The Breathing Gear System™

The Breathing Gear System™, developed by Brian Mackenzie

When we think about the respiratory muscles, it is easy to overlook the complexity and nuance of their training. SH//FT’s Breathing Gear System was developed to encourage people to consider the training of our primary respiratory muscles through learning more about differential control of respiration rate (RR) and Tidal Volume/depth (VT), which is the volume of air moved in and outside the lungs in each breath cycle.

However, research (A, B, C) and experience show there is much more at play than we understand about metabolic acidosis regarding nonlinear increases in Ventilation (V̇e) above compensatory thresholds– Respiratory Compensation rate (RCP). If we were to take an unfit and a very fit person and have them start running they would have very different ventilation rates and depths as acidosis would impact them at varying times at the exact same intensities. VT1 (ventilatory threshold 1) a marker we use to mark a significant change in metabolism, namely a rise in lactate. Coincidentally, as lactate rises so will carbon dioxide levels, and a number of other processes. 

In addition, there is a complex relationship between primary and secondary respiratory muscles and the metaboreflex (blood stealing) for regulating ventilation during exercise and bouts of intense stress.

Training the Respiratory System

The diaphragm and the external intercostals are the two (larger) primary muscles involved in breathing. Together, these muscles work in a coordinated manner to maintain proper ventilation during rest and exercise. Contrary to famous speak (even by professionals), these muscles always work; to what degree and how weak they are is a different story, but not one of abstinence. 

Control of Respiratory Rate (RR) and Tidal Volume (VT) are two critical aspects of respiration that can be trained with The Breathing Gear System™. By controlling RR and VT independently in suitable environments, you can prepare your body to regulate your breathing more efficiently under most stress or physical activity. 

Many practitioners (myself included) have used resistance breathing devices and technologies to separate actual human movement from ventilation/breathing. In most testing scenarios, my experience and testing have shown otherwise in keeping breathing assessments connected to human movement and with varying intensities and strategies that our anatomy (nose/mouth) allows us to push our understanding and barriers not seen with isolation. 

Recent research has also shown a complex relationship between primary and secondary respiratory muscles and blood stealing that contribute to the nonlinear response of ventilation above RCP during incremental exercise. In addition, it is believed that central command (Central Governor Theory – Brain/Nervous System) contributes to more than just metabolic acidosis when regulating ventilation (V̇e) during intense physical activity or high-stress situations. 

The Goal is Complete Control Under Stress

Beyond merely increasing oxygen intake, proper training of primary respiratory muscles can help us better control our breathing under stress and even under extreme circumstances. Training these muscles is critically important to anyone participating in exercise or professional sports, as energy and electrolyte balance are downstream effects (breathing and biochemistry directly impact each other). Blood stealing means we are now switching how we use energy sooner than necessary. 

Consider these extreme situations and their reliance on advanced breath work:

  • an MMA athlete fighting in rounds 3, 4, or 5. 
  • A baseball player in the 8th or 9th inning of a longer-than-normal game.
  • a marathon runner midway through a race/training session.

Stronger, more consistently trained breathing muscles delay and stave off breaking points in many activities we do. The Breathing Gear System trains the primary and secondary respiratory muscles to achieve optimal respiration rates and depths required for more versatile rib cages for different levels of physical activity or stressful responses through a coordinated effort with the mind; Central Governor Theory. 

The Breathing Gear System™

Through The Breathing Gear System (BGS), we learn how best to use our breath for enhanced performance while reducing fatigue levels caused–ultimately–by poor breathing patterns. 

With these tools, we can explore how different breathing exercises help us better cope with stressful events by improving our ability to regulate our breathing when faced with extreme circumstances in:

  • physical performance events, 
  • war-fighting, 
  • first responder work, 
  • catastrophic accidents, 
  • public speaking, 
  • emotional outbursts, 
  • and exercise to name a few; limitless. 

The Breathing Gear System is fundamental. 

