehouse of minerals and you gotta keep those replaced? Well this is a good way to do it. It's also got ashwagandha in it, which, in a recent study, was shown not only to increase your testosterone by up to 30%, but ashwagandha also has been shown to be more potent than creatine when it comes to increasing power and increasing strength. Potent stuff.
So how do you get your hands on a canister of this Organifi Juice powder from FitLife? You go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitlife, that's bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitlife, and code Ben over there gets you 20% off. 20% off this green juice powder, which means you don't have to blend up a bunch of freakin' beets and you don't have to figure out how in the heck you're gonna to make ashwagandha. I don't even know if that's physically possible. But either way, it comes all readily available in a convenient canister. Ships straight to your front door. Bengreenfieldfitness.com/fitlife gets you 20% off. Alright. Now, let's delve into today's interview with the great Brian Mackenzie. Let's do it.
In this episode of The Ben Greenfield Fitness Show:
“You may not only be able to hold your breath for 45 seconds to a minute, but because of the work you're doing, you're developing that tolerance with the CO2 at the higher levels so that you can actually absorb the oxygen a little bit better.” “You're getting your oxygen levels high and then you're going into a breath hold. And most people don't breathe enough consciously to calm themselves down.” “You're teaching yourself you actually have more control over your performance and what's happening than you typically ever thought you did. But the problem with that is that actually it does require work.”
Ben: Hey, folks. It's Ben Greenfield here. And I gotta tell you, from things like power breathing, to underwater workouts, to Wim Hof style cold water immersion, to these super sexy training masks, and free diving, and spear fishing, and beyond, it seems that this concept of breathwork and performance breathing is kinda taking the world by storm. So I figured it was high time that we actually addressed all things breathing in a podcast. So today, we're going to take a deep dive with a guy who is an expert in performance breathing. And he's been on the show before, a long, long time ago. I interviewed this guy way back in podcast episode number 47 about Crossfit endurance because he is the creator of Crossfit endurance. Brian McKenzie. Brian is with us today. He's a strength and conditioning expert, he wrote a bunch of good books and one that I recently read called “Unbreakable Runner”. Fantastic book. You should check it out if you get a chance. I'll link to it over in the show notes for today's episode, which you can grab at bengreenfieldfitness.com/performancebreathing. So Brian works with runners, cyclists, rowers, MMA, surfing, paddling, swimming, Crossfit, Olympic gold medalists, world champions, you name it. So, Brian, welcome to the show man.
Brian: Ben, thanks for having me.
Ben: Are you wearing a training mask right now?
Brian: No. I am not.
Ben: Okay. Just checking.
Brian: I prepped with one on this morning before we did some breathing. We had a couple people over to do a little breathing this morning, and we kinda like to prep by using the training mask to trigger some things.
Ben: What do you mean we had it like for breakfast with your family or…?
Brain: No, no. A couple days a week since we've gotten into this stuff with the Wim Hof and just a lot of the breathing stuff that we do, there's been a lot of people who've reached out, especially locally. I just did a breeding performance camp that I actually had Wim kinda come in that. But I've taken a lot of the stuff from the concepts that he's had and kinda, I've been messing with it for the last couple years. That said, local people have kinda caught on, and it's always a better environment for people. Well typically, it's a better environment for people to do it in a group setting. So we offer a mild group setting at our private facility here in Orange County.
Ben: Okay. So you've got like a studio in Orange County, in LA where you train people how to do things like this performance breathing. Is it a gym?
Brain: Yeah. It is! It's an office, it's a gym, it's a thousand square foot gym. We're probably going to move, but it's a private place. It's somewhere where I've been able to kinda bring a lot of the professional athletes that I work with so they're not being bugged.
Brian: ‘Cause some of them can be pretty high level and it gets a little weird. With that said, it's also a place that we can work out. We're not being bothered. Or I'm not working out in a garage and the cops aren't being called.
Ben: Gotcha. The cops get called when you work out?
Brian: Yeah, yeah! My wife and I have had the entertaining thing here is that every time we've moved, we've worked out in our garage and the police are typically called within the first few months, which is very typical of a gym anyway — at least a Crossfit stuff.
Ben: Why do they get called? Because you think you're running like a business?
Brain: No. It's noise, and the bouncing of the plates, and whatever. And so the police show…
Ben: You just gotta be more stealthy, man. You gotta listen to audiobooks, and lift light and soft things.
Brain: Yes. If that worked.
Ben: So anyway, I wanna to ask you a little bit about the kinda stuff you teach in the performance breathing workshops that you do. But first, elephant in the room. Got a bunch of questions about the training mask. And I talked recently on a podcast, and I linked to the study where it seemed to show that a big part of the mask is you rebreathing the carbon dioxide that you exhale like into that space inside the mask, and that's where a lot of the effect comes is from you just like recycling your own carbon dioxide or something like that. I'm curious, when you get the question, “is that training mask thing just a craze, a fad”, “does it actually work”, what do you say?
Brian: I say, yes, it does work. Maybe some of the original marketing on it might have not been as spot on, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't work. That said, I scoffed at this thing the first time I was handed one.
Ben: Well, I did too.