While not to take away from the years of work in developing this system, here is the briefest overview of the Breathing Gears System™ to help get you started. This work is hierarchically detailed in our Skill of Stress (enroll now) and Art of Breath (coming soon) courses.

Gear-1: Easy Nasal Breathing

  • Equal and easy nasal only breathing
  • RR < 15 (4+ second breath cycles)
  • 75% of training time, up to HRZ-2

Gear-2: Power Nasal Breathing

  • Increased nasal only breathing
  • RR = 15-20 (3-4 sec second breath cycles)
  • 10% of training time, up to HRZ-4

Gear-3: Nasal Inhale / Mouth Exhale

  • Nasal in / Mouth out (or vise versa)
  • RR = 15-20 (3-4 sec breath cycles)
  • This gear is a transitional gear to up or down shift.

Gear-4: Easy Mouth Only Breathing

  • Easy mouth only breathing 
  • RR = 20-30 (2-3 sec breath cycles)
  • 10% of training time, up to HRZ’s 4 & 5

Gear-5: Power Mouth Breathing

  • Power mouth breathing
  • RR = 30-45+ (<2 sec breath cycles)
  • 5% of training time, explosive work in HRZ-5

Training with The Breathing Gear System™

The Breathing Gear System (BGS) is the result of years and years of research and testing. The BGS is embedded into the identity of SH//FT as a perfect compliment to performance management, recovery, and stress resilience. 

If you are interested in learning more about training your respiratory system and using it to your advantage, it’s best to start with SH//FT’s Breath Basics. You’ll get a deeper understanding of the downstream effects of poor breathing. You’ll also learn how to quickly implement breathing techniques to boost physical and mental performance.

Current members of SH//FT All-Access have access Breath Basics as part of their membership.

A Breath Practice to Access Your Full Performance Potential

A Breath Practice to Access Your Full Performance Potential

In order to access 100% of your performance potential, you need to have a good breathing practice. We typically only become conscious of our breathing when we are breathing hard or can’t breathe at all. But adding in a breath practice before, during and after competition and training can help performance and recovery. It can also make you a healthier, more conscious athlete, which can help expose your true potential.

Below are some of the breathing protocols SH//FT members use to prepare, pace, and recover after their most difficult time trials, races and training sessions. Test them out in training before your important race. Keep in mind that we are all different — what works for one athlete may not work for you. Experiment on yourself and keep track of what works; discard anything that doesn’t. If you’re interested in learning more, check out our article on athletic breathing patterns for different situations.

Before the Workout or Performance Event

The Goal: Inflate Oxygen Levels

To access your full performance potential in any high-profile, competition-level workout, your goal is to inflate your oxygen levels. The key is that you also need to release that oxygen. We want to stimulate our pulmonary system so that it works in tandem with our muscular and cardiovascular systems. You know that point in your workout where you’re finally breathing in rhythm after 20 minutes of riding the struggle bus? That’s the point at which your breath and muscles finally are in sync. Breathing practice before a workout will get you there sooner.

We’ve experimented with super ventilation (hyperventilation) sequences, which are all highly effective breathing methods. The issue we’ve seen in using some of the sequences before competition is that the corresponding effect of holding our breaths for maximal time increases carbon dioxide levels and then lowers O2 levels, which inevitably lowers pH or creates a more acidic environment. This process releases stored O2 once CO2 begins to rise dramatically. If you do perform breath holds before a workout, try not to exceed one minute at a time. Anything longer than that can potentially cannibalize the oxygen you’re releasing and will leave you where you may have started, or even less O2 efficient. 

Try This:

After a warm-up of 5 to 10 minutes of aerobic work, find a breathing sequence with a long enough inhale and exhale that just starts to stress your system. Or use a resistance breathing device. Your inhale should be slow and controlled, with a pause at the top. Then slowly release your breath. Find a rhythm that starts to challenge you. Accessing your performance potential may be a little uncomfortable.

Another option: perform your entire warm up with nasal breathing only.

You can also try the following breathing cadence sequence prior to training or competing: 3-second inhale/3-second breath hold/6-second exhale/3-second pause at the end. Repeat for 5-10 rounds. Do not exceed a 6-second exhalation.

If your competition involves heavy lifts, perform a bracing sequence before you begin.

An example would be a 5-second inhale, a 20-second breath hold, and a 10-second exhalation, or adjust to a 1, x4, x2 sequence that best suits you. During the breath hold, focus on proper bracing with full air and the position of your braced core to transfer that to your heavy lifts.

During the Workout or Performance Event

The Goal: Consume air / Avoid hyperventilation

During your competition or race, your task is to consume as much air as you can and to avoid hyperventilation and its short, choppy breaths.

Try This:

As soon as the clock starts, draw your air in quickly, and make sure it’s a full breath. Exhale that air promptly, leaving a small pause at the end. Breathing through your mouth is fine. For the more conditioned athlete, this can be done via nasal breathing only. Focus on a full breath of air to fill your lungs to the end range, which will allow the alveoli at full range of the lungs to get more O2/CO2 to exchange. If you’re not getting full breaths of air, you’re missing out on a lot of oxygen utilization.

After the Workout

Try This:

After your workout, the goal is to down-regulate as quickly as possible. Cool down by taking a walk and taking in deep, controlled breaths. Once your breathing is under control, lie down and focus on nasal in full breaths of air with nasal exhales of 7 seconds minimum. This will allow your body to recover effectively and hastily. Follow that with a super ventilation sequence of 3 minutes of nasal inhales and exhales, and then a 30-second breath hold at the end. This will return your body to a parasympathetic state and speed your recovery.

Expand your performance potential with SH//FT

Breath work is the core of SH//FT. Take the CO2 Tolerance Exhale Test and receive a customized breathing plan to start your own at-home breathing practice. Although it’s a simple test (only about 5 minutes to complete), this CO2 Tolerance assessment will provide valuable insight to your nervous system and how reactive you are to stress.

Athletic Breathing Patterns for Different Situations

Athletic breathing patters for difference situations

Athletically speaking, in almost all sports, the pulmonary muscles will be prioritized over all other muscles. This phenomenon is known as the respiratory metaboreflex. The weaker the primary breathing muscles are, the sooner blood is diverted from the loco motor muscles to these muscles. These concepts are important for understanding and adopting athletic breathing patterns.

When I discussed the difference in nose breathing and mouth breathing in a separate article, I explained the importance of understanding that for most exercise or training below moderate efforts, nasal breathing is far more effective at developing these muscles, and in turn, allows us to continue to program (motor control & endurance) to use them when we switch to mouth breathing. 

Many Athletes Suffer from Respiratory-Related Issues

Whether it be breathlessness, exercise-induced asthma, or anything related to breathing at the top levels, many athletes suffer from respiratory-related issues. My work alone brought me to this understanding of myself and many of the athletes I’ve worked with. Since the advent of Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRs) technology and research, many in the endurance world are waking up to this cold, hard fact, as it can show pulmonary-related issues at the tissue level. So, how do we change this?

Breathing is Fundamental

First, understanding breathing is fundamental; nobody is doing anything wrong or incorrectly. I know this may read incorrectly, but the paradox is that breathing is telling a story, and unless you’re in an iron lung, you will be ok. 

That said, optimizing our breathing develops stronger tissue, helps you last longer (endurance), aids your body’s biochemistry (pH), and calms & focuses the psyche (mental). 

Your Respiratory Rate (RR), or your breathing rate, is the number of breaths you take per minute. The ability to maintain a RR under 16 (approximately a 4-sec breath cycle) with only the nose at or below Heart Rate Zone 2 (HRZ 2) manages pH buffering (CO2/O2) to optimize delivery and utilization of oxygen through what is known as the Bohr Effect

Integrating the Breathing Gear System™

Breathing Gear 1 of the Breathing Gear System can be as low as a RR of under 8 (~ 8-second breath cycle). This includes things like walking. 