Brian: And that's my… I've created trigger in me that I've created over the last fifteen years that if I'm gonna scoff at something, or I'm going to bad mouth it, then if that's my reaction to it, then I've got a mechanism where I can stop before actually allow myself to speak about that, and I'll be like, “Alright, it's time to learn.” And so I'll set myself in motion with trying to understand something. So I put the mask on and I played around with it, and immediately the first thing I noticed was that I actually engaged my diaphragm in a deeper manner. And so I handed it to a few athletes, and we had the exact same reaction. And we saw a changed breathing pattern.
Ben: So you mean you were doing like deeper belly breathing?
Brian: At 100%. Yes.
Ben: Do you think if you didn't know how to do deep belly breathing before you put it on that you would done that?
Brian: Here's the interesting thing, is that I have actually worked with people who actually do know how to belly breathe and use the diaphragm correctly. Yet the moment we put them into intensity, regardless of what that is even if it's a 10K run, that breathing pattern changes. And there has been no athlete that I have really run into that actually knows how to breathe correctly. And the irony in that is that when we do breathe correctly, we're in a better position. And my career catapulted because I was a movement guy first, and I honed in on running and got popular with running mechanics, albeit I work with just about everything. The fact is that you breathe in a poor position, you're out of position and you're creating bad patterns. And so that was the biggest eye opener for me with this thing. So had I even known, I don't know that I necessarily would had I gone and tried to start working out, but I did start to figure out ways to utilize it in order to create changes that were lasting.
Ben: So it's just the diaphragm. Anything else? Or is it all just muscle?
Brian: No. I mean, what we wanna ultimately see is the diaphragm works first, then we start to lift through the chest, the rib cage opens up, and we have this big, these balloons called lungs correctly versus every athlete I run into is basically just breathing with their chest, and you can see their chest move immediately when they breathe. It was a very big eye opening experience for me.
Ben: Okay. Now what about what's happening physiologically, like this whole carbon dioxide thing I was talking about? Do you or have you seen evidence that you get increased red blood cells, or EPO, or hematocrit, or anything like that when you use a training mask?
Brian: I have not seen that. I don't know that it necessarily happens or it doesn't, and I don't necessarily talk about things that I don't quite know yet. I don't have the system to draw the blood work, but the fact is what we do know is that you are actually collecting CO2 inside the mask. And as negative has that may sound, that's actually not a negative thing.
Ben: Yeah. That's what I was gonna ask you about, was about whether it creates like metabolic acidity, or rebreathing your own carbon dioxide, the health of that.
Brian: Yes, it can. But the interesting thing here is that asthmatics start by being very CO2 intolerant, and that then creates an acidity and, literally, an autoimmune response that can go into a lot of other things. But the fact is they are very CO2 intolerant. And what we do with breath hold work is we're trying to make somebody more CO2 tolerant so that they can last longer on breath hold stuff. And there's a process as being a competitive swimmer I was younger, we would do breath hold work where we would not breathe for three strokes, then it would be five strokes, and then we'd work out to seven strokes, and then we'd work out like nine, whatever. And so you were developing this ability to adapt to the CO2 so that you could actually utilize oxygen more efficiently. That's what CO2s and if you don't utilize CO2 correctly, you actually don't absorb oxygen very well.
Ben: So you can actually increase your breath hold time by rebreathing CO2?
Brian: One hundred percent. Now if you're doing it all day long, that's probably gonna present a problem. Or if you're doing it for long periods of time…
Ben: It'd be like doing hypoxia all day long.
Brian: Exactly. Exactly.
Ben: So like small amounts are good for you, but you wouldn't wanna do it all the time. Kinda like exercise too.
Brian: And we can see a change even with inside of a week with people where if we put 'em on a training mask and have 'em do a 10-minute warm up, and that's what they're doing every day, we can see a change in a week of like, “Hey, there's some sort of physiological adaptation happening where they're not getting as claustrophobic.” And that's what that feeling is. It's that claustrophobic feeling that people get when they wear the training mask, that's the CO2. So that also happens when you go to hold your breath, and when your body says, “Hey, hey. Hey, dude. You need to breathe.” That's that claustrophobic feeling like, “[censored], I gotta breathe.” That's CO2 levels rising.
Ben: Yeah. That makes sense. Have you ever taken one of these inside a sauna, like a training mask inside a sauna?
Ben: Yeah. And done like a hardcore workout, so you've got double claustrophobia 'cause you wanna claw your way out of the heat and you're also wearing the mask?
Ben: It's an incredible workout. Like if you go jump in a cold pool after something like that?
Brian: Well, yeah. That's probably the quickest way to kinda get back to normal.
Ben: Yeah. So what about, when we're talking about this concept of holding on to CO2 and increasing breath hold time, I'm studying for a free diving course right now. So in two weeks, I'm going down to Fort Lauderdale for a week to dive, and one of the things that my instructor sent me was a static apnea table. One for oxygen and one for CO2. Have you seen these?
Ben: Okay. So the CO2 one, you'll do like six rounds of holding your breath for a minute. And then in between each round, you have decreasing rest intervals. So after the first time, you'll hold your breath a minute, you'll rest 90 seconds, and then the next time you'll rest 60 seconds, and then the next time you'll rest 45 seconds. So apparently what it's doing is training your body how to get used to holding on to CO2, or being exposed to higher amounts of CO2.