Beyond this point, we move into a shortened period of faster nasal breathing. This takes us up to an RR of about a 20 (3 sec per breath cycle). This is Gear 2 and can last for some up to about HRZ 4. 

However, it is essential to understand that mouth breathing (Gear 4) can usually be more effective at this point. This is because the dissociation effect of CO2/O2 is impacted differently. It’s also because we are now using more anaerobic processes. Anaerobic processes require O2 to buffer much of the acidity in the body that is accumulating. 

The nose simply can not deliver enough oxygen at this stage to aid in this process. 

You May Have Noticed I Skipped Gear 3. 

This is because Gear 3 is primarily a transitional and training gear to help buffer changes. Whether things are getting more intense or we are recovering, this Gear is used by inhaling through the nose or mouth and exhaling through the opposite. This is difficult to stay with, as much of the humidity is lost by not breathing in/out via the nose, which can irritate. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a place to use it more than I have. 

Breathing Gears 4 and 5

In HRZ 4 or the early stages of HRZ 5, we will want to start moving air faster (RR of 30+). This is Gear 5, and in very well-developed athletes, we will see RR’s above 50, sometimes even 60.. 

Only breathing through the mouth can achieve speeds like this, although they are for short periods that correspond well with what we see with most athletes’ training programs and intensities (<5%). 


The ability to move air well from top to bottom starts in Gear 1 with the nose. Spend time here; most of your time. Progress as things get more manageable, and you can maintain Gear 1 into HRZ 2 or moderate intensity. 

Try not to live in G2. We tend to habituate with things and feel like the calming effect of excess CO2 is more important than the fact that we are not spending money (ATP/Energy) wisely. Play with G2 and G4 routinely to understand more about efficiency here. 

Lastly, DO NOT shy away from moving a lot of air fast and reaching maximal intensities. But, be aware that these come with severe tradeoffs for resources. 

If you’re interested in training with the Breathing Gear System, looking into SH//FT All-Access. There is a multitude of resources and plans to help you achieve your goals. If you’re new to breath training, I suggest you start with the SH//FT CO2 Tolerance Exhale Test. It takes about 3 minutes and gives you great insight.

Tips to Manage your Breath While Running

Tips to manage breathing while running.

Running presents one of the most significant obstacles in addressing breathing pattern disorders. While my work over the last 25 years has been around running and running-related mechanical issues, it is not a shock that almost 50% of those who are active, and even in the endurance category, have some breathing pattern issues. Running makes this more of a challenge, as gravity and its effects on us can increase up to 12X body weight. Here are some tips to help you manage your breath while running.

Warm up and Mobilize your Breathing System

The simplest way to make significant changes is to warm up well and mobilize around the rib cage and gut/abdominal area. 

Warm-up example 1: 

Start with any rotational movement and rotate into your end range of motion and hold. Draw air in as you rotate and find this end range. Holding in place, fill your lungs with as much air as possible and hold for a few seconds. Release the air while working to gain a little more range and hold. Repeat bringing in air in and holding for a few seconds and releasing for 3–5 repetitions. 

Warm-up example 2:

Placing your fingers on the edge of the front of your rib cage and abdominal muscles, work to get your fingers under your rib cage bones slowly as you draw deep slow breaths in and out through the nose. Work the front of the rib cage around to the sides for several breaths over a 5-10 minute period to free up the diaphragm a bit.  

Build your Breathing Tolerance 

Interval Work

Move at a pace that allows you to breathe through your nose. Slowly increase the intensity until you can longer breathe through only your nose. Once that happens, slow down and/or walk until you’re able to breathe through only your nose again. Repeat this buildup and drawdown as an interval routinely to speed up the benefits of this process.