Ben: The other one that he sent me was an oxygen table where you'll like hold your breath for an increasingly long period time, like you'll hold your breath for a minute, then a minute and thirty, then a minute and 45, then two minutes. And in between each of those, you just breathe for two minutes. So rather than decreasing the rest intervals, you're just keeping the rest intervals constant and increasing the breath hold time.
Brian: Yes. Very aware of stuff like that. I've done a lot of work with that. It's interesting because I work with a lot of big wave surfers, like heavy duty guys that are needing to hold their breath for longer periods of time. And the interesting thing is that Laird Hamilton came up with some stuff, 15 or so years ago on underwater training. And what he started to recognize was everybody was literally like trying to run a rock across the bottom of the ocean. And that was great, but then everybody started to gravitate towards the freediving thing where it's like, “Hey, I'm gonna learn how to hold my breath in a statically, like barely moving, not moving at all, and I'm going to increase my ability to hold my breath.” And what we see are there are a ton of people in the free diving world that are dying all the time. The top people in the world.
Ben: They're dying?
Ben: From what?
Brian: From shallow water blackout.
Ben: Oh. Yeah.
Brian: And the reason is and what we've correlated this to is in the freediving world what's happening, or spearfishing world, is you're coming down, you're getting to a deep depth, you're holding your breath, and you're very, very quiet. You're not doing anything. So low CO2 levels and low oxygen levels. So when you're static and you're not moving around, it's really, really easy to get yourself to black out, which is shallow water blackout. So these guys are coming and they're three feet from the surface, and they're passing out and dying. And what we've noticed is that whenever any work is being done in the water, that the CO2 levels raise so quickly so high that your body is signaling, “Hey, I gotta breathe. I got to breathe.” So you go to get a breath. And you're not taking yourself to that limit where the oxygen levels are dipping too low, because if CO2 levels are low and oxygen levels are low, and you're in the water, you're gonna go out. That's what lights out is. So once that oxygen saturation level gets to a certain point, you go out. And if you've ever done any of the Wim Hof stuff, this is exactly the type of stuff you're doing, but you're not in the water.
Ben: You're loading with CO2 outside of the water so your body gets used to that CO2/O2 imbalance?
Ben: Okay. Got it.
Brian: And so it's very difficult as you rise, and this is why shallow water blackouts are happening. There were two Navy SEALs that just died recently, and it's people doing breath work and not understanding how it works.
Ben: So what these people should be doing is more CO2 work outside of the water?
Brian: Yes! Absolutely! And/or in the water. And so that's what we've seen actually with a lot of the training that we've done, like Laird and I have been doing. And Laird started this stuff, but we've come together in developing some program stuff that we're gonna launch. That big wave surfers aren't ever in an environment where it's a calm, static place. A 50 foot wave drops on your head, that's not a calm place. That's like nature at its greatest, and you're having to make some serious decisions. And although you're being tossed around, it's not like a free dive moment. So this is where we're really starting to see a lot of the work that we're doing in the pool where we have dumbbells, and we're having working sets. You may not only be able to hold your breath for 45 seconds to a minute, but because of the work you're doing, you're developing that tolerance with the CO2 at the higher levels so that you can actually absorb the oxygen a little bit better.
Ben: I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and Neil Strauss was there. I guess he's done some workouts with you guys and he brought me into the pool and was showing me how to like put a dumbbell between my legs and swim under water using just my hands on my back. And then I'd switch to my stomach to go back the other way, and then clutch it to my chest and go back the other way. Is that the type of workout that you were referring to?
Brian: Sort of. Yeah. Those are called seahorses, or whatever we call 'em. But, yes. It's very similar. But I could take a competitive swimmer, and hand them a dumbbell, and let 'em use one arm, and they're quickly gonna become much more efficient at swimming. And I don't care how competitive they are. Getting a 50 pound dumbbell across a 50-foot pool is going to be a challenge in staying on the surface. And it's gonna teach you about position as well, but holding that breath is gonna teach you how to absorb that CO2 a little better as well.
Ben: Interesting. How often do you do these kinda workouts where you're getting in a pool with dumbbells and holding your breath?
Brian: Two to three days a week. I'm typically around the two, Laird's about three in the off season. Then we have another like gym-type program, and other stuff that he does as well. But a lot of these guys that we know, they're on kinda the same program.
Ben: Interesting. Have you ever used one of these snorkels that you put on and it's like a front mounted snorkel that you swim with, but it's made by Finis and it has what's called a cardio cap on top of it that restricts your airflow while you're swimming.
Brian: Same concept as the training mask, except it's in the pool.
Ben: Have you ever used one of those.
Ben: Yeah. They're very interesting. I kinda like it for that same type of effect that you're talking about, when you just wanna get a swim in. What other kind of devices do you use? Do you use like one of these PowerLung or anything like that?
Brian: I've had one. I've had a PowerLung for years and it can help develop a lot of the stuff, but there's nothing that the training mask is not developing with just taking the levels higher and higher, and forcing you to do get like everybody after this performance camp that I've been in touch with, this breathing performance camp, has literally said, “Dude, my abs are so sore right now.” I'm like, “Yeah, you're using your abdominals and your diaphragm now.”
Ben: Is that just from doing the workouts with the training mask?
Brian: I think it's primarily doing the stuff with the training mask. But what we're also doing is we're triggering. So we'll do a few sets of the training mask to trigger prior to doing even breathing sets with a lot of the Wim stuff.
Ben: Okay. Gotcha. So what would a typical workout wearing a training mask look like? Because when you get like the manual that comes with the mask, you're just kinda like lying on your back, bridging your hips up to the sky, and then coming back down, and just kinda doing like really passive stuff. Are you guys doing full-on like squats, and rowing, and swings? Or are you just kinda doing like the more passive core work?
Brian: No. Well, to start… with the training mask or the breathing?
Ben: With the training mask on.
Brian: So with the training mask, what we'll do is typically I'll set somebody up on like an Assault Bike, which is like the old Airdyne, and it's just a better version of it.
Ben: Yeah. I was on one of those. A couple of days ago, I went down to the SealFit thing that Mark Divine does in Encinitas, and they had a bunch of those bikes out in the grinder. It's been a while since I've been on an Assault Bike, and those are tough.
Brian: They're very tough. But it's a great thing that anybody can really do, and it's a full body deal. So we'll typically set somebody up on that and have 'em start really easy with the training mask on. And then they'll go into sets of like 10 or 20 seconds hard, and then 50 to 40 seconds easy.
Ben: And do you keep the mask on during the easy part or do you let it like…?
Brian: Mask on throughout this process. And we do about 10 minutes, some people 15. But it literally starts to, you see them breathing differently. And then we can take them off of that, and then it's, “Hey, we get into movement stuff.” And if I see somebody who has some positional faults with things, I can easily hand them back the mask, have them hold in, let's just say, a plank, or the top of a push up, and put the mask on, and all of a sudden they automatically will change a position, and they'll find a solid hollow position that they can breathe in. And it's just an eye opening experience for a coach because, as a coach, you're constantly trying to get on people about their movement patterns. And somebody who's looked at Crossfit as this amazing tool to screen athletic movement, or any movement whatsoever, and seem that, it's allowed me to make a lotta changes in people without having to like literally be on them and allowing them to see it themselves, the differences of what's happening.
Ben: Got it. Interesting. So these performance breathing clinics that you do, they start off kinda learning to breathe with the training mask. But aside from that, what other type of things are people learning when they go to a clinic like this?
Brian: So we'll show them best practices we found with the training mask. We also show them the differences between what they naturally will do before we ever do anything. I just say, “Hey, fill your lungs and empty your lungs, and I just want you to understand that process right now, not doing anything differently than you would.” Then we show 'em the training mask, it's like, “Hey, can you replicate that without the mask on now.” And they do. And they see the difference of how much more air they're actually drawing in. Then we'll introduce some of the Wim stuff because the Wim stuff, from a performance standpoint, is when we're breathing, what typically happens when we're starting to get exhausted is we start to expel all this air that we have. And so we try and dump it all.
Ben: Okay. So we're like breathing out longer, more forcefully than we're breathing in?
Ben: Okay. And that would be a bad thing?
Brian: Well, that's a CO2 accumulation process. So you're going to accumulate more CO2 in that manner.
Ben: Wait. How would you accumulate more CO2 if you're breathing out more?
Brian: ‘Cause you're not taking in enough oxygen.
Ben: Okay. So when you say take…
Brian: So all that bad air is kinda just sitting in there. And even though you're dumping it out, you're not only taking in very little oxygen. This will make sense in the second, but so we will take people and teach them how to reverse that process by using the training mask to trigger the effect, then we can start to implement the breathing patterns and we can show people during recoveries, “Okay. Breathe how you normally would. Don't do anything different. Now, I'm gonna trigger you how to breathe by forcing a big exhale or big inhale, and not allow a full exhale to happen.” So we only wanna go about one atmosphere down, which is a half breath out. And then you're already drawing in another full breath again. And the recovery process in everybody tends to be almost double time, if not triple, with what they did prior.
Ben: Is that similar to the kind of breath protocol you'd go through prior to practicing, say, like a long breath hold?
Ben: For example, you would breathe in pretty deeply and then breathe out not quite so deeply, and do that for one or two minutes, and then finish by breathing in as much as you can, holding and then holding your breath for as long as possible?
Brian: Pretty similar, except more or less we're focused on the inhale and not so much the exhale, and it's just a constant. It's almost like you're going into this Wim breathing pattern as you are recovering between intervals. And so it's a forced large inhale, and just to let go of the exhale but you're trying to catch it about halfway out. And you just continue this process. Then, we then take 'em into a steady state where we're gonna have them learn how to just draw the breath in versus letting it out. So now that they've worked out a little bit and they're already kind of a little fatigued, then we can have them start to work out at a steady state that they know they can do right before they start to get acidic, right where it starts to get a little uncomfortable. We have 'em hold that, and then we have them implement the breathing protocol where they would draw in and not allow the exhale to happen as much. And we can trigger that as well with the training mask so that the train mask can set up the pattern again, because you will automatically draw in more air on that training mask…
Ben: Yeah. That makes sense. Because when you're wearing that mask and you're exercising, honestly, it's almost every day that I'll put on at some point during a workout or a sauna session, you don't exhale quite as much because it's almost a little bit uncomfortable, or it's more difficult to exhale than it is to inhale.