Slow and Steady Approach

Another option is to simply run slow enough to allow your primary breathing muscles to do more of the work for longer. Nasal breathing engages the primary breathing muscles to work MORE because of the resistance it creates. Biochemically–and below moderate levels of effort–this only helps us use oxygen by improving our oxygen/carbon dioxide dissociation curve. If you want to learn more about this resistance, check out this article, where I discuss the differences between nasal and mouth breathing

Controlled Breathing = Efficiency

This may take some time, but there is no reason why you can not look at this as routine interval work. Even the fastest sprinters in the world in the 100m and sometimes the 200m do not open their mouths. It is only necessary after the effort. Although sprinting is not the goal here, you can understand that significant work is still being done for us. 

In any case, when moving, we are all staving off the inevitable process of blood stealing. This phenomenon starts diverting blood from the loco-motor muscles to our diaphragm and intercostals when they fatigue. The weaker or more dysfunctional our breathing, the faster we use up limited energy sources and start to break down. 

If you’re interested in improving your breathing to better train endurance, check out our endurance program called SH//FT Sustain that’s included in All-Access. It’s a 24-week progression based on my New York Times bestselling book, The Unbreakable Runner.

The Difference Between Mouth and Nose Breathing

Difference between nose and mouth breathing blog article cover photo

The respiratory system was designed with the nose in mind and the mouth as a secondary option. The mouth was designed with the digestive system and our communication (vocal cords) in mind. While we could get incredibly granular on the efficacy of these statements and the crossover of many of these statements. Let’s look at lifestyle and stress, since they affect us all. 

Our air is filled with molecules, particulates, bacteria, and viruses. Let’s look at how that air is filtered and changed for each of these. 

Your Nose as a Filter

The nose has as many hairs (and cilia) follicles in it as there is hair on your head. Each of those hairs represents an obstacle. Every single hair/cilia is coated with mucus. Mucus is like chewing gum on a hot sidewalk. It is antiviral and antimicrobial; it is the first line of defense for the air we breathe and our immune system. I talk about our nose as a filter more in an article about why nose breathing is important.

Air passes by hair all the way through our turbinates, which represents one of the most intricate systems for filtering air (we can’t seem to replicate it) by spinning air in circles before it can pass up to the next turbinate and go through the same process. Air then enters the sinuses, where it is humidified and brought to a temperature safe for our defenseless lungs. The air then passes down the glottis and throat past the tonsils, the final phase of our air’s immune system defense. 

Overcoming the Increased Resistance

All of this resistance slows down how much air we can bring in because that is what it is. That signals our more significant, more powerful primary breathing muscles to do the bulk, if not all, work when at rest. The process of inhaling brings in as much oxygen as does with the mouth, except at a slower rate. We exhale almost 80% of the oxygen we take in on an inhale via the nose or mouth. When exhaling through the nose, the air also comes out slower, but it also helps humidify the sinuses with the same air that went in so that when another breath is drawn in, it gets to repeat this process more effectively. 

The caveat is when we exhale through the nose, we limit how carbon dioxide comes out, as it can’t escape as fast as it does via the mouth. This has biochemical tradeoffs, restricting oxygen use when excess carbon dioxide is exhaled consistently. The nose helps regulate pH better when below moderate levels of intensity and at rest. 

We Have Options

The mouth acts as a means for moving more air faster, although its only defense is the tonsils, which are the final process for the air moving through the nose. This becomes important when we speak, as it changes biochemistry a bit to bring us into a more focused state. We rely more on faster energy sources and our sympathetic nervous system here. The other end is when we work harder, and biochemically, changes happen at the cellular level first. The end product increases not only carbon dioxide, but our pH gets more acidic. Making more air faster, almost a necessity. This comes in the right at about the moderate intensity level of exercise. 

If you’re interested in learning some tips to breathe more efficiently during endurance activities, check out this article about managing your breath while running.


Both the nose and the mouth have their place, or they wouldn’t be there. Right? It can be a challenge at first to make some of the changes you may be thinking of. But you’ll probably appreciate these tradeoffs. If you’re interested in learning more about building your own breathing practice, look into our Breath Essentials plan included in All-Access. It covers 10 days of guided breath principles and practices to that support all skill levels.