Ben: Interesting. I never really thought about what was going on there, but it makes sense now. So when you're doing these kind of breath protocols, are you focusing on any difference in breathing through the nose versus bring through the mouth?
Brian: Well, there's always gonna be a transition. That transition's like right about your aerobic threshold where you can no longer use your nose and you have to turn over to mouth breathing. Then it just stays mouth breathing the entire time. But the fact is we can get people to go from literally feeling acidic or the accumulation of acidity, where that's that limiting factor and how much harder they're gonna go, to starting the breathing and it literally just starts to disappear. So they literally raise the alkalinity of the body as they're working. The performance change immediately.
Ben: There's this concept that when you're breathing through your mouth, and especially when it's shallow chest breathing, that you get more of a cortisol release, that you get more of these baroreceptors in the chest apparently become activating and cause cortisol to get released, and you get more of a sympathetic nervous system stimulation versus like if you're breathing through your nose and getting more of like a parasympathetic nervous system stimulation. I've tried that before during say like a strength training workout to just breathe through the nose. I dunno if you've ever tried this, just to like do a whole workout breathing through the nose. And then I was talking to a guy, he's a guy who works for Spartan, so he's always studying like what the Spartans do, this guy named Joe DiStefano, and he was telling me how these young Spartan athletes, these kids, they used to have them go for runs and they'd have to swallow or not swallow, but like put a certain amount of measured water in their mouth. And at the end of the run, like at the end of a three mile run, they had to hold water in their mouth the whole time, they had to spit the water out at the very end and show that they had that same amount of water in their mouth. So the whole time they had to breathe through their nose. Have you ever tried something like that? Like just a run where you're just breathing through your nose, or a weightlifting session where you're just breathing through your nose?
Brian: Yes. And one of the better moments of that was Kelly Starrett and I had to retake our level ones for Crossfit, and we did it over a course of a weekend about six or nine months ago. And one of the workouts they had us do was like this thruster-burpee workout, and he and I, we'd been toying with a lot of this stuff for a while, and he quickly said, “Okay, you can only work when you're breathing through your nose. If you have to breathe through your mouth, you have to stop.” And so the whole workout, and the irony of this is, I went the first round, and I was only breathing through my nose, and I only went hard enough to breathe to keep that so that I didn't go over that, and I finished third in a workout that I should not have finished third at. I was definitely not the fittest guy anywhere near that fitness level in that group. There were definitely fitter people. The interesting thing is that it gets you to control things that you typically will not control.
Ben: Yeah. It's really interesting. You almost go into like this meditative state.
Brian: One hundred percent. And that's what the breathing's doing as well. Even like with the Wim stuff, or even the stuff we're actually teaching people how to use in performance. And the fact is as you're getting into the autonomic nervous system, where you're starting to control things, where you're not letting the subconscious ride everything. You're consciously overriding it, teaching yourself that you actually have more control over your performance and what's happening than you typically ever thought you did. But the problem with that is that it actually does require work. It actually does require a learning pattern. But the fastest way to that that I have found is using the training mask.
Ben: Yeah. It requires a ton of focus too. Like you'll catch yourself. It's almost like a leash. Like for example, if I've got an easy recovery day and I'm gonna go on a bike ride, I'll tell myself, “Alright. Keep your mouth closed. Frigging only breathe through your nose.” And it keeps you. It's very hard to go past that threshold you were just talking about, like that threshold of acidity. It's hard to do that, unless you're breathing through your mouth 'cause your body just wants [makes a grumbling sound] like take in all this oxygen. And when you tell yourself, “Okay, nose breathe only pal,” it holds you back in kind of a cool way.
Brian: Yes. 100%.
Ben: Have you seen this thing that there was a guy who wrote a book, John Douillard, he's a coach out of Boulder, Colorado. And in his book, which is all based on Ayurvedic medicine in a deep nasal breathing way or exercising, he recommends these Breath Right strips that you wear around your nose to keep your nasal cavities open when you're doing nasal breathing. But now there's this thing called the Turbine. Have you seen this?
Brian: Yes. I've used the Turbine.
Ben: What do you think of that?
Brian: Love it.
Brian: Yeah. For somebody that has like a deviated septum, I mean, I broke my nose a few times. I played water polo for quite some time and had my nose busted, and so I've been a mouth breather for a lot of my life.
Ben: Really? You played water polo?
Ben: What position did you play?
Brian: I guarded two meters and I was a driver.
Ben: Okay. Cool. I played Hole Set.
Brian: Yeah. So I literally was just like, I was just this mouth breather for a lot of my life. And then using the first nasal strips that everybody used to wear, I thought it was a brilliant move. But you've got this sticky crap on your nose, you've gotta take 'em off in the morning or whenever you take them off. Sometimes when you're working out, the sweat gets in the way because the sweat changes everything and this sticky thing comes off. And then I was at some convention with Laird and Gabby Reese, and this guy came over and said, “Hey, you wanna try these out?” And so I looked at it, and I was like, “This is kind of a smart idea.” And so I put it in, went for a ride, and I was like, “I just literally worked.” I did the same ride I did last week, and I felt like I worked so much less, and I was actually like two minutes faster on the ride.
Ben: Yeah. It's really about the winner of the Tour de France used one. Chris Froome used one of these turbines. I'll put a link to these in the show notes. This is theturbine.com. But, yes, this thing that you put in your nose. I wanted to ask you, Brian, kinda going in a different direction from nasal breathing and like hypoxia, to hyperoxia, or these hyperbaric chamber, or it's called, it's an intermittent style of breathing where you'll use like a mask connected to an oxygen tank, and you'll breathe oxygenated air for a certain period of time, and then take a break, and then go back to the oxygenated air with exercise. It's called like Intermittent… I forget the name. Intermittent hyperoxic training with exercise, or something like that. Oh, I remember what it's called. It's exercise with oxygen therapy. Exercise with oxygen therapy. EWOT. Have you ever done that? Do you use these type of things in your performance breathing courses? Or what's your take on hyperoxia?
Brian: I don't use it in my breathing courses. We have an oxygen concentrator. We have been working with a guy who runs the Exercise [38:45] ______ Department out of Florida, in Anaheim. His name's Dr. Brian Hickey and he is a pioneer in hyperoxia training. And we have found that proper hyperoxia training will help develop mitochondria and type II-A muscle fibers.
Ben: So for the folks listening, what exactly would that mean? What would the implications of that be?
Brian: So think about it like this: I can take you up to 90% of your max heart rate, and you're gonna feel like you're working pretty damn hard for most people. If I put you on an oxygen concentrator, that's gonna probably feel like your aerobic threshold. It's not going to feel like what you're doing. And so I can have you there for about 30 minutes, and then we can get you to recover off of that. And once we use a heart rate recovery system with it, which helps the process. I've had a number of athletes doing it, and it's a pretty interesting process, but it takes about 16 workouts or so of doing it. And there's various ways of doing it. You could do it with even one minute max effort intervals, things like that. But what we're trying to do is get you to just sub maximal to maximal effort on a higher dosage of oxygen, typically around 90%. So that will allow the body to start to convert those mitochondria. It'll start to grow the mitochondria with the type II-A muscle fibers.
Ben: Interesting. So it's almost like you have more oxygen available, so your body wants to build new mitochondria to do something with all that extra oxygen.
Brian: You got it.
Ben: Interesting. See, what I've always seen in the past, 'cause I know there was a study last year in the “Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” on hyperoxia, but it was all just recovery. They'd like get exposed to hyperoxia and they'd recover faster. It's…
Brian: And it makes sense. And you will. But if you don't have that with you, it's gonna be a little bit more difficult. But the fact is if it gets you working on stuff like that, then we can actually work for that change. We can actually work for that change sometimes with the healthy oxygen, but this is also where the Wim breathing comes into effect. Because with Wim's stuff, you're alkalining the system and getting high, high levels of O2 and low, low levels of CO2, which is allowing for you to get deep into the nervous system and do a lot of this stuff. And a lot of it right now speculative, but he is convinced and he's having a [censored] ton of university work being done, including at Harvard right now. But I've got a guy by the name of Dr. Andy Galpin out at Cal State Fullerton who I turned on to this stuff, and he's going apeshit over it. And so he's starting to launch into some study work and some research work that is going to just spearhead a lot of the stuff that we've kinda figured out.
Ben: So there's this concept of power breathing, like Tony Robbins does. I think it's also called Warrior Breathing, or Fire Breathing, where it's like [makes heavy breathing noises] and I've heard some people say it increases CO2, which vasodilates and drives more blood in the capillaries. I've heard some people say, “No, it increases oxygen.” Have you experiment with that style of breathing at all or know exactly what's going on?
Brian: Yeah. I don't know exactly what's going on. It's similar. A lot of people like, I had a meeting with Steven Kotler about a week and a half ago and we'd discussed a lot of this stuff as he's trying to figure out breathing methods for himself. And he's like, “Oh, so this stuff is kinda like fire breathing?” I'm like, “Yeah. A little bit, but not really.” I've played around with the fire breathing stuff and warrior breath, and I think any route you go that's going to allow you to become more conscious of what's going on is a great route, but I don't know that it's necessarily doing all the things that they think it's doing. But I don't know that all the stuff I'm doing is doing the things that we think it's doing.
Ben: Yeah. I'll tell you what, man. I've used up before when I've been stuck in a corral before a race, when you can't warm up and you're waiting for the race to start, like a Spartan race or a 5K, and it's a great way to actually keep… the first two minutes or so of any race just sucks. You're sucking air, and everything's burning, and you feel almost like stale for those first couple of minutes. This seems to make a lot of that go away. But, yeah. I'll just do that deep, deep [makes heavy breathing noise]. And there's a professional Ironman triathlete, you could probably find a video on YouTube somewhere, named Andy Potts. And the first time I started thinking about doing this was he was talking about how when all the other athletes are warming up in the water, he'll be off to the side in his wetsuit doing this deep, deep power breathing, and then he'll end with like a full-on exhale and a full-on inhale, and go through like three cycles of that just to warm up for a race.
Brian: And he's on to something.
Brian: The irony here is that you've figured out like my wife, before she would start a race, she would do this breathing to calm herself down so that she wasn't being overtaken by, “Hey, I'm in an Olympic gold medal match right now,” whatever, that she was calm. I've done some work with some special forces units and they have protocols for doing some breathing prior to if something starts to get a little [censored]. A lot of people are catching on to little facets of this thing. But I think it really gets into, if you can really start to understand the stuff that where we're going, that this is going to be almost, not almost but this is a very big performance enhancing product.
Brian: It's just breathing. And understanding all of this stuff is paramount.
Ben: The other thing I'll do before races is I keep one of these PowerLungs in the glove box of the car, or in my travel bag, and I'll just do reps on that as I'm driving to the race to warm up my lungs. ‘Cause frankly, a training mask makes you look silly when you're driving.
Ben: But these PowerLung devices that you just hold up, and wrap your mouth around, and do like resisted out, resisted in seem to work pretty well also just for warming up the muscles prior to a race.
Brian: 100%. Yes. Yeah.
Ben: Now let's say that folks wanted to increase their breath hold, increase their breath hold time. Now as far as like low hanging fruit, in addition to some of the stuff you've talked about already, like using a training mask, focusing on the inhale more than the exhale, et cetera, what are some other techniques that you would use for someone to increase their breath hold time?
Brian: The simplest is something like repeating a two minute breathing pattern of like a three second breath hold up top, a ten second let out, a three second breath hold on the bottom, and then a large draw inhale. You don't have to worry about how long the inhale is. Just take in a nice big inhale, and repeat that process for two minutes, and start with like maybe a one minute breath hold for five or six rounds of doing that.
Ben: That sounds almost like box breathing.
Brian: It's very similar. And you can use… and it's just setting a pattern, and what you're doing is calming yourself down, you're getting your oxygen levels high, and then you're going into a breath hold. And most people don't breathe enough consciously to calm themselves down. Anybody who has really done any like where they've studied them, like, “My God, this guy can drop his heart rate and raise it in the blink of an eye.” It's all breath work. It's literally being able to control your breathing and slow yourself down. And the closer the connection you have with like that vagus nerve, the easier it is for you to calm yourself down, and then take in a large breath, and begin that breath hold process.
It doesn't matter what the pattern really is, other than a controlled exhale because we just don't want to dump all that air out quite yet and get the body ready to draw any big inhale. So it's just a control out, and you can do things, you could change that up. I think Outside Magazine did something not too long ago that was with a freediver guy that was like a SEAL or something, and he did some very similar stuff. And it's all doable things. From there, it's like, “Hey, spend a couple weeks doing that, then do that same pattern for two minutes, and then walk and hold your breath.” And now you're gonna to start to know what it's like to work a little bit more and hold your breath.
Ben: Yeah. Walking breath holds. I'll do those sometimes when I'm walking through the airport, or I'm just doing something and I wanna double up. Walking breath holds where you'll just hold your breath for as long as you can and then recover. And you can do this on a walk. It's crazy.
Ben: Yeah. You've talked a lot about Wim Hof. His name has come a couple times. Do you do this? Do you do the cold soaks and things like that?
Brian: Oh, yeah. 100%. I've been doing this stuff for quite some time. I actually reached out to his camp about a year ago. We've connected. He came out and spent a week with us, between Laird's place and my place. It looks like we're gonna probably do a lot of stuff together as he's really going to spearhead a lot of the disease and the work that he's really really passionate about, and helping kids, and things like that. I would not have ever reached meditation or anything close to it had I not actually found what he does. And I think that's a big, big thing, especially for people who are kinda performance junkies or Type A personalities who don't really find a 20 minute, or 30 minute or whatever, sit down, try and find Zen process attractive. I think his method allows people to find that place. And I've heard it time and time again from people. But the fact is I know people who've been meditating 20 years and they've never reached the stages of meditation that we can get them to in less than three minutes with this stuff.
Ben: Interesting. Yeah. I like his stuff. I was just curious if you do much of the cold therapy.
Ben: Sounds like you're very on board with that.
Brian: I've maybe had four or five warm showers in the last year. We cold shower, I do ice at least twice, if not three times a week. That's actually a performance changer as well. And contrary to popular belief, or pop culture, you want a quick performance enhancement, do an ice bath before you actually compete at something.
Ben: Yeah. Man after my heart. I like it. That was actually my workout this morning was infrared sauna and cold soak. So I'm curious, I've got another question for you here. I know we're going towards the end of our interview, but I wanted to ask you about quantifying some of this stuff. There are obviously like fingertip pulse oximeters that you can use to track your blood oxygenation. There's heart rate variability measurements to track parasympathetic nervous system activation. Do you, in your clinics or for yourself, use any type of self-qualification to see what's working?
Brian: I do from time to time. There's a great book out there and you probably read it. It's called “Deep Survival”. And Laurence Gonzales, I think this is one of the most important books of our time because it nails what human beings are and the fact that we think we know what we believe, but the fact is we only know what we feel. And if you can't feel it, then you don't know it. And we would love to believe that we know so much more than we do, but we look at things from a surface area, and a lot of the research that we do has been, a lot of it gets tainted because it's funded or a certain person's paying for it. If it didn't work out, it's not coming to light.
Not everybody knows how to read the research. But the fact is you can even talk to a lot of the guys I work with who are PhDs, like they're like, “Look, we're 10 years behind where you're at, dude.” Like literally. I mean, I've listened, I work with people at NASA, and one of my colleagues is a kid who's a robotics engineer out of NASA, and it's like they are eons behind where we've been. And what most of us are doing, people who are listening this podcast, like they are ahead of where the big money is and where everything's at. And yet we look at things like this, and we look to things like NASA and the government, or even big money that, “Oh, they're gonna have the solution for a lot of this stuff.” And they don't.
There's a book that took me about 20 years to read called “A Brief History of Time”. Stephen Hawking wrote it, and I'm sure you're aware of it. But there's a couple of pieces in there, and this has been part of a lot of conversations that I've had, especially with my colleague from NASA. Hawking laid out, simply put, ever since the dawn of civilization people have had not been content to see events unconnected or inexplicable. If everything in the universe depends on everything else in a fundamental way, it might be impossible to get close to a full solution by investigating parts of the problem in isolation. And this is the problem with what we do because we try to isolate things and think of them like that.
Now, we certainly have catapulted ourselves very far by isolating certain things, and looking at them, and trying to understand them. But I think that the fact is from a natural standpoint, we just don't look at things the way nature kind of doesn't. I mean why do we look at like a cheetah running 60 miles an hour like this unbelievable thing, and a cheetah from my understanding, literally only sprints every three days. Yet we're training how hard to do what? What is it a cheetah's doing that we're not doing? What is it a lion's doing we're not doing? What is an elephant's doing that we're not doing? Why don't we start to look at things from a bigger universal standpoint and how a lot of things are already working?
Ben: Yeah. It's the human factor. I mean a big part of it's the human factor. I don't know about you, but like after a day of computer work, and blogging, and being inside, I wanna go and frikkin' like lay down a hardcore workout on the trails. And in some cases, it's just to escape. It's running from something and, yeah. You don't see animals doing that a lot, but it's like that book about why zebra's don't have ulcers. Like they don't put themselves in situations where they necessarily feel compelled to go and use exercise, and breath work, and things like this to manage stress.
Brian: Yeah! Right? Yet one of the ironies about the working out and all that stuff, and this is back when I was doing ultra marathons. I had these massive, massive like spiritual moments that I would have when I was ultra running. And I was like, “God, it's just, it's gotta be the pain in the suffering that I'm going through.” And yet, you talk to enough people, and my wife and I get pretty deep, and she has these epiphanies as well when she's training, and I'm sure you had these things, and people talk about runner's high and all that. One of the questions that I'm asking now is it's like, “Well, is there any irony in the fact that you've been huffing oxygen at a level that you were not doing before and you've been out there long enough that you're finally getting to this place where you're almost like alkaline to a large degree to where the body can enter into this, the pineal gland, or even this place where you typically can't get to unless you're in REM cycle sleep, or all of this stuff which inevitably involves a lot of different breathing patterns?”
Ben: Yeah. Interesting. Well I've been taking a lot of notes as you're talking, Brian. And I've put 'em all, for those of you listening in, over at bengreenfieldfitness.com/performancebreathing. You can go check out Brian's website. If you're down around his area, check out his performance clinics. I'll link to his books as well, and some of these things like the Turbine, in the training mask, and some of these other little toys that you can check out. So, Brian, thanks for coming on the show and sharing this stuff with us, man.
Brian: No problem. Thanks for having me.
Ben: It's fascinating. I'll let you go and strap your training mask on, and go run around naked in your ice bath, or whatever it is that comes up next for you.
Brian: I'm gonna go surf. I can last about a half day in the office before I have to get out.
Ben: Yeah. Seriously. Alright, man. Well, enjoy the rest of your day. And for those you're listening in, again, you can visit bengreenfieldfitness.com/performancebreathing. And until next time, this is Ben Greenfield and Brian Mackenzie signing out from bengreenfieldfitness.com. Have a healthy week.
From power breathing to underwater workouts to Wim Hof-style cold water immersion to sexy Training Masks to freediving, spearfishing and beyond, it seems that performance breathwork is taking the world by storm.
In today's podcast, I take a deep dive with performance breathing expert Brian Mackenzie.
Brian is a strength and conditioning and movement expert, and creator of CrossFit Endurance (which I interviewed him about way back in podcast episode #47) He co-authored the book “Power, Speed, Endurance: A Skill Based approach to Endurance Training“, recently co-authored “Unbreakable Runner” and works with professional and elite level athletes in running, cycling, rowing, MMA, MIL/SOF, LEO, Fire/EMT, surfing, paddling, swimming, CrossFit, including Olympic Gold Medalists and World Champions.
Brian and his programs have been featured in Competitor Magazine, Runners World, Triathlete Magazine, Men's Journal, ESPN Rise, The Economist, Tim Ferriss' New York Times bestseller The 4-Hour Body, Men's Running UK, LA Sport & Fitness, Muscle & Performance Magazine, and Rivera Magazine.
During our discussion, you'll discover:
-The true science behind the Training Mask, and whether it actually works…
-How to use oxygen and carbon dioxide static apnea tables…
-Why so many freedivers and spearfishers are dying from shallow water blackouts…
-The uncommon restricted breath training devices Brian uses in his clinics…
-How to use hyperoxia…
-Where to start if you want to hold your breath for four minutes…
-And much more!
Resources from this episode:
–The TrainingMask (use code BGF for 20% discount)
–Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why book